The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas

Here are some highlights from this 2017 book:

* Janet Malcolm: “The biographer is writing a life, not lives, and to keep himself on course, must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of everyone else. As he turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography, he cannot worry about the people who never asked to be dragged into his shaky enterprise.”

* He [Edmund Wilson] had his weaknesses. He could be naïve; the timing of To the Finland Station , an excitable defense of the Russia Revolution, happened to coincide with Stalin’s consolidation of power, preparing the way for the Terror. He had a tin ear for poetry, tending to overpraise mediocrities like Phelps Putnam, and opportunistic enthusiasms; he crassly praised the work of Anaïs Nin in order to get her into bed. And he had blind spots: “Must we really, as his admirers pretend, accept the plight of Kafka’s abject heroes as parables of the human condition?”

* It wasn’t only the number of women Wilson “bedded” that got on my nerves. It was his insistence on recording the mechanics—what Richard Ellmann called “the precise anatomical convolutions”—at great and annoying length in his journals. Wilson’s cold clinical accounts of sex made Kinsey seem like Henry Miller. I was startled not only by his profligacy but by his potency: at the age of seventy-four, he seduced the bibulous New Yorker film critic Penelope Gilliatt on a couch at the Princeton Club and also managed to work in a hot affair with his dentist’s wife. He seemed to have no taboos, even dabbling in bondage and discipline. (He briefly owned a whip). He was a prodigious engine; women marveled at what one described as his “bull-like physical stamina.” He was so insatiable that I sometimes wondered how he could have slept with so many women while reading as many books as he did. And it didn’t even sound like fun. Cyril Connolly, reviewing Memoirs of Hecate County , complained of the “insect monotony” of its couplings. It’s not enough to say that Wilson was clinical; he could be downright creepy. He described his penis as “meaty” and compared his mistress’s feet to “moist little cream cheeses.” * 10
But the biggest obstacle was Wilson himself. He was hard to like: one of his wives described him as “a cold fishy leprous person.” Could I spend years of my life with a subject who, even in the company of his wife and daughter, read at the dinner table? He was anti-Semitic; he was rude to waiters. He found no merit in Anthony Powell. It finally dawned on me: what I felt was more complex than “distaste” or “dislike”—it was a question of compatibility. Was Edmund Wilson someone through whose eyes I would come to see life in a new and different way? Did he possess qualities of temperament or character that would remain fresh throughout the many years it takes to write a major biography? In short, did he interest me?

* When he [Mark Harris] calls the novelist’s home, Bellow’s three-year-old son picks up the phone and, mistaking Harris for his often absent father—Bellow is in the midst of one of his divorces—announces that he loves him: “I could not but tell him that I loved him, in turn, and I think that I fooled him with my voice.”

* You can never read the same book twice.

* The problem with biography is that the biographer’s age inevitably affects the way he sees his subject. As that vantage changes, so does his viewpoint. A biography written by a forty-year-old will be more unforgiving, less sensitive to his subject’s pain, than a biography written by a sixty-year-old. I’d been at work on my book for three years, and I was a different person from the person I’d been when I started…

* Bellow was a man for whom the world was becoming unfamiliar and confusing, overrun by a youth culture with beliefs and customs of its own—a man, in short, who was growing old. But his contention troubled me all the same: was it possible that even Saul Bellow’s work would fade from the collective memory, that Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift and Henderson the Rain King (the “three H’s,” he liked to call them) would one day molder on the shelf beside the works of Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck?

* Most of the time I didn’t mind our unequal stature and talents: Go, you be the genius. But sometimes I felt: What about my life? Doesn’t it count, too? There comes, inevitably, a moment of rebellion, when the inequality begins to chafe. Biographers are people, too, even if we’re condemned to huddle in the shadow of our subjects’ monumentality. All the same, self-abnegation has its limits. A thousand pages along, a decade in, the biographer cries out: What am I? Chopped liver?

* By the time I left, I was way over my limit of Bellow exposure—the amount of time I could spend around him before I got Bellow burnout. So much concentration, combined with the suppression of self, was exhausting.

* “There will be tears before bedtime,” the critic John Gross had predicted when he learned that I was writing a biography of Bellow. And so there would.

* Edmund White, the biographer of Jean Genet, called biography the revenge of the little people on the big people.

* In A. S. Byatt’s Possession , a scholar named Mortimer Cropper delivers a lecture entitled “The Art of a Biographer” in which he offers a persuasive vindication of his craft: “Biography was just as much a spiritual hunger of modern man as sex or political activity. Look at the sales, he had urged, look at the column space in the Sundays, people need to know how other people lived, it helps them to live, it’s human.”

* So what is the biographer’s purpose? Primarily, I would say, to show what other factors—besides genius—contributed to the making of the writer’s life, the genesis of his books, the social and literary influences that formed them. Richard Ellmann described the connection this way: “Affection for one leads to interest in the other, the two sentiments tend to join, and the results of affection and interest often illuminate both the fiery clay and the wrought jar.” The fiery clay is the life, and the wrought jar is the work that gives it form.

* A nother way the biographer/subject relationship can go wrong: you start out a friend of your subject and end up hating him, as Lawrance Thompson did in his notorious biography of Robert Frost. Every biographer is familiar with this train wreck; Jay Parini, Frost’s most sympathetic biographer, called it “a three-volume assault on Frost’s character in the shape of a literary biography.” Thompson died before he could complete the third volume, to the relief of all concerned, and it was finished by his student R. H. Winnick, but the damage was done. His biography stands as a monument to the danger of writing about someone you know.
It began as a promising match. Thompson wasn’t just Frost’s biographer; he was the authorized biographer, appointed by Frost after he read an admiring book Thompson had written on his poetry. The admiration was apparently provisional, since it didn’t prevent Thompson from giving a hostile review to a play of Frost’s in the Times Book Review or, stranger still, having an affair with Frost’s mistress, Kay Morrison, the wife of Theodore Morrison, a poet and professor of English at Harvard. Now that’s access. Is it enough to call this a conflict of interest, or is it transgressive?
“Thompson’s intimacy with Kay allowed him to participate in and even change the course of the life he was writing,” wrote Jeffrey Meyers, one of Frost’s many biographers. He urged Morrison to reject Frost’s proposals of marriage and be “tough” with him, even though Thompson knew—it was his job to know—every detail of their affair. * 13 I can’t help wondering what their pillow talk was like.

* I was deep into my Bellow now, asserting my freedom—the freedom that art grants the biographer to “kick around the facts,” as Dwight had put it. Not to fabricate them, but to choose and order them in such a way that they create a likeness—a likeness that was mine. Foolishly and generously, out of kindness and vanity, innocence and egotism, Bellow had allowed me a glimpse of his many-selved character. For the better part of a decade, I had observed and made notes. The data had been collected. That work was done. Ahead lay the harder work: making sense of it.

* “No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways, he has to elbow his way through the world, giving and receiving offence.”

* Bellow had three sons: Greg, Adam, and Dan.
He also had three disciples: James Wood, Leon Wieseltier, and Martin Amis. These three were—I won’t say pseudo-sons, because their affection for Bellow was so deep as to be almost filial—but surrogate- or substitute- or perhaps alter-sons, whose love was uncomplicated by anger and the unruly demands of hereditary sons. Easier to choose your sons than to deal with the ones you have.

* “How, really, could the drama of paternity have competed with the drama of creativity?” asked Wood. For Bellow, “The writing was the living.”

* Maybe it could have been fixed if I’d written the book now, toward the end of my life, and known more about its capacity to wound. Maybe it could never have been fixed. The key to writing biography is the capacity to be empathic; Holmes’s image of the biographer extending “a handshake” toward his subject stayed with me. At some point, without realizing it, I had withdrawn my hand.

* Anyway, it’s not as if he got away with it. There was a lot of wear and tear. He was battered by alimony fights and operatic love affairs. As a father, he was a disaster. Even Janis, whose love for Bellow was unconditional, acknowledged in an interview after his death that “he failed his children; he left them, and it was a wound he carried around.”

* I had never been able to convince myself that it was justifiable for Bellow to diminish his friends and family members by making them “material.” When Dave Peltz reprimanded him for putting a story Peltz had told him in Humboldt’s Gift , Bellow lectured him about the sanctity of the artist: “I should think it would touch you that I was moved to put a hand on your shoulder and wanted to remember you as I took off for the moon.”
I remain unpersuaded by the casuistical argument put forward by James Wood: “The number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than could be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.” Was I missing something in this creepy moral calculus? Was Wood suggesting that it was okay to hurt your own wives and friends and children in the service of literature? “Does the reader care that Dave Peltz was a little wounded?” I did. Dave was my friend.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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