James Atlas

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?

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.

Conference Preview: James Atlas in Conversation with Patricia Bosworth

By James Atlas

and Patricia Bosworth will discuss breaking the rules of biography and making it work anyway.

In a panel called “Biography and Style,” James Atlas . . .

Patricia Bosworth (“Patti,” as she is known to her wide circle of friends) has been a vivid presence on the New York literary scene for as long as I can remember—which is beginning to be a very long time. Her parties, held in a book- and art-filled apartment in Hell’s Kitchen that looks as if it had time-traveled from the West Village of the 1920s, are the kind where you walk in and want to talk to everyone in the room at once. Some of them are high-profile—I have spotted Dick Cavett and Judy Collins, among other “notables,” as we call them in Chicago; others were mere “writers,” but some of the most interesting ones in town. They are the kind of parties where the host has to flick the lights on and off in order to remind guests to leave.

What’s the draw? I once moderated a panel on biography in some gilded Pittsburgh auditorium with Patti, who had written a fine biography of Brando for the Penguin Lives series, and two other Penguin alums, Wayne Koestenbaum (Warhol) and Bobbie Ann Mason (Elvis). The auditorium was packed (if you want to get an audience, leave New York), and though it was some years ago now, I remember her making the culture-hungry crowd laugh and laugh at her descriptions of Brando’s outlandish behavior.

She is as fun to be with one-on-one as in front of 600 people, at once brassy and vulnerable, warm and entertainingly direct. So it is with her books: the biographies of Jane Fonda and Montgomery Clift radiate insight and empathy; the memoirs are tragic but also manage to capture the vanity of the Actors Studio where she apprenticed for a stage career in the 1950s.

Patti’s most admirable trait is her candor. At the party for her latest book, The Men in My Life, she stood up at the podium and spoke of the suicides of her brother and father with a matter-of-factness that took her well-wishers by surprise: You can’t just talk about these things in public. But she did, and I’m sure she will—about that and much, much more—when I interview her at the BIO conference in Boston this spring. Don’t miss it.   

Conference Panel Offers Look at How to Choose Subjects

In the first of several previews of panels offered at the Seventh Annual BIO Conference, moderator James Atlas takes a look at some of his panelists’ views on their topic, “Choosing a Subject.”


Maybe another way to look at this question is to ask: Do biographers actually choose their subjects at all? Do they have agency over the process of determining how they will spend the next five or ten or—in the famous case of Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ—forty years of their lives as they immerse themselves in a life that will inevitably remain unknown once their labors are done? Or do our subjects choose us? I pose this possibility not in some mystical spirit, but in a practical sense. The subject is there, signaling to the prospective biographer that he is available, if only, as in the case of the dead, in a subliminal sense—the biographer in collusion with his own unconscious.

For Dan Max, the biographer of David Foster Wallace, the chosen subject wasn’t chosen by him, but by his editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, who suggested he write a piece on Wallace for the magazine. “Pretty soon I found myself in the presence of the most amazing, not just writer but mind, that I had ever met,” Max recalls. “Wallace’s speed-of-thought take on the world had me hooked. I fell in love. And one of the first things I learned was that his despair was tightly linked to his wish to be a great writer. Who, as a writer, isn’t drawn to that particular accident site?”

Two words leap out here: I learned. It’s that invigorating experience that motivates us—no, inspires us—to go deeper into our subjects, to unlock their secrets and give a narrative order to their lives. But we have to be open, to recognize opportunity when it’s there. Blake Bailey is now at work on the authorized biography of Philip Roth, an assignment he feels lucky to have gotten. As Bailey recounts the genesis of this arrangement, a fellow biographer [the present writer, hereafter known as “I”] happened to mention to him over breakfast at Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side of New York (I strongly recommend the challah French toast) that Roth and his appointed biographer, Ross Miller, had parted ways. Bailey suggested that I would be an ideal candidate for the job, upon which, in Bailey’s fanciful recollection, I “recoiled as if I’d tossed a cobra at his foot.”

If so, it was less out of fear than out of a sense that, as the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, I had traversed the territory of the Jewish-American writer, inexhaustibly rich but by now rather familiar; Blake was more versatile, and required only a large canvas. (Among his previous subjects was John Cheever.) “Whereupon, for my part,” he wrote when I asked him about the sequence of events, “I made a mental note to write a letter to PR as soon as I returned to Virginia [he teaches at William & Mary], and the rest is history.”

For Stacy Schiff, as for Max and Bailey, the biographer is less the instigating force than a Ouija board through which the spirit dictates: “It isn’t so much that your subject chooses you as that you express some mild curiosity about her life and she retaliates by infiltrating yours.” Schiff, too, sees the biographer as a passive figure, the empty vessel for a subject—any subject—so charismatic and seductive that he demands to be written about: “A door prize to anyone who can find the connection among my subjects; I can’t, aside from a stubborn unwillingness to repeat myself.” I doubt a prize will be awarded: she has written biographies of Antoine de Saint-Exupery; Nabokov’s wife Vera; Ben Franklin and Cleopatra. Her most recent book, The Witches, isn’t a biography at all, but a work of history and sociology.

Biographers face multiple choices when they set out in quest of a new subject. We can choose not to choose; we can go in search of new subjects unlike the ones we’ve written about before; or we can prepare ourselves for “choosing” by going through life in a state of receptivity, until we find the subject that is uniquely ours. This is how writers of all kinds, not just biographers, have always worked. The success rate has been high.

James Atlas is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet and Bellow: A Biography.