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A biographer's memoir

What inspires, or dare say, compels someone to become a literary biographer? Ever perched like some highbrow voyeur on the sidelines, required to spend countless hours rooting through dusty letters and journals in far-flung archives, perhaps tracking down and interviewing the disgruntled friends, colleagues or ex-wives of authors--these are hardly the components of the glamorous life. And yet, we are grateful to the men and women who choose to take on these thankless tasks so that the rest of us can better understand the writers whose work we love. James Atlas is one such indefatigable literary detective, the author of critically admired biographies of Saul Bellow and, most notably, Delmore Schwartz--a book, begun when Atlas was still in his mid-20s, that would be nominated for the National Book Award and significantly help restore the poet to the canon.


In his charming new memoir, The Shadow in the Garden (Pantheon, $28.95, 400 pages, ISBN 9781101871690), Atlas recounts his lifelong adventures as a biographer. "Adventures" might seem an odd word choice, but indeed, Atlas has had his share over the 40-some years he has been plying the trade. As a young man, delving into Schwartz's life with only a partial idea of what he was doing, Atlas was nonetheless able to meet many of his fast-vanishing heroes from the New York literary world who had inspired him to become a critic in the first place: Philip Rahv, Dwight Macdonald, Alfred Kazin--giants who held sway over American culture in a bygone, arguably more literate age. Atlas pointedly takes umbrage with some forgotten novelist's claim that no one grows up wanting to be a literary critic, declaring quite emphatically that from an early age he actually did want to be just that.


As Atlas leads us through his own experiences as a biographer, he makes detours into the lives and writings of those biographers who came before him--Plutarch, James Boswell, Thomas Carlyle--to more deeply explore the art of biography itself. And it clearly is an art, for a great literary biography (Atlas singles out Richard Holmes' Shelley: The Pursuit) can, and ideally should, sing with the narrative resonance of the great novels or poems that its subject produced. It should capture its subject's very soul. Biography is also a highly mutable art form, potentially victim to shifting tastes and the ever-present possibility of new information surfacing that could change everything.

Atlas has clearly loved his life as a biographer. Even when facing a hostile or nonforthcoming interview, he is keenly aware of his good fortune in getting the chance to meet someone who was there in the trenches with his literary idols. Atlas' own intelligence and wit is as pervasive and persuasive as his infectious enthusiasm. The book is rife with footnotes (they average out to almost one per page), and while these often provide fascinating additional information, many of them feel unnecessary and slow down the reading of the main narrative. That is a minor quibble, though. The Shadow in the Garden is an arresting book, at once personal and broad in its purview. And by exploring the art of biography--why he writes it and why we read it--Atlas bares his own soul a bit, too. "The specialty you choose is your own disease," he writes, borrowing an adage from psychiatry. "If so, I had chosen my subject wisely."

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Title Annotation:columns; James Atlas' memoir "The Shadow in the Garden"
Author:Weibezahl, Robert
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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