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This article is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

on James Atlas
the Shadow and the Poet
Tony Roberts
Literary biography is, like criticism, one of the ugly sisters of poetry – and not simply because its sales are better.  Behind all the carping – the ‘loud chorus of negativity’, as James Atlas described it – is the feeling that the written life is not only irrelevant to the art but can marginalize, substitute for, or even extinguish it.

On the other hand one could argue that ephemerality is more the result of changing attitudes and fashions in society. Atlas found that out with his first biography, of the poet Delmore Schwartz, whose reputation is now ‘sadly diminished’, as John Ashbery observed in 2016.

While not as immersive as Robert Caro, who went to live with Lyndon Johnson’s neighbours in an early stage of his research, or as intense as Richard Holmes, for whom biography is ‘a kind of pursuit’, Atlas was nevertheless highly skilled, imaginative, and indefatigable in his research (‘a biographer more scrupulous than Atlas is hard to imagine’, according to ‘The New York Times’). In contrast to Holmes, whom he greatly admired, he acknowledged in an interview, ‘I’m a distinctly anti-romantic biographer: brooding, fatalistic, cynical – though not entirely unsympathetic to our human plight’.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1949, Atlas studied at Harvard and Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where the influence of his tutor Richard Ellmann helped turn him from poetry to biography. In the course of his career he contributed to ‘The New Yorker’, ‘The New York Times Magazine’, ‘The New ...


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