The shadow in the garden : a biographer's tale
- James Atlas.
- New York : Pantheon Books, 
- First edition.
Where to find it
The biographer--so often in the shadows, kibitzing, casting doubt, proving facts--comes to the stage in this funny, poignant, endearing tale of how writers' lives get documented. James Atlas, the celebrated chronicler of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, takes us back to his own childhood in suburban Chicago, where he fell in love with literature and, early on, found in himself the impulse to study writers' lives. We meet Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of James Joyce and Atlas's professor during a transformative year at Oxford. We get to know Atlas's first subject, the "self-doomed" poet Delmore Schwartz. And we are introduced to a bygone cast of intellectuals such as Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald (the "tall pines," as Mary McCarthy once called them, cut down now, according to Atlas, by the "merciless pruning of mortality") and, of course, the elusive Bellow, "a metaphysician of the ordinary."
Atlas revisits the lives and works of the classical biographers, the Renaissance writers of what were then called "lives," Samuel Johnson and the obsessive Boswell, and the Victorian masters Mrs. Gaskell and Thomas Carlyle. And in what amounts to a pocket history of his own literary generation, Atlas celebrates the biographers who hoped to glimpse an image of them--"as fleeting as a familiar face swallowed up in a crowd."
(With black-and-white illustrations throughout)
I read biographies with the absorption of a car mechanic, repair manual in hand, peering under the hood at a steaming engine: What's gone wrong here? And how do I fix it? In order to write a biography, I had to know how the thing was done. I read without system the massive multivolume biographies: Leslie Marchand's Byron, Joseph Blotner's Faulkner, Richard Sewall's Emily Dickinson. P. N. Furbank's two volumes on Forster occupied me for weeks. I snailed through them pen in hand, scribbling notes in the margins. I had the British edition, published by Secker & Warburg,+ with a painted portrait of Forster as a young man on the cover in a crisp gray suit, seated in a willfully casual pose that somehow managed to intimate his timidity, and a quote from Pindar on the back that was a favorite of Forster's: "Man's life is a day. What is he, what is he not? Man is the dream of a shadow. But when the god-given brightness comes a bright light is among men, and an age that is gentle come to birth." The most compelling details, I began to notice, were the ones that instantly made you want to flip to the citations at the back in order to find out where they came from. At lunch with the historian G. M. Trevelyan, who talked a great deal but ate nothing, Forster brooded about the food: "On his own plate, in the middle of a very warm helping of lukewarm mince, mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts, was one sprout which was quite raw, and he kept wondering, as the inspiring torrent poured over him, 'What a very curious thing. How could it have got in? And how impossible to interest my host in the subject.' " Where could the biographer have possibly dug up this odd tidbit? I flipped eagerly to the notes in the back, only to find . . . no note! The meditation on the raw sprout was on page 70, but there was a barren tundra of notelessness that stretched all the way from page 44 to 77. I clucked in frustration. Why was it so often the most salient bits that went unsourced? And always without apology--no explanation of why the very citation you had interrupted your reading to look up had gone missing. Why did biographers, so conscientious that their notes often took up fifty or even a hundred pages of text, feel they had the right to blithely omit the origins of some obscure and tantalizing--tantalizing because obscure--detail? The sprout that arrested Forster's attention, for instance: had Furbank gleaned it from someone's journal? A letter? A report on the lunch to a friend, who put it in his journal? And why did it matter? In part, I suppose, because it was a feat of research: how could the biographer possibly know this? Furbank is especially good on his subject's physical features, which he registered with unpitying specificity. That Forster had "a queer pedantic tic of speech" was the least of it. The most damaging descriptions were supplied by the subject himself. An entry from Forster's journal, written when he was forty-six: "red nose enormous, round patch in middle of scalp . . . Face is toad-like . . . The anus clotted with hairs." (And how was this proctological detail obtained? One doesn't want to know.) Then there was the milieu--the social world, the ancillary characters, the manner of dress and traits of speech. The rector of Stevenage, Mr. Jowitt, "a genial, out-of-doors style of parson, who rode to hounds"; Forster's tutor, Oscar Browning, who napped while Forster read his weekly essays, a red handkerchief draped over his face; R. C. Trevelyan, the brother of G. M., who fancied himself a poet and "lived his chosen part wholeheartedly, striding about the country with a knapsack, his hair flying, or writing poems in a furrow": it's E. M. Forster and His World that Furbank wants to evoke, a particular stratum of English society that he depicts with anthropological exactitude. He shows us the house in Abinger where Forster waited out World War II, "an intensely old-fashioned household" with no electricity or phone or baths; Agnes, the "parlourmaid," who lugged hot water up to the bedrooms in heavy brass cans; a church fund-raising pageant that contained "ancient Britons in skins gathering fuel in the Abinger woods"--a scene as alien to the American reader as a Nambikwara burial rite. I also had to consider how to start the book. In-the-beginning chronology was the safest course, especially after the reader had been forced to scrutinize one of those eye-glazing family trees that preface so many biographies. The standard method would go something like . . . let me pull a book down from the shelf: "Ann (b. 1747) was the daughter of William Cookson, a successful linen draper in Penrith, and of Dorothy, sister and heiress of James Crackenthorpe of Newbiggin Hall." This dry and unrewardingly informative sentence occurs on the first page of William Wordsworth: A Life, by Stephen Gill. No throat-clearing here, just a clipped let's-get-on-with-it. Or you could start, as Walter Jackson Bate did, with a general observation: "Samuel Johnson has fascinated more people than any other writer except Shakespeare." Bate's purpose here is to make it clear that, despite Johnson's great and universal fame, there is still much to say about him that is new (which, in this instance, there emphatically was). But I was looking for a more dramatic way into the narrative. I wanted, above all, to tell a story. "A writer of lives is allowed the imagination of form but not of fact," Leon Edel pronounced in Principia Biographica, his useful if somewhat humorless edict on the limits of biography. The "fact" part I got (though I would come to question the whole notion that there was such a thing as fact). It had never occurred to me that the "form" could be so elastic--that, in effect, you could construct a biography however you liked. Richard Holmes had a useful term for this method: "nonfiction story-telling," biography that has "a protagonist, a time-sequence, a plot, and a dramatic pattern of human cause and effect." Nonfiction story-telling : that's what I was after. Edel himself had gone about as far as you could in this direction. I couldn't stop reading his biography of James--two thousand pages, five volumes in all. It went down easily; I ceased work on Delmore for two weeks while I gobbled it up. They were handsomely designed, handsomely made books, with comfortably large type and interleaved folios of photographs. I also liked the way Edel broke up the chapters into manageable size, then broke them up into still smaller bits separated by roman numerals; it didn't make you feel, as so many biographies did, that you were traversing an arid desert of type. The narrative was well paced; clearly a lot of thought had gone into the beginnings and endings of sections. Most often he would start with a scene, as in the chapter on James's friendship with the minor writer Hugh Walpole: "They faced each other for the first time in February 1909 when James came up to London to attend a matinee of The High Bid [a play by Walpole]. He gave the young Hugh dinner at the Reform Club." This terse stage-setting is followed up with an entry from Walpole's diary; then a letter from James to Walpole. On their first weekend together at Lamb House, the power of James's presence renders Hugh mute--normally a problem for a biographer but not in the case of the energetic Edel, who conjectures that "if he did not speak in his diary," we can turn to a tale of Walpole's called "Mr. Oddy," in which "the emotion of their meeting" is represented. Here the obese novelist, "his large Johnsonian body set on his short legs," is evoked both in his physical form and in his speech, inflected with "the reverberation of the late style." Note Edel's agility in giving Walpole the space to invent--to write fiction--while at the same time making the connection between James and Walpole's fictive protagonist unambiguous. This is how James spoke, he's informing us; it "rings true." Collecting the data wasn't even the hardest part. As Boswell noted, it was putting the thing together that really took it out of you. The biographies on my shelves were finished products, printed and bound: there were no facsimiles of biography like the facsimile of The Waste Land, with its cross-outs and additions, whole stanzas revised word by word. I would pick up a handsome finished book--say, volume three of Marchand's Byron --and marvel at its beauty as a physical object. The elegant cover with its drawing of the poet, the glossy paper of the illustrations insert, the sewn binding, the rough-cut pages: it was a joy to hold in the hand. But it yielded no directives as to how the contents had been made. That I would have to learn for myself. As with any trauma, the emotional and physical pain caused by the composition of a biography fades over time. The letter misfiled, the tape recorder that failed to record (this was one reason I took notes), the quote you'd forgotten to write down and now couldn't find: these lapses a biographer could weather. But what happened when you sat down to write? Excerpted from The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer's Tale by James Atlas All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.