Biographer James Atlas's "The Shadow in the Garden" Takes Biography to Task

Anyone as intrigued by the very idea of biography as I am has to read James Atlas’s the Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (Pantheon Books, $28)—with “Tale” possibly being the truly operative word. It does carry a connotation of fiction, doesn’t it?

To be more specific personally, biography has always concerned me due to a belief I harbor that if I can’t convincingly figure out my own life, how—were I a biographer—would I ever be able to get someone else’s on the printed (or now digital) page? I’ve even come to think that in these advancing times biographies should be preceded—as with so many current movies—by the “based on true events” disclaimer.

Atlas, now in his sixties, has published two biographies—Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet and Bellow: A Biography. He was 25 when he mustered the gumption to commit fading writer Schwartz (to a great extent fading by his own self-destructive design) to hard covers. He was 40 when he embarked on the 10-year Bellow campaign.

In other words, Atlas has presented the life of one dead author and one still very much living at the time of his biographical summing up. Without strictly pointing out the differences between the separate endeavors, he makes the quite clear the disparity between not having to deal with an author under scrutiny and the hurdles jumped dealing with one still alive and kicking. At least, he chronicles the intricate minuet danced with an author of Bellow’s particular complexities.

Not that as a wet-behind-the-ears biographer, which Atlas cops to being, he didn’t expose himself to a demanding elder when preparing the deceased poet’s story. Indeed, he eagerly put himself under the tutelage of Schwartz friend and (then) revered commentator Dwight MacDonald, who, curiously enough, turned out to be as mercurial (maybe “moody” is more accurate) in behavior as Bellow would eventually prove.) If I remember correctly, it’s MacDonald who advises Atlas that it’s beneficial to “kick around the facts.” Whatever that means.

Oh, yes, throughout Atlas’s gathering all the information he needed on Bellow (and the autobiographical composing of The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog, et cetera), that elusive author played a nifty enough cat-and-mouse game with Atlas to discourage any reader contemplating biography as a career from going any further.

Atlas never quite persuades himself that the job he turned in was sufficient. He talks about rereading the Bellow result and locating 12 unfair assumptions. (One is not his reference to Bellow’s ”movie-star eyes.”) He highlights the dozen by slipping Post-its on the pages. With subsequent rereads, he removes six.

More pertinently, he discusses the tenor of the knotty Bellow-Atlas relationship. Perhaps the most honest element here is his acknowledged desire to be considered, along with the three biological Bellow sons, the unofficial one. In a footnote, he declares himself a “bad” son. His delving into this aspect of a biographer’s motives struck me as extremely credible, if not only somewhat worrisome but also unavoidable.

Throughout The Shadow in the Garden, Atlas reports on many facets of the biographer’s craft—a craft that can rise to an art. (Like many practitioners before him he bows to Leon Edel’s five-volume Henry James coverage.)

He devotes one chapter to the history of biography and, though it’s relatively brief, it’s satisfyingly thorough. He spends several pages parsing James Bowell’s up-close-and-personal Samuel Johnson coverage. Elsewhere, he talks about the demands of gathering letters and other artifacts. He covers the serendipity that can accompany those searches. (He points out that where letters are involved, future biographers may have little recourse. Preserved contemporary smartphone texts will be much harder to come by.)

Already the author of one memoir (My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale), Atlas is really offering another one in The Shadow in the Garden. He explicitly admits, “[O]n the page, the personality of the biographer will inevitably reassert itself.” Chatting about his life he is often witty and, less often, merely cute. I did appreciate his mentioning, in regard to rereading, that “You can never read the same book twice.” How indisputably true that is!

Atlas points out that—as on occasion an editor at The New York Times and The New York Times Book Review—he’s often had to scramble around for work to sustain his wife, children and himself. What he doesn’t declare explicitly is that a biographer can’t regard himself as having opted for what others might call a survival job.. He must have known that although Delmore Schwartz was enjoying a posthumous interest as he was bringing out his tome that his project wouldn’t amount anything like a guaranteed moneymaker.

The Bellow biography might have held more financial promise for him, but then again, favorable reviews would be required, and, as he records, he didn’t receive those unanimously. As someone only modestly informed in the ways of publishing advances, my guess is that when Bellow: A Biography was finally published, it had cost Atlas money.

Actually, the biographer is completely prepared to accept that fame—whether Schwartz’s, Bellow’s or his—is both fleeting and defeating. He talks freely and soberingly about the eventual attention span any author might count on enjoying. He refers to Bellow’s suspecting, as Atlas writes, that he “would one day molder on the shelf beside the works of Sinclair Lewis and Pearly Buck. (These are authors whom Bellow mentor MacDonald might have termed “middlebrow.” For what that’s worth.) He insists, “Biographers are people, too, even if we’re condemned to huddle in the shadow of our subjects’ monumentality.” (Is Atlas waxing a bit too melodramatic here.)

Let’s just say that as Atlas presents it, biography is a labor of love where the exact nature of that love (giving precedence to love of family?) can be questioned. (He does declare, “The key to biography is the ability to be empathetic.”) That message of love of one’s calling, as relayed in this ”tale,” just might be the genuinely significant one the dedicated biographer has to send.

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