James Atlas, a leading figure in New York literary circles as an editor and publisher and as a writer whose books included well-regarded biographies of Saul Bellow and the poet Delmore Schwartz, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 70.
His wife, Anna Fels, said his death, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was caused by the escalation of a chronic lung condition.
Biography was Atlas’ forte. He wrote his first, “Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet,” when he was in his 20s. Forty years later he detailed his “obsession with biography,” as he put it, in “The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale” (2017).
He further spread the gospel of biography as the founder of the Penguin Lives book series, a joint venture of Penguin and Lipper Books that he conceived around 1996 as he was struggling with his Bellow biography. His idea was to pair well-known writers and biographical subjects, with the books to be 150 pages or so, short for the genre. (His Bellow book eventually clocked in at almost 700.)
What emerged was an eclectic and much admired series. Jimmy Breslin wrote on Branch Rickey, the baseball executive. Mary Gordon wrote on Joan of Arc. Larry McMurtry wrote on Crazy Horse. More than 30 books in the series were published before it wound down, a casualty of the economic disruption created by the 9/11 attacks.
But Atlas resurrected the idea in 2003 with the Eminent Lives series, a joint venture of HarperCollins and his newly formed Atlas Publishing (later Atlas & Co.). The series produced books by prominent authors on Ulysses S. Grant, Caravaggio, Shakespeare and more. He also established the Great Discoveries series for Norton, exploring science and mathematics.
Through it all, Atlas was also doing his own writing. “Bellow: A Biography” came out in 2000.
“I could no more stop reading his biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow after he blew the blinds off the windows in my head,” John Leonard wrote in his review in The New York Times.
Atlas followed that in 2005 with “My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale.” While working as an editor and writer for various publications, including The Times, Vanity Fair and especially The New Yorker, from the 1970s through the ’90s, Atlas sometimes wrote personal essays as vehicles with which to talk about the pressures and angst of his generation, or at least of the New York-dwelling, literary-leaning part of it. “The Middle Ages” took that approach as well.
“As I write these words,” he said in the introduction, “I’m on the threshold of late middle age, which imposes a biological deadline far more terrifying than the demands of any editor.”
The book wasn’t quite a memoir. Instead, its chapters addressed different themes: “Failure,” “Shrinks,” “The Body,” “God.”
“In the end,” Jenny Lyn Bader wrote in a review in The Times, “this book does not quite grapple with the concerns of a whole generation. But it is somehow finally moving, giving us one individual’s journey and, in those moments when he can see beyond his own issues, a story full of rich observations about the ebb and flow of all generations.”
James Robert Atlas was born on March 22, 1949, in Chicago, to Donald and Nora (Glassenberg) Atlas. His father was a physician, his mother a homemaker.
Atlas graduated from high school in Evanston, Illinois, in 1967, in the midst of the 1960s turmoil.
“I was right there, I saw a lot,” he told Publishers Weekly in 2000. “I paid my dues. I was in Chicago at the 1968 convention — we were being tear-gassed and all that — but what really interested me was that I ran into Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet together, and for me that was the formative experience.”
He studied at Harvard under Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, thinking he might become a poet. But by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1971, he was losing interest in that career path.
“I was beginning to sense that the lives of poets interested me even more than the poetry,” he wrote in “The Shadow in the Garden.”
He went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, studying there under noted biographer Richard Ellmann, whose “James Joyce” had especially impressed him.
“This was the kind of book I aspired to write,” Atlas wrote years later. “Ellmann — though I didn’t know it then — had made me want to be a biographer.”
He began thinking about a biography of Schwartz, an underappreciated poet who knew noted literary figures but died in isolation in a Manhattan hotel in 1966, and secured an advance that allowed him to tackle it. He was already working on it in 1975 when Bellow published “Humboldt’s Gift,” his acclaimed roman à clef about him and Schwartz. That helped give Atlas’ biography extra buzz when it came out in 1977; it was a National Book Award finalist.
And, as he put it in the introduction to “Bellow,” he “had been inexorably identified as a career biographer.” He signed a contract to write a biography of the American critic Edmund Wilson, he wrote, but “five years later, I hadn’t written a word.”
“He wasn’t my type,” he wrote of Wilson. “I had learned from my long and solitary work on the life of Delmore Schwartz that biography is a process of immersion.” He aborted the project.
He then tried a novel, “The Great Pretender,” which was published in 1986, but tepid reviews soured him on the form. It was Philip Roth, he said, who eventually suggested that he take on a biography of Bellow.
Though the resulting book was not an authorized biography, he did have the cooperation of Bellow, who died in 2005. He later asked Bellow’s son why the great man had allowed it.
“He realized that you weren’t going to go away,” he was told.
Atlas, who lived in Manhattan, married Fels, a psychiatrist, in 1975. In addition to her, he is survived by a daughter, Molly Atlas; a son, William; and a grandson.
In a 2008 interview with The Times, Atlas lamented the abundance of books on the market, the shortage of time to read them and the relatively brief shelf life most have.
“I did not long ago spy on the shelf of an airport bookshop in Oslo a copy of the Modern Library edition of my ‘Bellow,’” he noted, alongside “Losing It — and Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time,” by Valerie Bertinelli, and a collection of Alan Bennett’s essays.
“One ignominious feature of the biographer’s life,” he added, “is that your books get shelved alphabetically by your subject’s name rather than your own. But I was totally fine with that.”