Kicking the Tires of Biography: James Atlas

James Atlas at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar. Photo by Nick Doll.

For those thinking that life as a literary biographer is a cakewalk, James Atlas is here to school you.

In his delightfully humorous address, “The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale,” at the seminar on Saturday January 12, Atlas recounted the sometimes difficult, often bumbling and always confusing relationship between a biographer and his subject.

He touched on the incredibly meta project he’s been working on, The Shadow In the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale, which he described as “a look under the hood to see how these things are put together.” It also touches on how to defend the works from their detractors; most often the books’ subjects, who call the art of biography a “lonely trade.”

Not all subjects are offended by the invasion of their privacy, though. Atlas recalled one subject who, upon reading a love scene between himself and a partner, yelled out, “It doesn’t say what they actually did in bed!” Apparently, he’d wanted to see even more of himself on the page.

For his biography of Saul Bellow, Atlas worked for over ten years and while the Herzog writer attempted to help, he often hindered the work while doing so. He wanted approval on quotes and scenes, initializing each one in red pen after he had read it. He was worried about what people might say about him and about how he could trust Atlas to be fair.

One day, after reading through Atlas’ pages, Bellow said, “You aren’t the catcher in the rye.” “You’re right,” said Atlas, “I can’t save you every time.”

When Atlas got home, he reread the passage in which Holden Caulfield daydreams having the job of catching kids playing a game in a rye field at the edge of a cliff before they get too close to the edge. After reading the scene and realizing the vast responsibility he’d taken on, he sat on the couch and wept, “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” he said.

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