cover image The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale

The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale

James Atlas. Pantheon, $28.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-101-87169-0

Atlas (My Life in the Middle Ages), a biographer and longtime contributor to the New Yorker, illuminates the art of writing a biography in this witty, conscientious, and perceptive work. Atlas grapples with what makes a good biographer (total empathy with one’s subject, among other traits), why biographies matter, and why he persists in writing them. He reveals his struggles dealing with subjects both famous (Saul Bellow, who agreed to interviews but remained wary and unenthusiastic about Atlas’s project) and obscure (Delmore Schwartz—“no one outside the literary world had ever heard of him”). Atlas also provides a rich literary history of biographers that includes the ancient Greeks and Romans, who decided to write “lives” rather than histories, the Renaissance writers who dealt with the dawning of “self-consciousness,” James Boswell’s masterful work on Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the flowering of the form in the Victorian era. Given top billing are the writers who inspired him: his Oxford professor Richard Ellmann, whose biography of James Joyce motivated Atlas to become a biographer; Michael Holroyd, whose work on Lytton Strachey made Atlas fall in love with “the scaffolding... that surrounds the main text”; and Dwight Macdonald, who edited his work in progress on Schwartz (“His challenges, objurgations, rebukes—and occasional praise—defaced every page”). Part literary history and part memoir, this is a lively and elegant biography of biography itself. (Aug.)