A literary critic, magazine editor, memoirist, novelist, and founder of the Lippert/Viking Penguin Lives series of biographies, Atlas, who has penned acclaimed and controversial biographies of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, digs deep into his own psyche to explain why he became attracted to the craft of biography
Atlas’ own intelligence and wit is as pervasive and persuasive as his infectious enthusiasm. The book is rife with footnotes (they average out to almost one per page), and while these often provide fascinating additional information, many of them feel unnecessary and slow down the reading of the main narrative. That is a minor quibble, though. The Shadow in the Garden is an arresting book, at once personal and broad in its purview. And by exploring the art of biography—why he writes it and why we read it—Atlas bares his own soul a bit, too. 'The specialty you choose is your own disease,' he writes, borrowing an adage from psychiatry. 'If so, I had chosen my subject wisely.'”
'Facts matter,' James Atlas declares in The Shadow in the Garden, a rueful, meandering and for the most part engaging and instructive meditation on the kind of biography he himself practiced in books on Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow — that is, literary biography ... Confessions of a Biographer is more like it. He dishes dirt with the lively enthusiasm of a hack at work on a celebrity tell-all, the difference being that much of the dirt is his own ... Prying into the lives of others can provoke guilt in some, but Mr. Atlas is hardly a prurient biographer (he admits to being more interested in the writings of his subjects than their amatory exploits)... The author is often funny, especially when unearthing forgotten characters, and in his footnotes he cuts loose, displaying a zany side ... James Atlas is death-haunted, and so is his book.
The Shadow in the Garden is at least partially a defense of Atlas’s honor in response to the harsh reception of this earlier [Bellow] book. What saves the memoir is the self-awareness with which Atlas presents his personal experience. At times he is less defensive than apologetic, eager to get it right ... The memoir is divided between the light and the darkness of biography, illustrated by the empathic triumph of his first book and the empathic failure of his second. He contextualizes both experiences by interweaving discussions of the history of literary biography ... The suggestion is that The Shadow in the Garden is written on behalf of all the biographers whose honesty about their subjects was interpreted as gossip, or whose readability was maligned as salaciousness. Such are the pitfalls of the genre. But is biography writing worth it? Atlas thinks it is.