Books in The Background 11: Retold Lives


A surviving book store, Warwick's in La Jolla, has divided its stock broadly into two sections: in a far corner are the texts of familiar writers in editions cheap enough to market.  It is not a busy part of the store.  The center of the store is large and displays what really sells, current lives of those same writers. In his pursuit of the essential in the lives of Saul Bellow and of Delmore Schwartz, Atlas shows us why biographies are at the center of the bookstore.


The Shadow in the Garden. By James Atlas. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017.  388 pp. $28.95.

James Atlas has written biographies but this book is about interviewing sources, locating information, working in libraries, and dealing interminably with those he wrote about or with their inheritors. There are helpful allusions to texts from Boswell on what shaped the art, but Atlas centers on modern times. New archival material often requires new versions of lives.  But we know also that biography is of more interest to the general audience than the works of those it describes. Richard Holmes states in This Long Pursuit (2016), his own account of tracking down information, that biography leads all other non-fiction sales for good reason, observing that Mary Shelley's monster reads biography for a quick study of being human. 

            Those interviewed by Atlas remember not only the writer but their own orbit around him.  Covering the life of Delmore Schwartz is like witnessing a train wreck and even the biographer keeps asking why he wasted his time on so many doomed and really hopeless projects that could never sell, why he drank so much, and why he changed from American Wunderkind to the man who died young, broke, and addicted?  It turned out that such questions touch everyone's memories. Atlas found dozens of men and women lost to history, but all connected to Delmore:

I seemed objective, scholarly; and besides, how often did people get to talk about themselves? They could blab unfettered by social convention, ignore the annoying requirement of having to listen.  My sources confided in me: "I wanted to be a writer then"; "That was when my second wife and I were living on Bedford St"; "Delmore had been going out with a girl I had been in love with when I first came to the Village."  These interviews often lasted for hours.  For every anecdote about Delmore, I had to listen to the story of someone's life (68).  

All these lives seemed chaotic and accidental, although the usual strategy of biography is to find straight lines and impose a theme. Holmes put it this way: the interest we have in biography is our own "novelistic urge to find shape and meaning within the apparently random."  However, even the lives of scientists, he says, are about "hesitations, misconceptions, dead ends, rivalries and collaborations, long-drawn-out trials over years." It is one of the jobs of biography to produce a theme—but history and personality intervene, and lives that once looked as if they had been drawn up by Rembrandt, all clear outlines and flawless perspective, might instead be thought of as works by Jackson Pollack.

            Against this fact is the salvage of biography. More has to be recovered than the events of the given moment.  Unfortunately, a great deal of biography, after giving a sketch of the social scene in general, has satisfied itself that a context has been created.  It isn't enough to know that Dickens worked in an industrial economy and that something or other was happening to social class. Atlas retrieved personal information and has drawn up a concurrent history of criticism.  His essays on Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald go a long way toward recovering the forties. The latter was a stern and exceptionally gifted judge. He advised Atlas not to disappear as a personality from his own book:  "be a (literary) man, not a (research) mouse." That, Macdonald thought, might let him see into and maybe past the subject.  Here is Macdonald on differences between writers that the biographer can't ignore:

You make just the right points re. O'Hara (fair but strict—one negative you MIGHT have noted is his lack of love/feeling, w. is why he's so inferior to Scott [Fitzgerald], whose snobbishness like Proust's came from a romantic love, while O'Hara's came from Thersites envy: his catalogues of social hierarchy are cold, boring, repulsive and Madame-Tussaud-wax-museum-like, while Scott's—as in the Homeric catalogue of the people whom came to Gatsby's parties—were alive and moving bec. he wrote about the milieu as a guilty and so "involved" participant and not as an "objective"/Zolaesque "social scientist" cum snarling outsider. (138-39)

            From Edward Shils, who knew Bellow at the University of Chicago, he also learned that the involved participant was not a reliable source.  Witnesses had to be evaluated.  Cooperation of a living subject was always in doubt, even for the authorized biographer. Bellow was by turns secret and open, honest and self-deluding.  He treated Atlas as his feelings dictated.  At a public reading in New York, there was a question and response:

"What do you think of Mr. Atlas's biography?"

            Bellow gazed out at the audience and said, after a pause: "It's like being measured for your coffin."  (296)

Bellow was not the only point of resistance: Editors, friends, and lovers finally had a chance to object to one very sore point indeed, their translated presence in his novels. That got to Atlas, who could not convince himself "that it was justifiable for Bellow to diminish his friends and family members by making them 'material' (334)." The biographer might easily become personally embroiled in all "the feuds and skirmishes of the day, the gossip, the scandals, the struggle over who gets to own the narrative" (273).  

            The narrative changes continually: Richard Holmes states that the life of Dr. Johnson has been retold more than thirty times, each version coming closer to revealing things that even Boswell did not want to discuss.  There are now two hundred lives of Byron. In Britain alone, there are 3500 new titles a year (although they include cult worship of the great by cranks and commercialized knock-offs).  To judge by the number of lives of Hemingway over the last two years alone is to see cultural change at work. Atlas, however, repeatedly notes that there are few lives of critics—not because criticism is inherently any worse than other parts of the literary trade, only that it necessarily covers people and ideas of fleeting interest.  But when he lists the names of those who (like Edmund Wilson) have disappeared it may make your hand on the keyboard a bit less steady.

Ron Berman, March 1, 2018

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