The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale

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Best known for his tireless biographies of two American literary giants, Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, James Atlas spends most of this bedside conversation discussing the ins and outs of writing. Not just merely those specific life accounts, but the biographical foibles of chronicling any man of letters. His only flaw stems from armchair observations of such historical combinations as Johnson and Boswell and a host of other long-dead associations between subject and biographer. But to his credit, Atlas proves the relevance of such digressions: “There is no such thing as Biography School….”

His footnotes never fail to amuse the writer in all of us. “This is one charge literary biographers working today needn’t worry about. Ours is not a lucrative trade. Don’t urge your children to go into it.” Or the lamentations in mid-text over the nature of the business: “Biographers are people, too, even if we’re condemned to huddle in the shadow of our subjects’ monumentality.”

Ultimately, Atlas discloses his continued struggle with what to leave in and what to leave out. “Could the biographer ignore the sexual adventures and misadventures…? They were crucial to the story.” He borrows the title from an illustration of Bellows and his biographer in a journal entry with this painful entry: “the shadow of the tombstone in the garden.” Atlas observes his moribund role as “the tombstone” of the biography.

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Star Count 4/5
Format Hard
Page Count 400 pages
Publisher Pantheon
Publish Date 2017-Aug-22
ISBN 9781101871690 Buy this Book
Issue December 2017
Category Biographies & Memoirs


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