The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale
By James Atlas
388 pages $28.95
“Never say you know the first word about any human heart.” – Henry James
“The Shadow in the Garden” spills a biographer’s secrets.
James Atlas does that with élan and perhaps a bit more material than one may need to know. Think about it: What does a writer need to do to write somebody’s life? James Atlas, a successful biographer of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, who calls it "the art of biography", goes to great lengths to divulge how the magic can work and what doesn’t.
Atlas tells us “It’s a book that tells us how biography works. It shows you the assumptions that are in the background, undeclared and unknown. It’s also a tale…rich in character and incident. It was very important to me to be entertaining and instructive," he says.
Atlas doesn’t shrug this assignment. He willingly, strenuously lays out his methods of acquiring information for doing bios. Hence the subtitle: A Biographer’s Tale. James Atlas (1949 - ) is a well-known writer, the founder of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives series. He’s been an editor at The New York Times, first at the book review and later at the magazine.
Here’s the beginning of Atlas’ approach to biographies: his obsession with it can be traced back to the fall of 1971. He had a B. A. in English lit from Harvard and went off to Oxford on a fellowship to study. At that time he notes there was a lot of hell-raising in American colleges, but Oxford was “defiantly archaic.”
There were no academic requirements imposed by his choice, New College (‘new’ when it began in 1379 with a grant from Richard II.) His tutor was J. O. Bailey, the husband of novelist Iris Murdoch. Later, aka John Bayley – same guy with a slightly revised name, and the wonderful memoirist of Murdoch’s descent into Alzheimer’s. Regrettably, Bailey had no interest in teaching, or, as Atlas remembers, at least no interest in teaching him.
“Go read George Eliot, my boy…the whole lot. That ought to keep you busy”, Atlas remembers Bayley telling him.
Well, that’s what Atlas did. And what did he get for it?
He reflects, “Somehow the experience of reading as a priestly task – a calling – has stayed with me. Whenever I pass through the dining room of my New York apartment and see these old companions on the shelves, I feel a certain pride: I may have nothing to show for all my efforts, but I didn’t waste my time. It was from books that I learned the imagination is real: I knew Julien Sorel and Lucien de Rubempré and Frédéric Moreau better than I knew my own friends.’
In his second year at Oxford, Atlas’ luck changed. He was assigned Richard Ellmann (1918 – 1987), the biographer of James Joyce, in residence. In response to Atlas’ importuning letter to him requesting he be his advisor, Ellmann replied, “You may well prefer to have an Englishman rather than an American so as to savour Oxford more completely.”
Atlas wanted Ellmann instead. He tells us, “Steven Dedalus has stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.”
The difference between Joyce and Ellmann? The explanation following is an example of perhaps giving us more by-the-way information than we might require.
“Joyce was as a man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism….Ellmann was a man of large virtue (though for many years he had a mistress in London, and was only a moderate drinker, if he drank at all.)”
Ellmann’s life at Oxford was straightened, we are told. An American Jew, he lived with his wife, Mary, confined to a wheelchair. He felt like a "loner", excluded from his own college’s social life because he specializing in twentieth century writers, something that wasn’t done at the time.
Still, this is an interesting aside, and it shows how Atlas digs for material to explicate the subject.
Are you beginning to get the style of Atlas’ writing? His is a careful counting and spilling of the beans. His title refers to a remark by Bellow to Atlas and is not at all complimentary. Bellow called one’s biographer “the shadow of the tombstone in the garden,” an obvious reference to the nearness of death with the biographer – Atlas - doing the spade work.
Back in the States and looking for work, Atlas writes a proposal for which he is offered $3000 in advance - from FSG, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for a bio of Delmore Schwartz. The main reason for the advance is that Roger Straus of FSG supported his project.
More detail that informs us of Atlas’ meticulousness: Straus, always helpful, sent Atlas to Dwight Macdonald in the spring of 1974. Macdonald was at “The New Yorker” where he kept an office but hadn’t written a word in years. Atlas tells us that Macdonald was Yale-educated, from a family of “now-slightly worn gentility.” He had written essays in the 1950s and 1960s that would be collected in “Against the American Grain.”
Macdonald was a public intellectual. Strange as it seems, he was the literary executor of Delmore Schwartz. Atlas labels Macdonald as “vague, good-natured, uncomprehending –a shrewd peasant playing dumb.” This description reminds one of a number of people I’ve met in my own life. (I have a footnote to read Dwight Macdonald’s stuff as a result of this reference.)
Well, I’ve hardly begun to say how enjoyable the reading of Atlas is, and I’ve told you very little. Sometimes though, as the old song written in 1953 and sung by Kitty Kallen goes, “Little Things Mean A Lot.” Atlas’ details inform large stories.
Atlas’ biggest surprise in writing biographies? “I didn’t realize how elusive people really are. It’s hard enough just to pin down the facts," he tells us.
A number of riffs into the past can be cast and summoned, just by reading Atlas’ tale. I like Robert Lowell’s advice: “Why not just say what happened?”
Atlas’ response to Lowell’s advice is better: “Well, you can’t, really. So what do you do? You think, you interpret, you write in your own voice. It made me think harder about what I wanted to say.”
“The Shadow in the Garden” shows us Atlas thinking hard.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News.