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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.

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Announcing BIO Foundation: Our New, Independent 501(c)(3)

By Marlene Trestman, Marc Leepson, and Louise Knight

Fulfilling BIO’s longstanding plan, and as approved by BIO’s general membership at the May 2018 annual meeting, we—the members of the aptly named Ad Hoc Committee to Establish a 501(c)(3)—are thrilled to announce the creation of Biographers International Organization Foundation.

As an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, BIO Foundation is authorized by the IRS to directly accept tax-deductible charitable contributions to fund our ongoing work preserving and promoting the art and craft of biography. This means that BIO will no longer rely on a fiscal sponsor for our charitable contributions, an important interim arrangement we have had for the past several years with Virginia Organizing.

So, for now, your dedicated BIO Board, under the leadership of President Linda Leavell, will be doing double duty, overseeing BIO as well as the new foundation. This dual entity arrangement is necessary and, thankfully, only temporary.
In the coming weeks, BIO members can expect to receive an email asking for their proxy vote to empower the Board to do several things:

  • Transfer the assets of the original BIO to the new foundation.
  • Dissolve the original BIO corporation.
  • Approve the bylaws for a new, consolidated entity using the name Biographers International Organization, which an ever-growing number of people around the globe have come to know and respect.

Despite what may appear as tedious procedural details, BIO’s new status as an independent 501(c)(3) signals an important milestone in our organization’s maturity. More importantly, we expect this achievement will enable us to cultivate and attract more members who share BIO’s crucial mission, and from whom we will encourage thoughtful donations.

Besides strengthening BIO’s ability to connect biographers to mentors, agents, editors, and publishers, these funds will fill the gap between membership dues and fees and the actual cost of our vital work, which includes educating and informing 400 worldwide members by publishing The Biographer’s Craft newsletter and by convening BIO’s annual conference. Along with fostering ties and high principles among members, these funds will also enable BIO to maintain and grow its wide range of prestigious awards, including the BIO Award, the Plutarch Award (the world’s only literary award given to a biographer by biographers), the Hazel Rowley Award (which honors the best book proposal by a first-time biographer), and our newest award, the Robert and Ina Caro Fellowship, which helps defray travel expenses for biographers who have works in progress.

You will soon be able to make a secure, tax deductible gift to BIO Foundation online. Don’t want to wait? No problem. The “Donate” page on BIO’s website has the information you need to make your gift the old-fashioned way—by check, payable to BIO Foundation.

Morgan Voeltz Swanson Wins Mayborn Fellowship

Morgan Voeltz Swanson won the Biography Fellowship awarded annually at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, held in July at the University of North Texas. The fellowship is cosponsored by BIO and BIO co-founder James McGrath Morris. With her fellowship, Swanson receives a two- to three-week residency in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and mentoring from Morris during her stay. In addition, she will receive complimentary admission to the 2020 BIO Conference and a $500 stipend.

During her stay in New Mexico, Swanson, a BIO member, will be working on To the Edge of Endurance: American Soldier Henry W. Lawton, Apache Leader Geronimo, and a Manhunt Through the Desert. Her previous writings include journal articles about Lawton and his wife, Mamie.

In 2020, the fellowship will be relaunched as the Mayborn/BIO Hidden Figure Fellowship, intended to assist aspiring authors working on books about figures who merit a biography through their actions rather than fame. “The marketplace is a cruel arbiter of who is deserving of a biography, reflecting our worse biases,” said Morris. “The publishing industry will eagerly commission yet another biography of Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt rather than a biography of someone we don’t know but ought to know. The lives and voices of the lesser known need to have their day on the bookshelf.”

The change in focus for the fellowship began following Morris’s address to the 2019 BIO Conference, where he received this year’s BIO Award. “This issue has implications far beyond a writer’s personal writing ambitions,” Morris said at the conference. “It bolsters a leader-centric view of history. In this manner wars are won by generals, economic crises solved by presidents, and industries built by moguls. In turn this elevation of leaders creates historically inaccurate expectations.”

The fellowship provides for a grant of $1,000, a two-week stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a casita at the historic Acequia Madre House in cooperation with the Women’s International Studies Center (WISC), dinner five nights a week in the home of James McGrath Morris and Patty Morris, a public reading, and a meeting with an agent. Time will also be set aside for consultation with biographer Morris regarding research and writing techniques for a book on a hidden figure. Morris is the author, among other books, of The New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, which was awarded the Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize, given annually for the best book in Civil Rights History.

Video Highlights from the 2019 BIO Conference

Here are some highlights from the 2019 BIO Conference, held in New York City on May 17-19. You can see the morning plenary with David Remnick, Stacy Schiff, and Judith Thurman, and Nigel Hamilton introducing 2019 BIO Award winner James McGrath Morris, who gave the keynote speech.

BIO Announces Winners of Caro Fellowships

Amy Reading and Nicholas Boggs are this year’s winners of the Robert and Ina Caro Research/Travel Fellowships. The $2,500 fellowships  are available, on a competitive basis, to BIO members with a work in progress to help fund research trips to archives and to important settings in their subject’s lives. Reading’s book is Katharine White Edits ‘The New Yorker,’ and Boggs is working on James Baldwin: In the Full Light.

Caro Fellowship Committee chair Deirdre David said, “The committee was very impressed by Amy Reading’s detailed exposition of the cultural importance of Katherine White, and by her justification of the need to travel to Maine to explore its significance in her life. We were also engaged by her emphasis on White’s influence in publishing a distinctive list of women writers whose careers, as she put it, ‘were made at The New Yorker.’”

The committee “was also impressed by Nicholas Boggs’ compelling exploration of James Baldwin’s relationships and by his justification of the need to travel to France where Baldwin spent six months in 1956,” said Caroline Fraser, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who also served on the committee, along with BIO’s treasurer, Marc Leepson.

Reading and Boggs will receive their stipends on Friday, May 17, at the evening reception preceding the annual BIO Conference in New York City. The reception will be held at the Fabbri Mansion on the Upper East Side. Robert Caro is expected to present the award.

Go here to learn more about the Caro Research/Travel Fellowship.

Listen Up! BIO Has a Podcast

Hear what biographers have to say about their work in BIO’s new, weekly podcast. You can find out more about the podcast and listen to an interview with James Atlas, author of The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, here.

 

The Plutarch Award Finalists for 2019

Here are the four finalists for the 2019 Plutarch Award, honoring the best biography published in 2018, listed in alphabetical order by author:

2019 Plutarch Jury members:

Megan Marshall, chair; Peniel E. Joseph, Susan Quinn, Will Swift, Amanda Vaill