WHY: “A brutally honest examination
of the biographical craft.
“A literary critic, magazine editor, memoirist, novelist, and founder of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives series of biographies, Atlas, who has penned acclaimed biographies of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, digs deep into his own psyche to explain why he became attracted to the craft of biography. He also delves into why he chose Schwartz and Bellow as his subjects — Schwartz after the poet’s death and Bellow, an ambivalent subject, while still living.
“Beset with doubts about his ability to complete either biography satisfactorily and despite some moments of unwise hubris, Atlas could never divorce himself from the occupation of peering into the lives of others. He repeatedly impresses upon readers the sacred responsibility of rendering someone else’s life so that it is not only factually correct, but also emotionally accurate.
“Along the way, Atlas offers insights into dealing with sources who innocently remember events that never occurred, who knowingly exaggerate or lie, or who want to cooperate but die before the frantic biographer can schedule interviews. Because the author specializes in biographies of writers — as opposed to, say, celebrities, politicians, athletes, or business tycoons — he must interpret their published pages. That can cause difficulties when the second reading of a novel yields a reaction divergent from the original reading. For example, Atlas realized years after becoming Bellow’s biographer that most of the novels that seemed nearly perfect at first were actually less compelling upon close examination.
“The author is especially insightful about the pitfalls and occasional advantages of choosing a living person as the subject of the biography. His relationship with Bellow became so complicated at times that he found it difficult to sort out his own feelings.
“An illuminating account of a career as a biographer.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS
“In recounting a life largely subsumed by the lives of others, James Atlas reveals, with sincerity, humor, and incisiveness, the value and the difficulty of looking outside oneself for meaning. The Shadow in the Garden is a brutally honest look at the ways in which our lives are shaped — both with and without our knowledge — by the lives of others.” —Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
“Oh God, Atlas has given it all away: all the trade secrets, anxieties, ploys, scruples, and obsessions of the literary biographer, the noble and ignoble inner workings of the craft, along with an enthralling history of it, and of its greatest practitioners. This excellent memoir may make you think twice about writing a life — i.e., subsuming your own to it — but it will inspire you to rush out to read one.” —Judith Thurman, author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller
“Biographers and their subjects engage in a prolonged dance of mutual seduction and betrayal and nobody elucidates this maddening psychodrama better than James Atlas. With candor, subtle insight, and almost heartbreaking humility, he narrates his pursuit of the deceased Delmore Schwartz and the often forbiddingly alive Saul Bellow, laying bare both the pitfalls and rewards of biography. Best of all his memoir is enriched by an encyclopedic knowledge of literary biography that enables the reader to measure his unending quest against the high standard set by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson and many other illustrious predecessors. Anyone even remotely interested in the art of biography will be captivated.” —Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton
“I loved this book and was sorry to see it end — not simply because I happen to be one of the ‘obsessive diggers drawn to this odd profession,’ as Atlas puts it, but because it’s a funny, amazingly candid, beautifully written, and, yes, profound meditation on the maddening (and ultimately impossible) business of understanding another human being.” —Blake Bailey, author of Cheever: A Life
“How can a book be both modest and magisterial? James Atlas, in his confidences about his own methods as a biographer and in his thrilling presentation of the great biographers of the past (from Plutarch to Leon Edel), tells us everything we need to know, but lightly, sincerely — and definitively.” —Edmund White, author of Rimbaud: The Double-Life of a Rebel
“The biographer slips into another’s skin; he is meant to assume someone else’s unconscious. By definition, he erases himself in the process. Writing of and around his books, Atlas triumphantly returns that fugitive figure — part sleuth, part scholar, part analyst, part medium, an emissary between worlds — to the page. The result is a lyrical, tender, and unexpectedly suspenseful take on a life in literature. ‘There is no such thing as Biography School,’ Atlas laments at one juncture. There is now.” —Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life