“I’m sick on account I just ate a TV dinner.”

I recently read “The Shadow in the Garden,” a book by James Atlas that’s a mix of memoir about his experiences as a biographer of poet Delmore Schwartz and novelist Saul Bellow, and various reflections and anecdotes about biography-writing more generally.

I enjoyed the book so much that I’m pretty much just gonna have a post with long quotes from it. This is a labor of love, because (a) I don’t think these sorts of posts get many readers, and (b) it won’t even make Atlas himself happy, as he died a couple years after writing this book.

Before going on, let me say that Atlas reminds me of David Owen or, at a more exalted level, George Orwell: a common person who is a sort of stand-in for the reader. There’s something appealing about this regular-guy thing. (See here for further discussion of this concept.)

OK, now on to the quotes:

p.45:

“The art is in what’s made up.” Well put.

pp.47-48, writing about details in a letter written by Schwartz:

They form not “another piece of the puzzle”—the pieces are infinite and in any case can’t be put together . . .

“And in any case can’t be put together . . .” Indeed.

p.59:

I’m not naive: that I am approaching the end of my time in this world doesn’t mean the world is approaching it’s end. Forgive me for indulging in this common—no, universal—preconception: how many of us have the fortitude to see things as they really are?

I think all of us have the fortitude to see some things as they really are. It’s just that different people see different things.

p.62:

Sometimes, out on the trail, you could go too far—like the night I got lost in the wilds of rural New Jersey during a snowstorm.

Rural New Jersey! Charmingly local of him.

On p.65 he quotes the poem During December’s Death, “one of the last poems included in [Schwartz’s] collection Summer Knowledge:

This doesn’t quite motivate me to read more poems by Delmore Schwartz, but I do feel like I got something out of that one.

p.68:

“I’m sick on account I just ate a TV dinner.”

p.77:

But the kicker comes on the next page:

“Would it have killed the biographer to nail down this fact?” I love Atlas’s voice here.

p.106, in a footnote:

Another contemporary biographer of Charlemagne, the memorably named Notker the Stammerer, was almost defiantly insouciant about his editorial methods. “Since the occasion has offered itself, although they have nothing to do with my subject matter, it does not seem to be a bad idea to add these two stories to my official narrative, together with a few more which happened at the same time and are worthy of being recorded.” Note to Notker: Don’t try this at The New Yorker.

The New Yorker does make mistakes—I notice it sometimes when they mangle political statistics—still, that was a funny line.

p.114, discussing a book by biographer Ian Hamilton:

I’ve decided to quote from it at inordinate length: why struggle over some lame paraphrase with a writer as good as Hamilton?

p.138, talking about the great Dwight Macdonald:

“Just read your excellent wrecking job on that academic bronze-ass Bruccoli’s hagiography of O’Hara,” he wrote me . . .

Followed by this delightful footnote:

I’m not sure what Dwight meant by this word, which recurs in his correspondence: its dictionary definition (minus the “ass”) is “spiritual person” or “Buddhist,” but Dwight gave it a perplexingly negative spin. Maybe such types were anathema to his practical mind.

“Minus the ‘ass’” . . . I love that!

Just as an aside, I think John O’Hara is currently underrated, not so much as a writer (but he is a pretty good writer) but as an influence. A few years ago I was disappointed to see a whole article on John Updike written by the estimable Louis Menand that didn’t mention O’Hara even once. And then Patricia Lockwood did it again: an article all about Updike with no O’Hara, despite all their similarities.

p.141, continuing with Macdonald:

“A steady stream of bouillabaisse” . . . sure, in some sense this is writing by the numbers, following up a general description with telling detail. But Atlas does it so well! I’m loving it.

p.145, in a footnote:

As regular readers of this blog will recall, a “Feynman story” is any anecdote that someone tells that is structured so that the teller comes off as a genius and everyone else in the story comes off as an idiot. The above anecdote is an anti-Feynman story: it’s amusingly cringe-worthy and I admire Atlas for sharing it with us.

p.155, writing about Edmund Wilson:


This reminds me of what I wrote about Owen, Orwell—and Atlas!—above. When writing this passage about Wilson, was Atlas thinking about himself too? Maybe so, as he does write, “Wilson was my model.”

p.158:

On the essay’s last page, the thought occurs to Wilson that he might be “stranded,” out of touch with his own life and times.

Maybe this is true of all of us. I’m thinking of a mathematical argument here: Culture is a high-dimensional space, and you can’t be at the center of culture in all dimensions. And, even if you could, then you wouldn’t be the “typical set,” as they say in probability theory. Someone who is central in all dimensions is, in aggregate, extremely unusual. So in that sense maybe it’s no surprise that so many of us—all of us, maybe—feel ourselves to be out of time in some way or another.

p.161, Atlas refers to his “one published novel.” That’s very gently put. The use of the word “published” suggests that he had one or more other novels that never saw the light of day. Atlas here is acting as a biographer of himself, providing relevant information to us, the readers, but in a way that is polite and respectful to the subject, which in this case happens to be him. Kinda like when they announce the wedding date and the birth date of the first child, and it’s up to you to figure out that they are less than nine months apart.

p.163, Atlas discussing a Saul Bellow novel:

What good has it done the world? What good has it done him? What does he want? “But that’s just it—not a solitary thing. I am pretty well satisfied to be, to be just as it is willed, and for as long as I may remain in occupancy.”

I’m not the world’s biggest Saul Bellow fan (that would be Martin Amis): to me, Bellow’s writing is beautiful but hard to read, kinda like Melville. (I tried to read Moby Dick once but only got through the first few chapters before giving up from exhaustion.) Nonetheless, I reacted with joy to the above quote because it’s sooooo Bellow-like. You gotta admire someone with such a strong style.

p.166, there’s more:

Back in his apartment, I brought up the matter of the fishmonger’s cluelessness. “People aren’t aware of my presence,” Bellow said with apparent unfeigned equanimity. “What am I compared to the Cubs, the Bears?”

So Bellow-like again. Wonderful!

And on page 170, there’s more:

“There are enough people with their thumbprint on my windpipe.” I don’t know what it is, exactly, but it has the unmistakeable sound of Bellow.

And this:

I’m starting to like this Harris guy. “Stat or Staps or Stat or Stap.” Great rhythm he’s got there. It’s the kind of thing I could imagine a Bellow character saying I’m thinking that Harris spent so much time living inside Bellow that he started to write like him, or like an imitation of him.

p.171, in a footnote regarding details of biography, Atlas concludes, “Facts matter.” The stubbornness of facts: something Basbøll and I have spent a lot of time worrying over, in the course of shadowboxing with various plagiarists and bullshit artists.

pp.204-205:

Bellow saw four psychiatrists during his lifetime: Dr. Chester Raphael, a Reichian who practiced in Queens and who was the model for Dr. Sapir in his unfinished novel about Rosenfeld; Paul Meehl, a psychologist in Minneapolis he had consulted during the disintegration of his second marriage, when he was teaching at the University of Minnesota, Albert Ellis, the famous “sexologist” whom Bellow saw for what he once described as “pool room work,” or sexual technique; and Heinz Kohut.

Hey, wait a minute! Paul Meehl? Paul Meehl?? The Paul Meehl??? Yup.

And then this:

I [Atlas] had interviewed the first three, all of whom were willing, no doubt out of vanity, to violate patient/doctor (or psychologist) confidentiality.

Dayum. I guess each of us is complicated. Still, sad to hear this about one of my heroes. I would’ve hoped better of Meehl. Or maybe it was ok for him to share whatever stories he had with Atlas. Neither Meehl or Atlas is around now to discuss it.

On p.207, Atlas shares with us that Meehl is the model for Dr. Edvig in Bellow’s novel Herzog.

I think I’ll have to read Herzog now, just to learn more about Meehl. Did anyone ever write a biography of Meehl? A quick web search doesn’t reveal anything. The closest I can find is an autobiographical essay and a book, “Twelve Years of Correspondence With Paul Meehl: Tough Notes From a Gentle Genius,” by Donald R. Peterson. I don’t think either will give the insight that I’d get from some passages from Herzog. But we’ll see. I’ll report back to you once I’ve read it.

p.211: Bellow’s lawyer is named Walter Pozen. I know a law professor named David Pozen! Walter’s grandson, perhaps? Could be, no?

p.217, a footnote relating to Samuel Johnson’s sobriquet, the Great Cham:

For a long time, I thought this nickname had something to do with “champion,” but it’s actually an Anglicization of khan, someone who rules over a domain—in this case, literature.

I had no idea!

p.223, describing a family trip to Scotland:

We stayed in drafty castles and threadbare bed-and-breakfasts that would have made no Top Hundred Resorts list. . . . we were headed for “a country where no wheel has rolled,” as Johnson put it, the inns were “verminous,” the people “savages,” and the weather “dreary.”

“A country where no wheel has rolled” . . . there’s only one Samuel Johnson!

p.228, on the writing of the Life of Johnson:

Boswell had devised an ingenious method of transcription: having memorized as much as he could of a dialogue, he would scribble down rapid condensed notes, sometimes in Johnson’s presence, abbreviating all but key words—“the heads,” he called them, the ingredients of “portable soup,” “a kind of stock cube from which I could make up a broth, when the time came to feed.” It didn’t always congeal. “I have the substance,” he confided in his journal, “but the felicity of expression, the flavor, is not fully preserved unless taken instantly.” . . .

I know that feeling. I’m bad with exact quotes. If I don’t write it down word for word when I hear it, I can never reconstruct it just right. It’s so frustrating. I don’t think I could ever be a playwright. My dialogue generator just doesn’t work so well. George V. Higgins I ain’t.

Hey—I caught a mistake! On p.235, describing the apartment of sociologist Edward Shils: “On the top shelf was a long row of the Journal of American Sociology.” No! He’s thinking of the American Journal of Sociology. Or maybe the American Sociological Review. Funny how that just stuck out like a sore thumb in my reading.

p.239, reporting a conversation with Bellow:

He [Bellow] was having fun. A famous writer who had never got over the “Trotsky worship” of the 1930s he dismissed as “a grade-school radical.” A well-known Oxford academic was “a twit.” Of a literary critic who had made a career out of the Trancendentalists: “He thinks mystique is a perfume.” I [Atlas] marveled at this unguardedness, at once so calculated and so naive. Bellow never said, “Don’t quote me” or “This is off the record.”

So, OK, then who was the “grade-school radical”? Who were the Oxford academic and the literary critic? I want to know this (extremely low-level) gossip. Or maybe Atlas is making a point by not saying who he’s talking about?

p.242, I learn that Bellow was nearly jailed for perjury, for lying about his income in a divorce proceeding. Wow! I guess that five marriages pretty much sucked up all his ready cash.

p.249, getting to some of Bellow’s political leanings:

He launched into a tirade about ‘affirmative suction’—he had a weakness for bad puns . . .

I admire Atlas for giving an actual bad pun here. So often when we hear that someone likes bad puns, we get examples that are actually funny—“groaners,” but funny in their own way. But “affirmative suction”: that’s not funny, even in a so-bad-it’s-good sense. It’s just kinda crude and stupid. No big deal—all of us say stupid things from time to time, and if a biographer followed me around all day, I’m sure I’d give him plenty of raw material to make me look bad, if he so chose—still, it’s a telling detail and I appreciate that Atlas included it, rather than just portraying Bellow as a lovable curmudgeon.

p.254: “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.” I can believe that.

Also on p.254, Atlas gives this charming slice-of-life of the biographer:

Late one night in the autumn of 1993, I flew into O’Hare and got my car from the Avis lot. I loved this part of the job [emphasis added]: tossing my suitcase into the back, hanging up my jacket on the plastic hook, and driving off in a bright-colored Chevrolet Impala, fiddling with the dial until I found WFMT, “Chicago’s classical music” station, 98.7 on the dial.

Again, he’s Everyman. David Owen, not David Foster Wallace. George Orwell, not George Gershwin. Edmund Wilson, not Vladimir Nabokov. And I’m happy to be in his company.

p.265:

There is no such thing as Biography School, but if there were, Shils cold have been its dean. Among the lessons he taught me: you had to place your subject in a historical context . . . you had to make people sound authentic . . . you had to listen to what people said and be skeptical about pronouncements that sounded smart but on closer scrutiny meant nothing . . .

Above all, you had to get your facts straight, however trivial they seemed (“There is no streetcar on 51st Street”), because if you got a fact wrong, even if no one noticed, it would set off a vibration of wrongness that made everything around it, all the facts and quotes and speculations, feel somehow off.

Are you listening, Marc Hauser? Brian Wansink? Susan Fiske?

Probably not. James Atlas never gave a Ted talk.

p.283, in a footnote:

“Narrative truth can be defined as the criterion we use to decide when a certain experience has been captured to our satisfaction; it depends on continuity and closure and the extent to which the fit of the pieces takes on an aesthetic finality.” Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis, by Donald P. Spence, a book every biographer should read.

Interesting. I don’t like the use of the word “truth” to mean “coherence,” but on the other hand, ultimately only truth is coherent—as Mark Twain famously put it, if you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything—so maybe this is ok after all.

p.287, footnoting a description of Nabokov as a “control freak”:

I [Atlas] have circled around this phrase, deleting and restoring it several times. It feels somehow too idiomatic, and therefor inappropriate, even faintly insulting to a master of usage like Nabokov. But isn’t the goal in writing to approximate ordinary speech? And Nabokov was a control freak. Stet.

I just love so much that Atlas cared about getting this just right. I feel the same way about each of my paragraphs—including those in my blogs.

p.295, Atlas reveals himself—briefly:

It was an older crowd, verging on the geriatric, but there were lots of younger people, too, in their thirties and forties. Bellow was read now by a new generation; he still had the goods.

You gotta be kind of old yourself to think of people in their thirties and forties as the new generation. I mean, sure, literally they are the ages of the children or grandchildren of Bellow’s first readers. But still.

p.296, Atlas talks about Bellow, Updike, and Roth. In addition to being dead white males, all three of these authors are striking to me as being perpetual children, never parents. Sure, Updike had 4 kids and Bellow had 3. But in their writings, even when they’re older, they still seem to approach the world as curious or sensitive or petulant children. They never seem to have the parental view of the world. This seems so sad to me. Having kids, if you have them, is such a central part of life. To have children but not let this affect you . . . it’s just too bad (also discussed here).

p.297, Atlas calls the Bellow home and reaches Saul’s young wife:

It was Janis who answered: “This is Mrs. Bellow.” She was friendly when I announced myself. “Hello, Jim Atlas,” she said pertly . . .

A vivid description in just a few words. Well done, Jim Atlas.

p.301, as the biography-writing continues and gets more challenging:

“Bellow’s portrait was beginning to darken, like a negative exposed to light. Even his friends had unkind things to say. . . . I [Atlas] had a disagreeable interview with Mel Tumin . . . Tumin was hostile; he dwelled on his recent gallbaldder operation, disparaged biography (“There’s no such thing as truth”), and assured me that Bellow’s girlfriends at the University of Chicago “weren’t pretty.” . . .

That last bit’s kinda funny, someone getting back at an old pal by disparaging the looks of his college girlfriends. But I guess the real message here is not to do any interviews right after major surgery.

p.313:

“When is that book of yours coming out?” Bellow wrote me a few weeks before publication day. “I feel as if I should go off to Yemen.”

Yemen! Again, that just sounds sooooo Bellow. Amazing, that voice.

p.318: Atlas refers to someone informing him “with the kind of tedious precision that often attends recounting of wrongs . . .”

Indeed! I’ve done that sometimes, and I’m sure it’s tedious to others. I haven’t had a lot of wrongs done to me in my long life, but the ones that have, I’ll recount with tedious precision, that’s for sure.

p.326:

I see Maggie Simmons, and we embrace. Maggie maintained a close relationship with Bellow for half a century and was, according to many, the love of his life.

The love of Bellow’s life! Here we are on page 326, the book is almost over, and this is the first time we hear about her? Or maybe Atlas is doing this on purpose, too keep adding twists to the story all the way to the very end? In any case, I feel a bit manipulated to have only heard about this person right now, so late in the book.

p.333: Atlas quotes critic James Wood as saying of Bellow being an inattentive parent:

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

I agree with Atlas that this is ridiculous. For one thing, it’s not like you need to be a creative artist to be a bad parents. Lots of people are bad parents without creating anything at all. Parenting takes work, that’s all.

p.347:

History is ever regenerative. New subjects arise as the old ones disappear—including people we never heard of Virginia Woolf asked: “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography—the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious?” What about all the people I’ve known who didn’t leave records of their own lives? Don’t they deserve biographies, too? Sing now of Scottie A., my best friend when I was growing up in Highland Park, Illinois, who built snow forts with me in the days when there was snow, and who died of cancer at the age of fifty-eight, which maybe wasn’t such a terrible thing as he was about to be put on trial for securities fraud. . . .

That’s a cheap laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. OK, sad too. Anyway, Atlas makes this point well with that fine one-sentence mini-biography of the unfortunate Scottie A.

And, in a footnote on p.350:

It reminds me [Atlas] of the passage in Lord Jim where the young sailor on the deck of a ship bound for the East watches “the big ships departing, the broad-beamed ferries constantly on the move, the little boats floating far below his feet, with the hazy splendor of the sea in the distance, and the hope of a stirring life in the world of adventure.”

I’ve never read Lord Jim! I guess I should.

And now we’ve come to the end.

I’m so glad Atlas put in the effort to write this book. And it all makes me so nostalgic. I think I’m gonna read Catcher in the Rye again. And I really wish Atlas were still alive to read this.

Finally, if you’ll allos me a Geoff Dyer moment, I’ll say that I find Atlas’s book about his biography more compelling than Bellow’s novels—and also more compelling than I imagine Atlas’s biography of Bellow to be. But at this point I’m curious enough that expect I will read that biography. I doubt I’ll get around to reading about Delmore Schwartz, though: his story just sounds too sad.

P.S. Jeez—I spent 2 hours writing this. Whoever of you reads this to the end . . . just remember, I wrote it for you.