James Atlas, explorer of literary lives and publisher of biographies, dies at 70

(September 7, 2019)

James Atlas, whose biographies of writers Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow were both acclaimed and attacked and who, as a publishing executive, ushered dozens of other biographies into print, died Sept. 4 at a hospital in New York City. He was 70.

Atlas gained renown with his first book, "Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet," published in 1977, when he was 28. Schwartz, a promising writer in the 1930s and 1940s, was perhaps best known for his evocatively titled short story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," written when he was 21.

One of the people impressed by Atlas' biography was Bellow, who had used Schwartz as the basis for the central character in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 novel "Humboldt's Gift." After writing a poorly received novel of his own, "The Great Pretender" (1986), Atlas decided - at the suggestion of novelist Philip Roth - to return to biography and scale the literary mountaintop that was Bellow.

Winner of the Nobel Prize and often proclaimed the greatest novelist of the second half of the 20th century, Bellow was a formidable subject for any biographer - not the least because he was still alive.

"Writing a biography resembles writing a novel in that you have to solve the problems that present themselves in writing any narrative," said in a 2000 interview with Humanities, the journal of the National Endowment for the Humanities. "That is why I claim that biography is an art form, because it involves the same narrative and aesthetic questions. The only difference, I'm tempted to say, is that you're dealing with fact instead of inventing facts."

James Robert Atlas was born March 22, 1949, in Chicago and grew up in Evanston, Illinois. His father was a book-loving doctor, his mother a homemaker.

Atlas graduated in 1971 from Harvard University, where he studied with poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, then spent two years as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford. His mentor there was Richard Ellmann, the author of celebrated biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde.



SF Gate