An Atlas of the Difficult World

By Scott Donaldson

Richard Holmes stands out among the literary biographers James Atlas summons in his compulsively readable book, The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale. He values Holmes both for his biography of Shelley and his subsequent Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. In a decade-long pursuit of the poet, Holmes traveled everywhere Shelley had gone, retracing the very paths he once trod.

This “tracking a physical trail through the past” represents part of what it means to be a biographer, Atlas comments. “You had, in essence, to live your subjects’ life.” Except, as Holmes concluded, “you would never quite catch them” as they faded into fleeting figures, or— in Saul Bellow’s terminology—shadows in the garden. It was Holmes, too, who gave Atlas a description of what he aimed for in crafting his own biographies: “Nonfiction story-telling: that’s what I was after.”

The stories Atlas has told are those of Delmore Schwartz, an immensely talented and too-young dead poet, and Bellow, a great novelist who lived into his 90th year and won all the important prizes, including the Nobel.

A Rhodes scholar from Harvard, Atlas came under the guidance of Richard Ellmann, the eminent biographer of James Joyce, then in residence at Oxford’s New College. On the strength of some youthful publications, Atlas harbored aspirations toward becoming a poet, but Ellmann’s useful example (the British called another Rhodes scholar, Bill Bradley from Princeton, a “useful” addition to Oxford’s basketball team) directed him toward telling life stories instead.

Ellmann, a Jew from the American Midwest, had little in com- mon with his chosen subject, an Irishman “of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism.” But he was fascinated by genius, and treated Joyce and the modernist writers chronicled in his Golden Codgers with an avuncular tolerance that “remarked upon, and forgave, their failings.” For his own conferences with Ellmann, Atlas managed to make sense of Joyce’s Ulysses, but was “defeated”—a refreshing concession—by the nearly impenetrable Finnegan’s Wake.

* * *

Working on Delmore

Deciding that the academic life was not for him, Atlas came back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he wrote literary reviews for peanuts to establish his bona fides and began research toward a biography of Schwartz, then a little-remembered figure. Schwartz’s body lay unclaimed in the New York morgue for two days following his death on July 11th, 1966, and his disorganized papers turned up unexpectedly at the Covered Wagon, a Greenwich Village moving company. The writer and critic Dwight Macdonald, volunteering to serve as Schwartz’s literary executor, salvaged those documents and saw to it that they were housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

Atlas starts his book there, on Christmas Eve, 1974, where he sat at a long table and opened the first of six cardboard storage boxes to discover “manuscripts, letters, loose papers, and manila envelopes, all jumbled together” as they’d been tossed inside by the movers. It was almost time for the Beinecke to close for the day and the holidays, but during that brief span Atlas read a letter to Schwartz from T. S. Eliot, acknowledging an article he’d written about Criterion, and asking to see more of his poetry. And another letter to Schwartz from “Wystan”: W. H. Auden.

This was heady stuff, and Atlas was hooked. Three years later, he published his biography of “Delmore”—the name he invariably used for the poet (and the same one that John and Mary Cheever, up in Westchester, assigned to their particularly troublesome cat). Delmore was best known among the literati for his erratic and sometimes alcoholic behavior and gained a wider notoriety when Bellow portrayed him as a principal player in his 1977 novel, Humboldt’s Gift.

By some legerdemain, Atlas’s Biographer’s Tale manages to convey his own excitement as he encountered one discovery after another through digging into written archives. And he does a splendid job of bringing his interviewees to life, among them, in Delmore’s case, several members of the Partisan Review circle who were the intellectual heroes of his youth.

Armed with a publishing contract, Atlas sought out these figures and was surprised to discover how openly they were willing to talk about Delmore, even when the remarks led into embarrassing territory. Philip Rahv, in his growl of a voice, took Atlas on as a consultant to Modern Occasions, a quarterly he was launching. Alfred Kazin, aggressive and rude, took him to dinner at Il Grand Ticino. William Barrett, for a long time Delmore’s closest friend, took him to lunch at Il Grand Ticino.

Those were memorable encounters. Forty years later, Atlas can still associate these men with the brands of cigarettes they smoked (everybody smoked then): Clement Greenberg’s unfiltered Camels, Harold Rosenberg’s Pall Malls, Robert Lowell’s “short-lived Trues,” unspecified as to whether they were mentholated (green pack) or not (blue). This inessential but interesting information appears in a footnote, not an endnote, and it’s a delight that Atlas’s asides are available right there on the page rather than secreted in back matter.

There’s no standard bibliography at the end, either, only a few summary comments somewhat cavalierly acknowledging sources. Or not. “I don’t know,” Atlas admits, “where I got the quotation from Freud’s taunting letter to his biographers.” It hardly matters. This is a con- sciously nonacademic book to be read with pleasure, and, as the author observes, “if you trust the writer’s voice, you’ll trust the writer’s facts.” It’s a highly engaging voice, authoritative and modest and often witty.

In conversation with Kazin, for example, Atlas is taken aback by the critic’s demanding manner. Kazin recalls a 1930s dinner party in Greenwich Village. “Max Eastman was there, V. F. Calverton, Josephine Herbst—” “Who?” Atlas asks, prompting a dressing down from the famous critic. How could he pretend to know about the period if he’d never heard of Josephine Herbst? In his reviews, Atlas took on big books boldly, Kazin points out, but there he is in person, sitting across the table in Il Grand Ticino “like a schoolboy in the principal’s office.” As they part, Atlas thanks Kazin for dinner. “I really enjoyed myself,” he adds. The prickly Kazin is unimpressed. “I like you, Atlas,” he responds, “but cut the crap.”

Nonetheless Kazin had valuable memories of Delmore to share, as did almost everyone Atlas contacted. At Harvard, Atlas had been a student in Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar, and in their interview Lowell—then married to Lady Caroline Blackwood—dodges a question about a falling out between himself and Delmore. It’s a brilliant scene, characteristic of the skill and specificity with which Atlas takes the reader along with him:

Lowell smoked morosely. Hadn’t there been some disastrous quarrel in Cambridge? I asked. He stared out the curtainless window. “I sat on his overcoat on the train up to Bangor, and he made a lot of mad accusations, complained I’d treated Jean [Lowell’s then wife, the novelist Jean Stafford] badly.” Lowell fixed me with a melancholy eye. “People say Delmore slept with Jean,” he murmured. “Someone said he could tell by the way he lit her cigarette.”

I closed my notebook.

“Have you seen Jean yet?” Lowell said as I was putting on my coat.

No, he hadn’t, but the following summer he found her in a weathered old house in East Hampton. Stafford vividly remembered the dispute Atlas was curious about. It arose from Lowell’s anti-Semitism, she said, and one night he and Delmore slugged it out. Her detailed account reads as authentic and may have given her an opportunity “to even the score.” Years later, Atlas learned that Lowell had left Stafford for Gertrude Buckman, Delmore’s estranged wife.

Atlas’s personal involvement with Delmore Schwartz grew out of a strong sense of kinship. Delmore’s parents came over from Russia, like Atlas’s grandparents, in the great wave of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Delmore was born in 1913, the same year as Atlas’s father. Both young men grew up, a generation apart, as “poetry-besotted adolescents.” More importantly, Atlas lists a number of temperamental similarities between them: unrealizable expectations, hunger for books, piercing loneliness, dread of failure, a sense of the sadness of life.

It is a truism in the field that every biography contains or conceals the life story of its author. In this case the connections were so “overt” that Atlas sometimes wondered if he was not writing his own autobiography.

Powerful attachments often develop from long biographical immersions. Reading Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of Henry James, an Atlas footnote reveals, gave him an “unsettling sense” that Edel, a small man with a pencil-thin moustache born in Saskatchewan, had somehow transformed himself into James, the portly expatriated novelist from a distinguished American family. Seeking to narrow the differences between them, Edel studied literature at NYU and the University of Paris, traveled widely, and so made himself at home in James’s world as to adopt a similar sort of social snobbery.

Alternatively, and happily less common, a deep dislike may sometimes afflict the biographer, as illustrated in Lawrance Thompson’s multi-volume diatribe against Robert Frost. Frost was a difficult man, capable of cruelty to others, but given a different biographer, or one less angered by sexual rivalry, he would surely have come out better. As indeed he has in subsequent biographical studies by Jay Parini, William Pritchard, and Henry Hart.

In a reflective passage, Atlas discourses on how he himself might fare as the subject of a biography. He has done things to be ashamed of or embarrassed about and has others buried so deep they could never be exhumed. These were balanced on the other side of the ledger, though, by acts of goodness and generosity. Thus, when a college friend of Delmore’s proclaimed him “a bad person,” Atlas objected. “He was a bad person—a bad person who was also a good person. Like everyone.”

Atlas was fortunate that Dwight Macdonald, a political radical who edited Dissent as well as a mainstream critic who reviewed books for Time and wrote a famous 1960 essay on “Masscult and Midcult,” agreed to edit his work in progress on Delmore. “Dwight,” as Atlas eventually learned to call him, expected only the best from Delmore’s biographer and could be caustic in his comments.

Dwight marked up the chapters Atlas sent him like freshman themes. The writing, he asserted, was verbose, pretentious, and showy. “You have a great vocabulary of vague and dull terms.” And “Leave the reader alone!” Dwight demanded: Atlas sounded like a museum guide who talked too much. In addition, he was too cautious in assessing Delmore’s life and work, given to “nervously qualifying adverbs,” double adjectives, and needless summaries of what he had already established or was going to establish. He needed to relax his prose, enjoy himself as a stylist, stop pussyfooting around like an academic. The criticism was tough but valuable to the young biographer, only 25 when he committed himself to Delmore. He was able to “subsist” on Dwight’s occasional crumbs of praise in the margins: “good,” “brilliant,” “masterful” (amended to “masterly”), “very fine” (amended to “fine”), and once, best of all, “Ah!” Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet was published in August 1977, less than a month after Dwight advised him to put the manuscript away for a year. Nonetheless he contributed a flattering blurb for Atlas’s fine biography.

* * *

Working on Mr. Bellow

There’s a widespread belief that biographers make lots of money for their work. But while this may be true for writers about presidents and celebrities, it is emphatically not so for literary biographers. By way of illustration, Atlas cites his $3,000 advance (or $1,000 a year) for the Delmore Schwartz biography. With that published, he set about earning a living and building his reputation as a staffer for Time and The New Yorker and The New York Times. He particularly enjoyed reviewing biographies for the Sunday Times, taking Edmund Wilson as his model and for a time considering Wilson as the subject of a second literary biography before settling on Saul Bellow.

In a letter proposing himself as Bellow’s biographer in the summer of 1987, Atlas stressed his “deep knowledge” of the novelist’s work and the Chicago background he shared with the novelist. His father had grown up in the same neighborhood on the city’s West Side as the Bellow family. He knew all of Bellow’s work in depth. He’d done the biography of Delmore Schwartz. When three weeks passed without an answer, Atlas called Bellow on the telephone. The great man was cordial—he’d liked the book on Delmore—but was not ready to anoint anyone to tell his story. He had it in mind to write a memoir of his own, Bellow maintained. And his longtime friend Ruth Miller was at work on a book about him.

Atlas was not easily deterred. He could write his biography “later on,” he said. “After my departure” Bellow replied. “No! . . . After you’ve finished your memoir.” (There was never to be such a memoir, perhaps because Bellow raided so many real people and happenings for his fiction.) Atlas hung up the phone in good spirits. Bellow hadn’t said no and had left open the possibility of Atlas becoming his biographer.

So began an 11-year relationship that led to Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography. Early on, Atlas imagined that a close bond might develop between them, much like that between Samuel Johnson and his disciple, James Boswell. (There’s a good deal about Boswell and Johnson in The Shadow in the Garden, and about other biographies as well. Atlas seems to have read almost everything in the field.) When Boswell was leaving for a visit to Holland, Johnson saw him off at the pier. Agreeing to keep in touch by letters, Boswell reported, “we embraced and parted with tenderness.” “Yes, that’s how it would be with Bellow and me,” Atlas fancied.

No, that’s not how it would be.

Their situation, as he later assessed it, was one of “infinite complexity,” unpredictably changeable over time, “now warm, now cold, now angry, now loving.” But there was always a distance between them—that of a younger man entangled with an older man, and that of a professional nonfiction storyteller (to repeat Atlas’s stated goal for himself) with one of the best and most famous writers in the world. When he called to arrange their final summer meeting, he asked Bellow’s wife, Janis, if he could have a word with “Mr. Bellow.” He wouldn’t have dreamed of calling him anything else, no matter how often they met and talked. Bellow was always a celebrity to him, always “Saul Bellow,” never Saul, as it had been with Delmore.

Dealing with a living subject, Atlas had the advantage of getting to “know” Bellow, yet he developed an uneasy sense that their several encounters and interviews were proving a hindrance to understanding. Bellow was so skilled in warding off revelations about himself that Mark Harris, the frustrated author of a first attempt at a Bellow biography in 1985, titled his book Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck, the subtitle referring to a wily animal who, in a poem by Frost, pretends “that he and the world are friends” but dives into his burrow at the least hint of exposure.

Among the problems confronting Atlas was how to address the subject of Bellow’s womanizing. Bellow was married five times and had numerous affairs as well. This was “private territory,” Atlas understood, and, he assured Bellow, he wasn’t interested in the gossip, but of course he “was interested in the gossip,” and Bellow himself proved willing to revisit some of his romantic adventures, on his own terms. In one conversation, Bellow changed the date of an affair so that it occurred when he wasn’t married. Atlas knew he was lying, but felt foolish to object. “What am I, Saul Bellow’s keeper, to catch him out in his adulteries?”

He enjoyed being in Bellow’s company, Atlas observes, but he also enjoyed not being in Bellow’s company. On good days Bellow was playful, telling jokes, making fun of academics, and “pulverizing” enemies. On bad days he could be “snappish,” often because of something Atlas had written or said about him in an article or interview. Atlas understood that an inescapable tension lay between them. He honored Bellow by commemorating his life, while at the same time reminding him that “the end was nigh.”

They had a series of summer meetings at the novelist’s house somewhere off mountainous Route 9 near Wilmington, Vermont (Atlas repeatedly got lost trying to locate the place). Toward the end, the biographer brought along pages of his book in progress for Bellow to initial as meeting his approval—a sound practice that served to forestall possible future blowups.

Atlas worked full-time on other jobs during several of the years he spent on the Bellow biography, so had only weekends to visit sources, record their comments, and—most importantly—copy their letters from or about Bellow. He would go to the homes of relatives and friends and even enemies, “explain why handing over Bellow’s letters was good for American literature, and then, booty in hand, hurry to Kinko’s to copy them.” He thought of calling his book Sundays at Kinko’s.

Mortality obstructed his research efforts, though. After an extended period of refusing to cooperate, Bellow’s third wife, Susan Glassman, agreed to talk with Atlas. A heart attack killed her before they could meet. Arthur Lidov, whose wife Vicki may or may not have been Bellow’s lover, died days before a scheduled interview. Some of the Partisan Review regulars he’d relied on for information on Delmore died during the 23 years between Atlas’s biographies. Others deteriorated mentally or physically. Bellow’s longtime editor, Catherine Carver at Viking, suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. Atlas sat by her bedside in London for an hour of silent communion.

The sociologist Edward Shils, a colleague of Bellow’s at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, also died months after guiding Atlas through the process of composition, much as Dwight Macdonald had done with the Delmore Schwartz biography. Shils, the model for Artur Sammler in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, had fallen out with Bellow for various reasons, but nonetheless wanted Atlas’s book to be as authentic as possible.

In a lengthy memorandum, he instructed Atlas on the obligations of biography. You had to place your subject in a specific historical context. You had to listen to what people said and discount their vague pronouncements. You had to avoid clichés. You had to get your facts straight, even those of seemingly trivial importance. Then you had in the end to deliver “a sense of what it was like to inhabit” your subject’s world.

Atlas wrote an excellent biography of Bellow but knew that he had not quite reached that final goal. So what have you learned, Bellow asked him as the book was nearing publication. “That you can never really know another person, no matter how hard you try,” Atlas replied, a message worth heeding by all aftercomers, including biographers, psychologists, and the rest of us.

And of course, there were things that Atlas missed despite his exhaustive research. During the 17-year period since his book was published, important discoveries have emerged, especially from women.

The first volume of Zachary Leader’s projected two-volume biography of Bellow was published in 2015, a hefty 812-pager bringing a different and less personal perspective to his subject (Leader met Bellow only once, and fleetingly). Such follow-up biographies, as Atlas comments in a footnote, inevitably happen and constitute “one of the heartbreaks of the profession.” A devoted digger, Leader unearthed an unpublished memoir written by Bellow’s second wife Sasha detailing 1950s faculty life at Princeton and the University of Minnesota, where the marriage was collapsing through the competing adulteries recorded in Herzog.

In The Shadow in the Garden, Atlas brings another memoir to light, this one written by Bobby Markels, who became Bellow’s disciple and lover during this same period. In 1956, she wrote Bellow asking him to read her novel in progress. He did, encouraged her, and so began a lifelong relationship. Her memoir, documented by letters back and forth, taught Atlas more about his subject than he had learned in all his years of tracking him down.

Markels vividly evokes Bellow’s initial attractiveness to her. “Saul was not a large man physically but he was a huge presence,” handsome and funny and invariably well turned out: “his energy, his aura, his psyche, whatever you want to call it, was tremendous.” She realized, though not at first, that he was compulsive about his serial sexual adventures and forgave him for it.

He needed approbation from others, Markels decided, needed people to think he “had the right tie, suit, woman, shoes, briefcase, bottle of wine.” She also valued him for maintaining their relationship. “No matter how high he soared,” Bellow kept in touch with her. They last saw each other in the San Francisco airport, where he assured her that she should feel no guilt for “all that sexual business.” It was all his fault, his dysfunction. In their final phone call, when Saul was 89 and Bobby 79, he signed off with “You go, girl.”

* * *

Afterwords

The notice in the “crucial” New York Times Book Review, by star reviewer John Leonard, devoted two full pages to Atlas’s biography of Bellow. For the most part, it was a rave, and, initially, Atlas was delighted. Leonard praised his book for the thoroughness of its research—“If you know Bellow and aren’t dead, Atlas will have talked to you”—and for the literary and cultural knowledge that the author brought to bear in his interpretation of Bellow’s fiction. Friends called it “a dream review,” “a spectacular review.” Yet, at one point, Leonard mentioned the biographer’s “wary disapproval” of his subject, an attitude that pervaded his book and led to several “splenetic” reviews from indignant commentators. “There were also many positive ones,” Atlas footnotes, “but who remembers them?”

Just so, and the bad notices drove Atlas back to his book, marking up pages with Post-its wherever, he felt, he had allowed the tone of his disapproval to turn “ungenerous” or “snarky” or worst of all, “judgmental.” Originally, he found 12 such errors. Later on, he cut it to only six Post-it places where he had been guilty of such “small-minded” comments as “For admirers, the busy novelist had plenty of time.”

Atlas does not agree, nor should he, with the savage attack of fellow biographer Janet Malcolm on the profession. In her brilliant, even “enthralling” The Silent Woman, Malcolm condemns biographers for inventing facts and seeking to exact revenge on their subjects, in one passage likening them to murderers.

That was going too far, Atlas felt sure. Yet he came to see that whether he’d committed 12 or six errors, he had failed to achieve empathy with Bellow, and “the key to writing biography is the capacity to be empathic.” So he was moved to tears when Adam Bellow, one of the novelist’s three sons by three different wives, called him “the last brother.”

Some of Atlas’s most valuable writing deals with the status of biography after a technological revolution in means of communication. In a humorous footnote, Atlas brings this situation into context by describing in detail for the edification of younger readers and the amusement of older ones the archaic phone booth: “an enclosed box the size of a large coffin with a ‘landline’ affixed to the wall and a slot for coins. You had to fumble for change and ‘dial’ the number.” You stepped in, closed the accordion-folding door, fed quarters into the slot, “and presto, Clark Kent was Superman.”

Then too, and less than a generation ago, practitioners of the craft relied on letters to provide “the foundation of biography.” Atlas cites the witty and insightful letters of Virginia Woolf and the erotic ones of James Joyce as examples. But email has ended the days of letter writing: “never again the letter in the mail, the pulse-quickening experience of spotting a hand-addressed envelope among the bills and flyers.” Technology has changed everything. Next year, next week, “the only archive will be the cloud.” Future biographers will produce biographies assembled from podcasts and documentary clips. The tools will be different, but at least—Atlas reflects—“I won’t have to learn how to use them.”

That strikes a valedictory chord, as does Atlas’s final chapter about disposing of stacks of biographies that overflowed bookcases into piles on the floor and about going through his papers to get rid of most of them. But ave atque vale will wait, and meanwhile we have this wonderful biographer’s tale to read and admire and learn from.