Other People’s Lives
What makes biography good?
Oct 13, 2017
8 Min read time
What makes biography good?
The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale
Pantheon, $28.95 (cloth)
James Atlas’s absorbing new memoir, The Shadow in the Garden, has started me wondering what causes the biographies I hold dear to live inside me in the same way as do the works of imagination that have enriched my inner life. The answer, I have concluded, lies with that singular mystery of the human makeup called sensibility; the thing that, when shared between a writer and a subject, more often than not produces work of literary value in any genre. Among those biographies I think so blessed are Walter Jackson Bate’s of Samuel Johnson, Judith Thurman’s of Isak Dinesen, Richard Holmes’s of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Blake Bailey’s of Richard Yates, and James Atlas’s of Delmore Schwartz.
Atlas began writing Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977) at the age of twenty-four. He had recently spent a year pursuing graduate studies at Oxford, studying under Richard Ellmann, the acclaimed biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and had returned home eager to try his own hand at the genre. He settled on Schwartz, whose reputation was then in eclipse. Who’s that, his friends asked, and the young Atlas, now ensconced in a bubble of feverish enthusiasm, set out to tell them.
If a biographer finds he no longer likes his subject, does he proceed at his own peril?
Schwartz, born in 1913 in New York City, was the writer whose work became the bridge between immigrant writing and the writing—starting with the publication in 1953 of Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March—we now think of as authentically Jewish-American. Among the New York intelligentsia of the 1930s and ’40s, he was seen as a luminous wunderkind, his personality shaped by an amalgam of immigrant culture, urban street smarts, and a besotted adoration of European literature: a brilliant, fast-talking New York Jew, yet imprinted with the conviction that to serve the literary culture formed by modernism was his vocation. A remarkable career seemed in the offing for Delmore (everyone called him Delmore so I will, too) but the wunderkind was afflicted by a mental instability that destroyed his life long before he died at the age of fifty-two, alone and penniless, in a Times Square flophouse. Finding evidence of this disposition in Delmore’s poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” Atlas writes that the lines exhibited something “vulnerable, guarded, inaccessible even to himself—that made the poem memorable. It was the presence of the poet’s double, the self from which he could never escape. The poem bespoke a loneliness of unfathomable depth. You could never get away from who you were.” And there we have the essence of shared sensibility.
The book that Atlas then wrote was one of astonishing empathy—not hagiography, empathy. Rarely has a writer’s life been so deeply understood and sympathized with by a biographer. Atlas sorrowed over the benighted Delmore. That sorrow allowed him to criticize Delmore liberally because the criticism was in service to making the reader feel, on the page, the presence of the man who wrote the poems: the one above all others that a literary biography is obliged to deliver.
A decade after Delmore Schwartz was published, Atlas got it into his head to write the biography of Bellow—the perfect follow-up, it would seem, if you were besotted as Atlas, and most of the literary young men of his generation, was and were with the Jewish-American intellectuals of the 1940s and ’50s. However, he was now forty years old, and as he himself muses, “The problem with biography is that the biographer’s age inevitably affects the way he sees his subject. . . . A biography written by a forty-year-old will be more unforgiving, less sensitive to his subject’s pain, than a biography written by a sixty-year-old.” Or, apparently, a twenty-four-year-old.
‘The key to writing biography is the capacity to be empathetic.’
As things turned out, Atlas had signed on to spend the better part of a decade in almost continual contact with a man for whom he came to feel progressively less rather than more sympathy; a man whose personality he experienced as vain and mercurial, moody and self-serving; a man whose character flaws began to overwhelm Atlas’s sense of him as a literary artist. Now, years later, in The Shadow in the Garden, he calmly admits that with this development he probably should have disqualified himself from writing Bellow’s biography; it might very well have meant that he would not become the instrument of empathetic analysis necessary for the reader to experience, on the page, the Bellow who wrote the books. However, as we all know, he did not disqualify himself.
Between Delmore Schwartz and Bellow: A Biography (2000) lies the whole drama of Atlas’s working life. He has been a journalist, a publisher, an editor, but nothing has compared with his passion for biography. Biography became the genre that fired his imagination, consumed his intellectual interests, defined him to himself as a professional writer. Over the years, Atlas seems to have read and studied every biography ever written or translated into the English language, from the ancients on down. “The educated man of the Hellenistic world,” he tells us, quoting Arnaldo Momigliano, “was curious about the lives of famous people. He wanted to know what a king or a poet or a philosopher was like and how he behaved in his off-duty moments.” From there, he goes on to Boccaccio on Dante, Izaak Walton on John Donne, Michael Holroyd on Lytton Strachey.
Atlas has, as well, studied the major biographers themselves—James Boswell, Richard Holmes, Thomas Carlyle, Richard Ellmann, J. A. Froude, Leon Edel—poring over their memoirs, not only to take his own measure, but to help him define the enterprise itself. Among the problems these biographers have often worried over, none has been more important to Atlas than that of progressively liking one’s subject less and less. There is a wonderful piece on the travails of Froude who, in 1884, published the definitive biography of Carlyle, and was nearly destroyed for revealing that the great man had not only feet of clay, but an abusive personality as well. The brouhaha that followed publication made a hell of Froude’s life. In defense of his work, Froude wrote, “My admiration of him had never wavered, but the contempt with which he treated everybody and everything, the anecdotes which I had heard from his wife and his manifest forgetfulness of every other person’s interest or comfort where his own wishes were concerned, had made it difficult for me to like him in the common sense of the word.” One can see Atlas nodding appreciatively over these words.
Atlas learns from everyone: “I was struck by Holmes’s capacity to intuit his subject’s interior life. When he claimed to know how Shelley felt . . . I believed him.” And after reading Lytton Strachey on Cardinal Newman—“What had he to look back upon? A long chronicle of wasted efforts, disappointed hopes, unappreciated powers”—Atlas writes, “How powerfully I could identify . . . with this compressed summation of another man’s life. . . . Okay, so we don’t have omniscience,” but we do “have permission to write as if we did—not to invent but to imagine.” This is the very thing that, with his first draft of Bellow in hand, he saw he was failing to do: “I had done a huge amount of research; what I hadn’t delivered was a sense of what it was like to inhabit Bellow’s world, to be Bellow.”
Atlas produced a biography that portrayed Bellow as the sum of his disabilities.
This is the insight that eats at him and to which he returns, time and again, throughout the book. He gnaws at his sense of failure, struggling within himself over the sympathy for Bellow that waxes and wanes throughout the biography he has written, sometimes doing both in a single paragraph: “Literature was no longer ‘central,’ Bellow said, a note of rancor in his voice. The novel wasn’t important. Yeah, yeah, I thought to myself: the problem is your novels aren’t central.” Later at dinner, Bellow “derided his contemporaries with such vigor and palpable enjoyment that it didn’t even seem malicious. He was having fun.” But then, “as we drove back to [his] house at the end of the evening, I sensed again his loneliness.”
Loneliness is a key word here, one Atlas uses repeatedly. Often at the end of one paragraph or another, just as he is taking leave of Bellow, he is struck by a sense of the writer’s loneliness. But it is an essence of his subject’s inner life that—unlike with Delmore—he cannot enter into, much less make imaginative use of.
Close to the end of the Bellow preoccupation, Atlas admits, with disarming simplicity, that he has come, finally, to understand that “the key to writing biography is the capacity to be empathetic; Holmes’s image of the biographer extending ‘a handshake’ toward his subject stayed with me. At some point, without realizing it, I had withdrawn my hand.”
The reviews of Bellow were almost uniformly negative; more than negative, they were savage. Atlas had produced a biography that portrayed Bellow as the sum of his disabilities, and the critics cried “Infamy!” This condemnation of his book hit him hard, and a good part of The Shadow in the Garden is composed of his tacking back and forth, throughout the years, in search of an answer to the question that haunts him still: Had this punishing reception of Bellow been warranted?
In some ways, The Shadow in the Garden seems a thoroughly American piece of work, as it is hard to imagine a European or British biographer revealing his doubts and misgivings as nakedly as Atlas does. Who but an American could be as ruthlessly self-implicating while searching for the “truth” of the relation between a biographer and his subject—and in the process make us see how magnificently fraught the genre can be. The Shadow in The Garden will, I predict, have a long life precisely because its author, a man for whom biography-writing proved a release into literary expressiveness, has endowed it with so much genuine thought and feeling.
October 13, 2017
8 Min read time