On Biography

By Beatty, Mary Lou | Humanities, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

On Biography


Beatty, Mary Lou, Humanities


Saul Bellow, 1976

The newest book about Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow is "neither authorized nor unauthorized," according to biographer James Atlas. Atlas, who spent eleven years working on it, talks about the experience in a conversation with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris.

"I didn't wish him to authorize it," Atlas says of Bellow. "I wanted my freedom. On the other hand, he cooperated often and saw me over the years at least ten or twelve times and allowed his friends to talk to me and provided access to the letters.... He is a great proponent of freedom-- freedom- for him, freedom for others."

The bottom-line question: "Will Bellow like it or will he not like it? I don't know. I don't even know if he will read it. I tried manfully not to think about that."

Both Atlas and Bellow come from immigrant Jewish backgrounds and spent their formative years in Chicago, factors that drew Atlas to Bellow. "I was looking at this one generation removed. I had a great affinity with him."

In preparation, Atlas delved into the work of some of the Midwestern writers who came before him-James T. Farrell, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser-writers who were drawn to what essayist H. L. Mencken called "that gargantuan and inordinate abattoir by Lake Michigan" and who became the voices of the Chicago Renaissance. We visit the characters in their books: Sister Carrie braving the dress shop looking for work, Studs Lonigan traversing Els "rancid with alcohol and tobacco breaths, stale perfume, perspiring human odors," Sinclair's nameless immigrant slaughterhouse workers "tied to the great packing machine, and tied to it for life."

We also stop briefly at some other outposts of the Chicago scene, ranging from regional radio to modern architecture. …

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