Anne Heller

Why and How Biographers Write: An Interview with James Atlas

James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale was published to high praise by Pantheon Books on August 22. As Ron Chernow wrote about the book, “Anyone even remotely interested in the art of biography will be captivated.” In moving and hilarious stories from his own life and his lifelong study of biographers, Atlas—an active BIO member and the celebrated biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, as well as the founding editor and publisher of the acclaimed Penguin Lives and Eminent Lives series of short biographies—recasts the lives, works, and misadventures of fellow biographers from Plutarch and Thomas Carlyle to Michael Holroyd and Judith Thurman and explains how he came to be a biographer and what he has discovered about the “obsessive diggers drawn into this odd profession,” during 40 years of biographical sleuthing and adventures. Anne Heller interviewed him for TBC.

Why were you attracted to biography, James? In your book, you quote Leon Edel: “Biographers are invariably drawn to the writing of biography out of some deeply personal motive.” What was yours?
I didn’t realize until after I had been working as a biographer for a long time that one evenhas motives. I studied with Richard Ellmann at Oxford and decided I wanted to become a biographer myself. At first, I thought I was confronting a simple and basic calculation: Who’s interesting? I chose Delmore [Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, 1977], who had been dead ten years and whom no one had written a life of. After I finished, I was offered various projects, like Tennessee Williams and Cyril Connolly. And then, of course, there was Edmund Wilson, whose biography I agreed to write when I was in my early 30s. Unlike Delmore, Wilson was at that time near the peak of fame and influence. He had lived a fascinating, even ribald, life and had known everyone worth knowing at the time. He offered a large canvas on which a skilled biographer could draw a map of the intellectual life of twentieth-century America. And yet I procrastinated for five years. It got to the point where whenever I passed my shelf of Wilson’s books I averted my eyes. One problem was that there was a surfeit of published autobiographical material—letters and journals, autobiographical essays and books. To some degree Wilson had done the job himself; I felt that his biographer would mainly be a literary custodian. Then his catalogues of the many women he’d bedded got on my nerves. The detail! Finally, I realized that I didn’t want to write the book. I didn’t have a personal motive for writing it: a compelling connection to the subject.

I have discovered that there are both overt and covert motives for writing about a subject. My books are an example of “overt” motives, where there is a specific biographical and/or factual connection between the biographer and his subject. Delmore Schwartz was the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, as were my grandparents, and he was a temperamental poet, as I was in my youth. I saw in him many of the experiences and conflicts that I myself had been working through. The same was true of Saul Bellow, my second subject [Bellow: A Biography, 2000], since I was from Chicago and he was part of the cultural context of my growing up. There’s a wonderful Yiddish word, mishpachah, meaning family that’s not your actual blood relatives but that forms your cultural and sociological circle of people. Both Delmore and Bellow were mishpachah. I learned that one of the reasons I picked my subjects was that I wanted answers to my own history.

Now with biographers such as Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann, to take two examples, the connections with their great subjects Henry James and James Joyce were not explicit. They were covert. In both cases the connection was subliminal, emotional, and powerful. For example, Edel and James both suffered from depression. So for me, this idea of finding your subject is in essence a means of finding yourself. When I realized this it opened up the practice of biography for me, both as a writer and as an editor. It helped me to understand what I was doing, what I was looking for.

Can you give me an example of how the idea of motives aided your work?
The most vivid example is about Bellow. I needed to try to understand what impelled him to marry so many times and have so many girlfriends and make such a mess. What need was he trying to address? I was looking for his motive. One night I was reading Heinz Kohut, the great psychiatrist and the founder of self-psychology, whom Bellow briefly saw for therapy. I came across his explanation of narcissism. He described the narcissist’s need almost to wake himself up, to try to fill a lurking sense of emptiness. I was electrified. I thought, “That’s it!” That was what Bellow was doing with his wives and lovers. Training oneself to think broadly about one’s subject and not just collect the historical data—you might say training oneself to intervene in the story—that’s where the energy is for me, that’s where biography comes alive.
Having made a stunning survey of biography past and present—reading about them is one of the great pleasures of your book—and having written two biographies of your own, how do you gauge the benefits and drawbacks of writing about the living—someone you know or get to know—versus the dead?
That’s a good question. In my case, I wish I had waited until Bellow died, so that the issues wouldn’t have been so incendiary—his sex life and so on. But ideally, if you have empathy, common sense, shrewdness, and good judgment, you can create a vivid biography of a person you come to know, the classic example being [James] Boswell and [Samuel] Johnson, although Boswell did wait until Johnson was dead to publish his book. In our own day, Patrick French, the biographer of V. S. Naipaul, managed to create a brilliant portrait of Naipaul while he was still alive. What’s amazing about this feat is that Naipaul is widely regarded as a terrible human being. How did French do it? He did it by disallowing judgment. Apart from the fact that he is a great biographer and writer, French’s most important quality was that he could write about Naipaul’s grotesque behavior—toward his dying wife, for example—and somehow make everything clear and understandable. His objectivity, tempered by empathy, made for a portrait that was riveting. The biographer, while being driven by a passion, still has to stand aside. James Joyce said that the artist stands apart, paring his fingernails. The biographer should stand apart and yet enter deeply into a subject’s life.

You discuss the compelling nature of research—one more letter to be found, one more detail to pin down. When is enough enough?
There is definitely an end point, but one doesn’t always know where it is. You have to sit down and write. You can keep researching while you write. But at some point you feel a sense of weariness: I’ve heard enough from you. Now we’re going to hear from me.

You quote Dr. Johnson as saying, “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation. I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can use.” How is biography useful? 
Biography is useful because it shows us what a human being is, who we are, and why we do the things we do. A great biography illuminates character. Why is Ellmann’s [James] Joyce one of the preeminent modern biographies? Because it gives us the cultural context of Joyce’s life and elucidates the greatness of his writing.  It is itself masterfully written. But most of all, it evokes Joyce’s humanity in all the little details. There is a great scene in the book in which Joyce is having trouble with his landlord in Trieste. In that period, Joyce was insisting that he be called “the Bard.” Ellmann writes, “The Bard had no money.” So beautiful—the irony and the affection it expresses for its subject.

You write that like other art forms, biography is bound by the conventions of the moment. Are there any approaches to writing a life that you’re sorry have fallen from favor?
Yes: the writing itself. Some of the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biographies are beautifully written. And so are biographical works by Holroyd, Ellmann, E. M. Forster, George Painter’s [MarcelProust.  I sometimes think we’ve forgotten to pay enough attention to the craft of writing. Biographies should be as much written as poetry or fiction.

Are your going to write another biography?
No.

Here is James Atlas’s abbreviated reading list for practicing biographers:

  • Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography
  • André Maurois, Aspects of Biography
  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
  • Vasari, The Lives of the Artists
  • Boccaccio, Life of Dante
  • Lord Macaulay, Essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Richard Ellmann, James Joyce
  • Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self
 You can read an excerpt from The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Talepublished in The New Yorker. You can also read an interview with Atlas in the New York Times.