Small, trim, wearing pinstripes, round spectacles and a blooming bow tie, James Atlas looks for all the world like an old-fashioned dry-goods clerk as he conducts PW through the Manhattan offices of Lipper & Company, where traders peruse Investors Daily and discuss hedge strategies in fervent tones. He brings us into one quiet, deserted wing. Here, under the aegis of Kenneth Lipper's financial empire, in a distribution co-venture with Viking Penguin, Atlas presides over a modest publishing enterprise--the Penguin Lives series of short biographies, of which there are about 400,000 in print. Under the distinctive covers displayed on the walls (Mao, James Joyce, Woodrow Wilson, Crazy Horse), Atlas lists the many English models for his series.
"It's a wonderful form, a literary form," declares the boyish 51-year-old, his broad, flat a's attesting to his Chicago upbringing. "Biography is not for me a lesser form, and a great biography--Richard Ellmann's James Joyce or Leon Edel's Henry James--is as great as a novel by Tom Wolfe or Saul Bellow."
Atlas's own Bellow: A Biography (Random House), is itself no modest literary endeavor (weighing in at over 600 pages), and, unlike his Lives, which are very often written by famous novelists over the course of several intensive weeks, it consumed 10 years of the author's life. Today a batch of reviews has just come in, and Atlas is not entirely happy with them; he bolts from his office sofa from time to time to grab one publication and quote from it. He is particularly sensitive about being accused by James Shapiro in the New York Times of extracting from Bellow's fiction a formula to apply to his life. "Shapiro robs me of part of my achievement by making a reflexive academic judgment against me that I'm dabbling in gossip, and I'm not," Atlas defends himself heatedly. Still, he is resigned to ill-treatment by his detractors ("These guys have a hard time just coming right out and giving me credit"), since as a longtime critic and reviewer himself, he has done his share of savaging.
On the matter of his enemies, Atlas does not want to sound like Bellow, who was prickly, tending all his life to "crab and complain no matter what great good fortune he's had," as Atlas observes. This Boswell first interviewed his Johnson 25 years ago. Persistence is the quality that convinced Bellow, now in his 80s, to entrust Atlas with the material of his life; also, the two men share a Chicago Jewish upbringing. "I'm very much from the world Bellow's from," confidesAtlas, who nonetheless enjoyed a comfortable upper-middle-class childhood while Bellow was the youngest of a large family of improvident Russian immigrants. "He saw me as a Chicago boy of a later generation." It was his strong personal identification with his subject that compelled Atlas to write on Bellow, rather than on his next choice, Edmund Wilson.
Perhaps most importantly, Bellow approved of Atlas's first biography, of poet Delmore Schwartz, published by FSG in 1976. Bellow is a great connoisseur of the biography form, as Atlas points out, daring to suggest that Ravelstein, Bellow's latest book, should be called Allan Bloom, after the man who is its clear and controversial subject. "One of the exciting things about Ravelstein was that it was a biography even though it's written as fiction. It had not just the elements but a biographical approach and Bellow referred to a number of biographies, including some of my favorites, like Macaulay's [essay on Boswell's] Johnson." Bellow would not agree, of course, having taken Atlas to task on at least one occasion for "confusing fact with fiction."
Working with the Nobel laureate had its "complex and highly fraught" moments. Atlas met with Bellow several times a year during the 1990s and especially over the summers in Vermont, where they have houses 25 minutes apart. Wary of encountering the same shut-out as Bellow's previous biographers, Ruth Miller and Mark Harris, Atlas arrived armed with excerpts from Bellow's archived letters, often personal and painfully revealing about his relationships and family. Bellow would peruse the letters, then initial the bottom of each page. In many cases, the memories evoked by correspondence he hadn't seen or thought about for decades were "nervous-making," Atlas remembers. There was only one letter that Bellow refused to allow him to publish, having to do with "unremitting battles with his father 65 years ago." "In the end, he was very accepting of the way things were, and he would look at these letters and say, 'Well, what can I do about all of this?' He had a kind of equanimity about his own life, an acceptance.... He didn't feel it needed to be hidden."
In essence, Atlas notes with admiration, Bellow "gave me permission to write the book I needed to write and to quote from his own words... and he agreed not to interfere and not to read the book or demand to sign off on it."
One important theme running through the biography is Bellow's refusal to buckle under the pressure exerted by forces of authority bent on keeping him from fulfilling his literary ambition--his scornful father and brothers, teachers who discouraged him outright and the anti-Semitism he encountered in academia. Bellow's quest for independence resonates powerfully with his biographer, and despite Atlas's effort at "self-suppression," he finds this theme from his own life emerges "subliminally" in the work.
"This struggle to get free of other people's judgments and expectations and determinations of you and to find not only your own voice but your own sense of who you are," Atlas marvels, "that's heroic in my view."
In his own case, Atlas observes, "the main obstacle I've had is people's belief that if you're not in the academy or a card-carrying subscriber to the premises of high culture, then you can't be a serious writer." He resents that journalism and popular writing are "barred from the final accolade of seriousness." He is grateful to his mentor Dwight MacDonald (also Schwartz's executor) for teaching him how to be a "literary man and not a research mouse."
Atlas "had it easy compared to Bellow," he admits. A graduate of Evanston High School in 1967, Atlas describes himself then--with gusts of gleeful giggling--as a long-haired "outlaw getting stoned," more worried about being published than having his draft number called. He followed politics "not always at a distance," he says. "I was right there, I saw a lot," he remembers. "I paid my dues, I was in Chicago at the 1968 Convention--we were being tear-gassed and all that--but what really interested me was that I ran into Allen Ginsberg and Williams Burroughs and Jean Genet together, and for me that was the formative experience."
He set off for Harvard hoping to become a poet, and apprenticed under Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. "I was a good poet but I wasn't a great poet for sure, and I didn't want to lead the poetry life, so that kind of fell by the wayside." As a Rhodes scholar, he studied at Oxford with Ellmann. He recalls sitting in the chilly Bodleian Library with his gloves on, reading Schwartz because he was homesick. His friend Tom Stewart, who had preceded him as president of the Harvard Advocate, was then an editor at FSG; he is the one who first suggested that Atlas write on Schwartz.
"I didn't know anything about how to write a biography or how to get a contract or anything," recalls Atlas. "I wrote a proposal, and Roger Straus gave me $3,000, that was my advance, and $1,000 up front"--more gleeful laughter--"and I wrote the book for three years." He adds, seriously, "I had a modest, very modest, inheritance."
By 1975, he was in the middle of writing his difficult biography of "someone with an odd name who had long since been forgotten and vanished from the scene"--when Bellow's Humboldt's Gift came out. "I read an excerpt in Playboy," Atlas recounts, "and I thought, Oh my God, it's Delmore, which it was in some fashion, Bellow's Delmore, and then everybody began writing about him.... It put him on the map."
Delmore Schwartz: The Life of An American Poet was "universally applauded," says Atlas, and indeed earned a nomination for a National Book Award. "I got a break in those days," Atlas says ruefully. The next book would be a novel, because everyone with a literary vocation had to write a novel and Ted Solataroff at Oxford had encouraged him. When it appeared in 1986, however, The Great Pretender (Atheneum) received such rotten reviews that even PW canceled its scheduled interview with the 38-year-old author. ("I'm glad you're here!" Atlas cries.) What started as a funny coming-of-age memoir ("I Was a Teenage Intellectual") should never have been turned into fiction, he regrets. At the time, Atlas was working as a "smart-ass critic," bouncing from the New York Times Book Review to the Atlantic to Vanity Fair; he had, unwisely, "sounded off intemperately about [his] elders." (Irving Howe was one sacred cow he attacked.) And the novel, he believes, aroused the ire of his colleagues because "I was trying to do something I wasn't supposed to do. I was a biographer... People wanted to just kill me." The whole experience of being reviewed harshly soured him on criticism--and fiction-writing.
It was a period he felt keenly as one of failure; he compares himself at that time to the overgrown loser Tommy Wilhelm in Bellow's Seize the Day, who bemoans the unraveling of his life to his pitiless father. "That's my experience of life and other people's experience of life," Atlas says. "You don't go around in triumph; you go around struggling."
For the next 10 years, Atlas stayed put as an editor at the New York Times Magazine, overseeing articles on subjects as "painful" to midwife as nuclear throw weightsand gerrymandering. The job was an "anchor," says Atlas. After years of floating as a contract writer, he recognized that the mix of writing and editing suits him. "What I do is work with the data at hand, with reality," he says, sounding like one of Bellow's "reality instructors." "I love journalism and biography and the essay form and nonfiction and that's the way, for whatever reasons, my mind works, and whatever talent I have expresses itself in this medium."
He immersed himself in the curriculum debate ("Literature' Bores Me," was one of his NYT Magazine articles), which led to Battle of the Books, a title he wrote for Chris Whittle's slim, highbrow culture series forged with Norton. Although the series was much maligned for carrying ads, the daring publishing venture planted the entrepreneurial seed for what would eventually become Atlas's Penguin Lives.
Enter Tina Brown, who had first hired Atlas at Vanity Fair and brought him to the New Yorker as a staff writer in 1997. "Tina did me the really great service of helping me find this voice that I enjoy writing in about midlife," Atlas explains. "This voice I didn't know I had and that many people I'm sure wish I didn't have." For two years, he published first-person essays exploring issues affecting people of his generation and rarefied milieu: how to have fun, his kids' private schools, success and failure (the raised specter of his novel) and envying his richer friends ("The Whistle of Money"). "I was whining," he confesses. He got flak--"fan mail and hate mail." It didn't matter that David Remnick, Brown's successor at the New Yorker, didn't want to hear about his midlife crisis: Atlas was confident in his new voice. His future book, to be called My Life in the Middle Ages, will be a collection of first-person pieces; his editor is David Hirshey at HarperCollins and his agent, Andrew Wiley.
Yet as full-time president of the Penguin Lives series (soon to expand into science and business books), an involved dad to two teenagers and a happy husband of 25 years, Atlas finds his only spare time "tends to be around 11 at night until one in the morning." He still sounds a little amazed by the success of his three-year-old brainchild: Who would have guessed that Saint Augustine by Garry Wills would be the series' biggest seller?
He is quick to praise Lipper, a former deputy mayor of New York City and a Hollywood mover and shaker; the series' staff of four; and key players at Viking Penguin. His own role tends to be to come up with the writers ("It's part of my world"), and they in turn choose the subjects on their own. The natural pairing of writer to subject--Edmund White on Proust, Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc, Francine du Plessix Gray on Simone Weil--is "psychiatric," says Atlas, and he proceeds to describe a long recent cab ride with Simon Schama ("a 40-minute psychiatric session") during which Schama lectured him on Cromwell. At the last minute, Schama revealed that he'd really like to write on Mark Twain. "Like the patient afraid to tell about his fantasies," relates Atlas, erupting in hilarity.
Now the question begs to be asked: If Bellow were to pen a Penguin Life, who would he write on? "Maybe Dreiser," Atlas muses, mentioning one of Bellow's early models, and then falls silent. "That's a wonderful question."
Boaz's last interview for PW was of Proust scholar Roger Shattuck.