"The Shadow in the Garden"

James Atlas, author of award-winning biographies about Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, delves into his inner self to explore the source of his attraction to the profession of biographer. He stresses that biographers have a hallowed responsibility to present their subject’s life so that it is not only factually correct, but also emotionally correct. In some humorous passages, he discusses subjects who remember events that never happened, and those who lie or exaggerate, or inconveniently die before being interviewed about their lives.

Atlas’ biggest surprise when he began writing biographies was, “I did not realize how elusive people really are. It’s hard enough just to pin down the facts.” And accumulating accurate information about the subject is challenging, whether that subject is living or dead. He notes the embarrassment that results from having printed inaccurate information when a second biographer discloses contradictory facts.

Atlas recalls the hard time he had capturing data about the deceased poet Delmore Schwartz. He had to seek out Schwartz’ literary executor, Dwight Macdonald, whom Atlas describes as “vague, good-natured, uncomprehending— a shrewd peasant playing dumb.”

Atlas, also relates some of the pitfalls he faces when choosing a living person to be the subject of a biography. His sense of his relationship with Bellow, for example, became very confused at times, making it difficult to sort out his own emotions from the novelist’s.

In this book, he provides an in-depth assessment of the skills required to write biographies, especially biographies of writers. Atlas lays out his own exhaustive methods of acquiring information about his subjects, a process which relies on imagination as well as fact. “You think, you interpret, you write in your own voice.” He sums up his life’s work when he states, “The key to writing biography is the capacity to be empathetic.”

Atlas reveals that Saul Bellow especially tested his capacity for empathy and his patience. For example, the Nobel Laureate held onto some key stories about himself until the very end because he did not want to be around when they became public knowledge. Atlas explains that the title for this book came from a bittersweet Bellow comment. Noting his biographer’s attempt to capture his personal views and recollections before he died, he referred to Atlas as “the shadow of the tombstone in the garden.”

“The Shadow in the Garden” is an insider’s book—a book by a biographer who writes about biographers. It helps the reader wrestle with what makes a good biography, why biographies matter and why biographers persist in writing them. Atlas names the biographers who inspired him to become a biographer, among them Lytton Strachey and his Oxford professor Richard Ellman. Part literary history, and part memoir, this work is both a biography of the biographical form itself and an autobiography of Atlas.

As a Rhodes Scholar, James Atlas had studied obscure texts and eventually turned to the study of literature. In addition to his biographies, Atlas is a publisher, editor, novelist and author of numerous articles that have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair and other periodicals. Pantheon Books is the publisher; the volume’s 388 pages include portraits of many biographers that Atlas mentions.