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James Atlas never lost his love of all things literary

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James Atlas, author of “Shadow in the Garden” and “My Life in the Middle Ages.”
(Michael Lionstar / Pantheon)

When I moved to New York, from Los Angeles, one of my great thrills was being introduced to Jim Atlas. “Are you James Atlas”? I gushed in the middle of a noisy party. This small, mild-mannered, gray-haired man said yes, indeed, he was. And one of my literary dreams had come true.

I had devoured his writings in the New Yorker about growing up in the “new Middle Ages.” We were the exact same age (two months apart), and I felt this man was killing me softly with our shared song. He wrote for so many forever-youngsters who were navigating all the new struggles ahead. Middle age, he observed, “imposes a biological deadline far more terrifying than the demands of any editor.”

Soon after, we became close friends: traveling (with spouses and friends) to Europe many times, and sharing countless evenings at our homes. His enthusiasm for all things literary never waned, even when his body, and breathing abilities, did. He founded two publishing entities for which he hired contemporary writers to do short takes on historical figures (Edna O’Brien on James Joyce, for example). He and I also shared honest, and laughingly insecure, discussions about our work. I still recall him showing up one day and proudly announcing, “I have finally reached a point where I don’t resent others’ success.”

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Atlas, who died earlier this week, knew as well as anyone how to combine the personal, the observational and the reportorial, and he always stayed this side of indulgent. Even when he wrote about “the new Middle Ages” it was obviously personal in nature but somehow managed to apply to a whole generation.

No one loved books more than Jim Atlas. He wrote a number of excellent ones, including a massive biography of Saul Bellow, and “The Shadow in the Garden,” about his own life as a biographer.

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff said: “I can’t name anyone who thought more subtly or wrote more eloquently about biography than did Jim. He poured his life into his subjects, but at the end of the day he always had more left: more joie de vivre, more intellectual firepower, more buoyant, roaming, ardent curiosity.”

“Jim’s book ‘The Shadow in the Garden’ is not just a hugely entertaining literary memoir, it may be the best book ever on the art of biography,” said Jonathan Alter, who is at work on a biography of Jimmy Carter. Alter was in a dinner group with Atlas and other biographers and said he was “endlessly generous with his acute and supportive comments about other writers’ work. We will miss him terribly.”

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“Jim was one of the last believers in a true literary community, and that books were of signal importance … despite pieces of evidence to the contrary,” said New York-based writer Daphne Merkin. “The history of New York intellectuals meant a lot to him, that criticism was an important form. He was a candid and very attentive writer — and reader.”

Atlas hosted many fascinating panels on writers. Though he was clearly ailing, he managed to put together a terrific one on Philip Roth, alongside David Remnick and two female reporters who knew Roth well. (It is worth watching on YouTube.) His “Remembering Roth” (which I reported on for The Times in March) was Atlas’ last finished work, though he was working to the end on two others.

That end came this week, from a debilitating lung condition, at age 70, way too soon. I cherish every moment with the man. I have hundreds of photos, and my favorite is him alone in a swimming pool in Italy, holding “The Leopard” above water. I am so glad I have all the emails to feel once again his incredible intellect, his unerring perception and his self-deprecating wit. Just a week ago, I emailed to ask if he’d be renting a place in Key West again next year.

“The only place I will be renting is a PLOT,” he wrote. “Yep, back in the hospital.”


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