The biographer – so often in the shadows, kibbitzing, casting doubt, proving facts – here comes to the stage.
James Atlas takes us back to his childhood in suburban Chicago, where he fell in love with literature and, early on, found in himself the impulse to study writers’ lives. We meet Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of James Joyce and Atlas’s professor during a transformative year at Oxford. We get to know the author’s first subject, the “self-doomed” poet Delmore Schwartz; a bygone cast of intellectuals such as Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald (the “tall trees,” as Mary McCarthy described them, cut down now, Atlas writes, by the “merciless pruning of mortality”); and, of course, the elusive Bellow, “a metaphysician of the ordinary.” Atlas revisits the lives and work of the classical biographers: the Renaissance writers of what were then called “lives,” Samuel Johnson and the “meshugenah” Boswell, among them.
In what amounts to a pocket history of his own literary generation, Atlas celebrates the luminaries of contemporary literature and the labor of those who hope to catch a glimpse of one of them – “as fleeting as a familiar face swallowed up in a crowd.”