- The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer's Tale by James Atlas
Pantheon, 2017, 400 pp. ISBN 978-1101871690, $28.95 hardcover.
James Atlas, biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, takes his title from Saul Bellow's description of the biographer. Or so Atlas thought until he discovered in his journal exactly what Bellow said—that the biographer was "the shadow of the tombstone in the garden" (293). Atlas adds, "the tombstone was the biography" (293), and the biographer a gravedigger.
Atlas is one of those biographers who takes what his subject says about biography seriously and is motivated to defend himself, suggesting biography is not an exhumation but a kind of rebirth, or as he puts it, biography has a "life-giving" quality born of a desire to "commemorate a great American writer by telling his story" (293). Ah, but that is the problem Bellow suggested—in the biographer's pages it is no longer Saul Bellow's story, but the biographer's.
Atlas's skirmishes with Bellow—and also their cooperative moments—get full play in this "biographer's tale." It is in part a history of biography and in part an account of Atlas's own adventures as a biographer, beginning with the mentorship of Dwight Macdonald, who, by turns, encouraged and excoriated Atlas. Macdonald believed that Atlas, still in his twenties then, could write a great biography of Delmore Schwartz—but only if he was prodded and scolded to make the book his own, which meant developing a point of view and style, making the biography literary and not merely a research project.
Unlike most biographers' tales, Atlas's is not merely focused on his own work. His story, he shows, belongs to the history of biography, a process going toward what and where he does not say (there are no chapter titles) until we are, ipso facto, like him, immersed in discovery. Atlas does not pursue a chronological order, so we do not get to Plutarch until Chapter X in this episodic—one might almost say picaresque—narrative, full of characters and events and scenes that take the stage when Atlas needs them, which would make proud Dwight Macdonald, who counseled his young protege to make the book his own.
Like a novelist, Atlas creates scenes—the first one in Chapter I in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room of the Beinecke Library at Yale: "On the table are six large cardboard storage boxes. I take the top off of one and peer inside: chaos. [End Page 379] Manuscripts, letters, loose papers, and manila envelopes, all jumbled together as if they'd been tossed in the box by movers in a hurry—which, as it happens, they had" (3). How did they get there and whose papers are they? We learn quickly enough that Dwight Macdonald salvaged the detritus of Delmore Schwartz's life and work. But, more importantly, we learn just how daunting it is to begin work on a biography. And so it always is, Atlas might have added. How to proceed with a life that is not your own? Atlas does not minimize the false starts or the goading of Macdonald's fierce superintendence of the biographer's work.
By Chapter II, Atlas flashes back to his two Oxford years in the early 1970s when he studied with biographer Richard Ellmann, an inspiring teacher who taught that biography could be an art. Don't overlook the footnotes to this and other chapters, which include all sorts of amusing and valuable asides about biographers' concerns with the weather and what to call their subjects, the quirks of archives, and the inevitable encounter with Ellmann's rival, Leon Edel, who seemed to grow into a resemblance of his subject Henry James.
With the first three chapters, Atlas's autobiographical/historical/anecdotal excursions establish the modus operandi of the book. I especially appreciated his willingness to reconsider past work, providing in effect new biographical accounts of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, measuring not only how he responds to his many meetings with Bellow, but also how he interacted...