Becoming a Biographer: How to Tell Someone Else’s Life Story

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Editor's Note:

James Atlas is the author of Bellow: A Biography, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, the memoir My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale, and The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale. Here, he shares what it was like to become a biographer, and what it takes to be one.

A crabby novelist who’d gotten a bad review once quipped, “Whoever grew up wanting to be a literary critic?” The same could be said, I suppose, of wanting to be a biographer. When you’re fourteen, if you’ve thought about the future at all, the odds are more likely that you have your heart set on being a pole vaulter, a fireman, maybe these days an entrepreneur, even – should you be so unfortunate as to have literary inclinations – a poet. But how many adolescents even know what a biography is?

I certainly didn’t, though I knew I wanted to be a writer, and – being a strange boy who read Partisan Review for fun – I was already considering literary critic as a possible vocation. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and had the good fortune to study with Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of James Joyce, that it occurred to me that this might be the genre for me. His massive 700-page book had everything: a (nonfictional) protagonist, vivid ancillary characters, a moving story line, terrific writing, literary criticism, and more. It also had facts. I found this reassuring. I loved reading novels, but there was something disconcerting but them – they were made up. (Of course that was the whole point.) I couldn’t trust them to deliver the goods on reality. “Why not say what really happened?” wrote Robert Lowell. Exactly.

I had been fascinated by the work – and by what I knew about the life – of the poet Delmore Schwartz ever since I was in high school. I’d read a few of his lyric poems in anthologies, and knew from a tribute in the New York Times Book Review that he had been considered the most promising poet of his generation, only to burn himself out with amphetamines and alcohol, dying of a heart attack in the corridor of a crummy midtown Manhattan hotel at the age of fifty-two. What a precautionary tale about the dangers of the creative life.

I persuaded the American Poetry Review to let me write an essay about Schwartz, and from that managed to get a contract from the publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (for three thousand dollars) to write his biography … whatever that was. I would have to read a few to find out. My apprenticeship was served under the strict, lovingly oppressive critic Dwight Macdonald, who was Delmore’s literary editor and had taken an interest in my project; but I also read closely Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James, George Painter’s Proust, and Michael Holroyd’s epic Lytton Strachey. They were very different books, inflected by their authors’ distinctive voices, but they clearly revealed a mania for detail; they were drawn to the challenge of reproducing events and scenes, reconstructing historical and sociological background, animating character through the assemblage of facts – not just to accumulate them, but to make them work in concert, producing an illusion of reality (or was it reality itself?), a story that had the narrative sweep of fiction but was true.

Biographers, then, were obsessive researchers; they collected documents and letters, ransacked library archives, traveled the world interviewing people. They combed through old periodicals and newspapers. They were diggers. And they were avid about the past, hungry for knowledge about vanished worlds. And they had discipline, what the Germans call sitzfleisch – literally, sitting-down flesh, the capacity to sit at your desk for long hours over a period of years that could sometimes stretch beyond a decade. (My biography of Saul Bellow took eleven years, with interruptions of various kinds.) So you needed patience, too; you needed to take the long view, to postpone gratification – to see the writing of a biography as the project of a lifetime.

But spending so much time in the company of someone else requires the most important quality that a biographer must possess: empathy. You are going to spend more time in the company of this person, whether dead or alive, than with your children or your spouse: your subject will exasperate you, bore you, wear you out with unreasonable demands. Yet through all these trials, you must understand and forgive. What is harder in life than that? Ask a biographer. Nothing.

Want more on writing nonfiction? Check out Signature’s Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction.