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James Atlas

James Atlas has had a significant impact on the contemporary form of American biography. As an editor at Penguin Publishing he founded Penguin Lives, the innovative series of succinct biographies whose model was soon adopted by other publishers, including HarperCollins, where Atlas developed the Eminent Lives series. He is also the founder and president of independent publishing house Atlas & Co., whose titles include biographies of Franz Kafka, Arthur Rimbaud, and Marshall McLuhan.

Atlas is also a perceptive and distinguished biographer in his own right. His books include a biography of Saul Bellow and the National Book Award-nominated Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet. “The intimacy that develops between subject and biographer is like no other,” Atlas has written; “it’s a collaboration between two sensibilities bent on defying the sentence of oblivion imposed on us all. As an act of remembrance, biography accomplishes what other, more transient forms of memorial never can: the preservation of a vanished life. It endures as a monument to the tenacity of the biographer—burrowing, gathering, digging, retrieving—and to the infinite complexity of the subject. By dwelling on a single existence, biography illustrates our human variety.”

Atlas is currently at work on a memoir about his own tenacious experiences as a biographer, including his formative studies with the great James Joyce biographer, Richard Ellman. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale will also address problems at the heart of biography, from the ready identification of the author with his subject to the dependency of “nonfiction” on the artifice necessary to recreate a life. Atlas has written eloquently on these ideas for a number of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, where he was an editor for many years, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books.

Online Resources

Atlas & Co.
Dwight Garner’s ‘Stray Questions for James Atlas’
On Janet Malcom & biography: ‘The Biographer and the Murderer’
On biographers & their subjects: ‘Whose Life Is This, Anyway?’

Selected Bibliography

Bellow: A Biography (2002)
Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977)