James Atlas Shares His Own Life in ‘Shadow in the Garden’

Lee Polevoi

 

The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale

By James Atlas

Pantheon

400 pages

 

To those of us ill-equipped for such an undertaking, biographers often seem like the unsung heroes of our “post-literary” age. The dedication they display, the tireless diligence with which they detail their subjects’ lives, the ways in which they seem to inhabit those lives—surely, these talents are beyond those of most of us mortals.

 

James Atlas, the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet and Bellow: A Biography, has written a sort of “summing-up” of his own life, large chunks of which he’s devoted to chronicling the lives of an obscure poet of the 1930s and Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist of more recent times. His memoir, The Shadow in the Garden, is an often fascinating—and, at times, very personal—account of the nearly insurmountable tasks of completing an in-depth literary biography.

 

Still in his mid-20s when he embarked on the Schwartz biography, Atlas recounts the excitement he felt when coming upon boxes of papers at Yale crucial to his pending project. “What was in these boxes—they could have been the junk of a college student moving out of his dorm—would determine the course of my life.”

 

Perusing unpublished scraps and juvenilia is only a small part of the biographer’s task. To write a genuinely thorough life, one is obliged to closely read all the author’s collected works, as well as letters, diaries and drafts of manuscripts—not to mention visiting archives and tracking down family members and friends, professional colleagues, and anyone else with a glancing connection to the subject.

 

Atlas details the tedious process of conducting interviews (sometimes with a neighbor or acquaintance) in the hopes of producing a single piece of material worth including in the published life. In fact, he contends, no detail is too small for potential inclusion:

 

“Biographers take justifiable pride in pinning down the exact weather on a significant day in their subjects’ lives. One obvious motive for this ostentatious display of archival labor is to show  that the biographer has rummaged through almanacs, old newspapers, and nautical records with impressive, even irrational assiduity; but the case can also be made that these feats of meteorological research really do provide an atmospheric sense of what a particular moment in the time felt like.”

 

Readers of literary biographies (or any type of biography) rarely get such an insight into the process itself—that “moment of contact, when you travel in a startling instant from the present to the past, your subject suddenly alive before you on the page, redeemed from oblivion.”

 

At the same time, Atlas freely describes bouts of anguish and self-doubt inherent in the task at hand. Am I really the right person to write this book? What if I leave out something important? His honesty in these pages clarifies the emotional toll these multiyear (even decades-long) enterprises can take on a biographer’s own life. It’s a testimony to their obsessional nature, the determination not to let any scrap of the subject’s existence, no matter how small or inconsequential, go unexamined.

 

It’s also the biographer’s curse to identify too strongly with his or her subject. After writing at length about Delmore Schwartz’s long (and eventually fatal) struggle with mental illness, Atlas himself was diagnosed with bipolarity. Unlike Schwartz, he benefited from the use of antidepressants, but nonetheless wondered if his obsession with biography was unhealthy:

 

“Had I become Bellow’s Humboldt, ‘gray stout sick dusty,’ eating a pretzel in the street? No, though I had the beginnings of a belly and sometimes wolfed down a hot dog from a cart, ashamed of my mustard-stained fingers as I shuffled up West 77th Street. Gray? It was closer to chalk white. Sick? Yes, if you caught me on a bad day, my face drawn and pinched with worry … I identified with this character, both the one Bellow had brought to life and the one who had lived, in a primal way.”

 

The Shadow in the Garden is a unique, behind-the-scenes look at what Atlas himself sees as a potentially lost art. For future generations, there won’t be handwritten notes and letters for biographers to study, no “archive” in the traditional sense: “The only archive will be in the cloud.”

 

This somewhat forlorn outlook serves as the underpinning for the book’s melancholy tone. Just as dead poets and novelists inevitably fade into obscurity, so too does the form which seeks to resurrect them. Nothing—not even the dogged determination of a gifted literary scholar—can stop the punitive march of time.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, has completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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