Anne C. Heller

A Tribute to James Atlas (1949–2019)

By Anne C. Heller

He could be seen among gatherings of biographers wherever we meet: at festivals and symposia, on prize committees, at literary parties, leading panels of his distinguished friends in explorations of their craft, gallantly introducing new biographers to colleagues and readers with a keen and generous word of praise. His standards were old fashioned, unusually high, and deeply literary, and his praise will be remembered and cherished by the unknowable number of lucky ones who received it and found in it new resources of stimulation and perseverance.

His own perseverance was legendary. James Atlas, who died of a rare chronic lung disease on September 4, at the age of 70, published two biographies, each the first on its subject. Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet appeared in 1977, when Jim was 28, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. He had begun to conceive it on a winter’s afternoon six years earlier at the Bodleian Library when, as a Rhodes Scholar studying under the great James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman at Oxford, he set aside Finnegan’s Wake and asked the librarian to bring him Delmore’s poems and stories, and then sat “marveling at the way [Delmore] managed to transform the idiom of immigrant Jews into the formal, echoic language of the English literary tradition.”

Later, at the Beinecke Library at Yale, he got his first look at Delmore’s papers, including a letter to the 25-year-old poet (“the exact age I was at this moment”) from T. S. Eliot. Speaking for every electrified biographer with an archival box before him, Jim wrote, “I felt like Keats in his poem about discovering Chapman’s translation of Homer, ‘some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.’ I was there with the young poet, tearing open the envelope with eager hands, tipped off to the identity of its author by the return address, scanning it quickly, breathing hard as he came to the sentence about his poems, then setting the letter down gently on his desk and smoothing it out to read again and—or so I imagined—again and again and again. T. S. Eliot!

Bellow: A Biography , the work of 10 years, appeared 23 years after Delmore . Stalled and stymied at times by Bellow—by the famous novelist’s cat-and-mouse game of beckoning the biographer and then slyly rebuffing him—Jim took time to cofound and edit the celebrated Penguin Lives series, perhaps the best compendium of short biographies ever published, by superb writers of every description on subjects they were drawn to, including R. W. B. Lewis on Dante and Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc. Wildly successful, the series continued to appear, later produced by Jim’s firm Atlas & Company and published by Norton, HarperCollins, and Houghton Mifflin. Bellow was wildly successful, too, at first—and then less so. In his brilliantly candid book about biography, A Shadow in the Garden (Bellow’s phrase for the biographer), Jim recalled reading the first, seemingly spectacular review of his book, by John Leonard in The New York Times Book Review : “It occupied two whole pages within [the Review ] and showed, as always with Leonard, a tremendous depth of learning, casually displayed.” And yet “a phrase from Leonard’s review—‘wary disapproval’—should have put me on alert; he was describing my general attitude toward my subject. Then there was this arresting sentence toward the end, after an ecstatic riff on his love of Bellow’s prose: ‘Atlas must have felt the same way before he began this long journey into knowing too much.’ Yes, I thought: If only I could have preserved that innocence of early discovery.” Soon “it all blew up. Flames of rage engulfed my book.” Read now, the book is scintillating, meticulous, personable, mostly judicious, and a model of turning every page and tracking every breathing witness to a subject’s life.

He wrote and published other books, including an early novel, The Great Pretender , which biographer and critic Phyllis Rose has recently urged everyone to read, or read again, and two memoirs, My Life in the Middle Ages and The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographers Tale , a practitioner’s droll and learned history of our craft and his adventures in it.

He joined BIO early and gave it his all, as he did with every worthy literary enterprise. He knew everyone and had an ineffable glamour, gifts he deployed to help BIO thrive—adroitly matchmaking on panels and committees, advising on recipients of prizes, conceiving and inspiring an international BIO conference at the University of Groningen in 2018, and acting as the impresario of a series of fundraising dinners called the Biographers Circle, the first one of which took place last week, at the home of Gayfryd Steinberg and Michael Shnayerson in New York. He couldn’t be there, not in body, but the elegant shadow of this diminutive but soaring figure of literary writer, esteemed editor, unstinting mentor, hilarious friend, and honorable combatant in the struggle to tell the story truly and well was palpable and, we trust, won’t ever be forgotten.

Anne Heller is the author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times, which was commissioned and edited by James Atlas and published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015.

Talese Reflects on a Long, Passionate Publishing Career

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

We learn by stories,” Nan A. Talese said, and when it comes to biography, “the story of the person’s life should be interesting and carry the reader along.” That was just one of the insights Talese imparted from a 50-year career in publishing, many of those years spent helping dozens of biographers bring their subjects’ stories to life.

Talese spoke just before accepting BIO’s third annual Editorial Excellence Award, which recognizes the contributions of outstanding editors—as nominated by BIO members—to the publishing of biographies.

The October 5 event at the New York Society Library began with an introduction by BIO member Anne C. Heller (who played the key role in organizing the evening and ensuring its success, in collaboration with members Kate Buford, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, and Will Swift). Talese worked with Heller on her biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made, and Heller noted that Talese’s books “are known both for their literary excellence and for their physical beauty.” She praised Talese for “the extraordinary judgment, taste, skill, dedication, and, in my case, patience, Nan has brought to her literary calling.”

A. E. Hotchner followed Heller and recounted working with Talese on Papa Hemingway, Hotchner’s account of the novelist’s life and Talese’s first major biography after coming to Random House from Vogue as a young editor. Hotchner described going into her tiny basement office—a broom closet that included a desk and two chairs—and her first words: “I think we should change the title.” She also advised him to put more of himself in the book, as Hotchner and Hemingway had been friends. As Talese later explained, she suggested edits while also drawing more out of Hotchner, and they ended up cutting 20 percent of the original manuscript and adding a new 20 percent. Papa Hemingway went on to become a perennial best seller.

Hotchner and Talese worked together on several other books, and Hotchner noted her eye for detail, sometimes questioning a single word choice, and her swift and careful attention to the manuscripts she receives. Most gratifying, he said, was hearing Talese describe a manuscript as “wonderful.” He said, “She says wonderful better than anybody else.”

Talese spoke next, offering her recollections of some of her experiences with Hotchner. At their first meeting, which included several other editors, she admitted, “He thought that I was going to bring them coffee or something; he certainly didn’t think that I was going to be his editor.”

Talese also discussed some of the other noteworthy books she has worked on, including Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List and the challenges she faced negotiating the finances of the book with Keneally’s lawyer. Talese wanted the book badly, and she said she became a “pest” as she worked to close the deal. Talese also recalled the difficulties she and Deirdre Bair had in securing rights to Saul Steinberg’s art for Bair’s biography of the cartoonist.

Talese and Bair worked together again on Bair’s new biography, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, published last month, and Bair joined Talese to address what Bair called the “nuts and bolts” of editing and publishing biographies. Asked what she looks for in a book she publishes, Talese said she focuses on three questions: Does the writer use language well, is the writer a storyteller, and does the writer tell the subject’s story with such passion that people will want to read it.

When Bair brought up the popularity of celebrity biographies and wondered if there is still a place for deeply researched books on serious subjects, Talese said people do still want those “big” biographies. At times, though, such books are reviewed so well, “people think they’ve already read the book” after reading the reviews.

Reflecting on her career, Talese said she was not truly qualified to be an editor when she first came to Random House, and her first job was looking for typos. But she was grateful to be there, saying, “I couldn’t believe I was being paid to read….To this day I love it just as much.” With her job, “you live in another world, you learn of another world.”

Following the Q&A, BIO president Will Swift presented Talese with her award, noting the importance to biographers of skilled—and passionate—editors like herself, as they “help us become more than we dreamed we could be.”