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On Biography

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, November/December 2000 | Volume 21, Number 6

The newest book about Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow is "neither authorized nor unauthorized," according to biographer James Atlas. Atlas, who spent eleven years working on it, talks about the experience in a conversation with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris.

"I didn't wish him to authorize it," Atlas says of Bellow. "I wanted my freedom. On the other hand, he cooperated often and saw me over the years at least ten or twelve times and allowed his friends to talk to me and provided access to the letters....He is a great proponent of freedom---freedom for him, freedom for others."

The bottom-line qusetion: "Will Bellow like it or will he not like it? I don't know. I don't even know if he will read it. I tried manfully not to think about that."

Both Atlas and Bellow come from immigrant Jewish backgrounds and spent their formative years in Chicago, factors that drew Atlas to Bellow. "I was looking at this one generation removed. I had a great affinity with him."

In preparation, Atlas delved into the work of some of the Midwestern writers who came before him---James T. Farrell, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser---writers who were drawn to what essayist H. L. Mencken called "that gargantuan and inordinate abattoir by Lake Michigan" and who became the voices of the Chicago Renaissance. We visit the characters in their books: Sister Carrie braving the dress shop looking for work, Studs Lonigan traversing Els "rancid with alcohol and tobacco breaths, stale perfume, perspiring human odors," Sinclair's nameless immigrant slaughterhouse workes "tied to the great packing machine, and tied to it for life."

We also stop briefly at some other outposts of the Chicago scene, ranging from regional radio to modern architecture. The city transformed itself after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The rebuilding took the city through classicism and Beaux Arts to the iron skeleton skyscraper and the minimalist modern-day sensibilities of Mies van der Rohe. Chicago was aiming to be world-class. In 1922, the Chicago Tribune, looking to build something worthy of its newspaper and radio fiefdom, offered a $100,000 prize to architects of all nations to come up with a design for the Tribune building. By the 1930s, the company had a million daily readers and a radio station; it provided a platform for its eccentric and isolationist owner, Colonel Robert R. McCormick. McCormick spared no one his views: President Franklin D. Roosevelt was "a Communist," foreign service officers were "he-debutantes, dead from the neck up," and President Herbert Hoover was "the greatest state socialist in history." When residents of Wisconsin displeased him, he declared it "the nuttiest state in the Union, next to California."

As a counterpoint to the Colonel, we let a foreign visitor offer first impressions of America. "Desolate flat praire upon all hands," he observes crossing Nebraska. "Here and there a herd of cattle, a yellow butterfly or two..." About California: "This is a lovely place which I am growing to love. The Pacific licks all other oceans out of hand; there is no place but the Pacific Coast to hear eternal roaring surf." His sights of the late eighteenth-century frontier would inspire him to his great best-seller. The traveler was Robert Louis Stevenson, and the book, Treasure Island.