CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Without intending to, writer and publisher James Atlas has made a career of poking into other people’s lives. He loves literature and wrote one novel, but biography is his métier. It’s no surprise, then, that he has now addressed his own history, in a quasi-autobiography called My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale.
“Quasi,” it must be said, because the book is neither chronological nor comprehensive. It consists of 11 essays about the experience of middle age (he’s 56), including “Mom and Dad,” “Money,” “Failure,” “Shrinks,” “The Body,” “God,” and “Death.” Intensely personal, emotional, and filled with many pains and laughs, his book is a picture of the baby-boomer generation enduring the hail of time and age. Not the whole cohort, necessarily, but mainly Atlas’s set: relatively soft and comfortable, untouched by war or poverty, immersed in a New York-centric world of writing, publishing, and all-around intellection.
In a recent interview shortly before a Cambridge reading, dressed in dark gray suit and tieless shirt open at the collar, Atlas ate a sensible geezer’s lunch, with plenty of leafy vegetables and no booze, and talked about the challenge of coming to terms with life’s limits.
“I was concerned not to write a memoir as such,” he said. “The ones I’ve been following lately usually involve being beaten up by one’s parents or other dysfunctional crises. I’ve had my problems but nothing dramatic enough for a memoir. I wanted to write about people in our generation and what I hoped was our common experience.”
While the book is full of the present, Atlas’s memories are here, too. He grew up near Chicago, a son of nonobservant Jewish parents. His father was a doctor who loved poetry, and his grandparents were immigrants who started with little and built successful American lives. One grandfather put himself through pharmacy school and owned a drugstore; the other started by selling postcards out of a suitcase and ended up with a prosperous wool business.
Atlas graduated from Harvard in 1971, but amid the turmoil of those years — the University Hall occupation in 1969, the nationwide college shutdown that followed the Kent State shootings a year later – he says he received a second-rate education. But then he went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, where he studied with James Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann, who ignited his love of biography. Atlas’s first book, a life of poet Delmore Schwartz, was published in 1977. He got married, and after his wife, Anna, finished her studies in Boston, they moved to New York in 1979 where he took a writing job with Time magazine.
Over the next 20 years, he worked his heels deep into the New York intellectual/literary/journalistic sand, with writing or editing jobs at The New York Times Book Review, as well as the Times magazine, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. He also wrote for The Atlantic Monthly.
Like his father, Atlas was and is mad about books; his speech is peppered with references to Milton, poet Frank Bidart, Henry James, Jane Austen. The rude reception in 1986 given his one novel, The Great Pretender, pretty much doused the fire of his fiction dreams, but there was always biography. He had published one, and in 2000 came a second, Bellow: A Biography.
In 1999 he founded and edited the Penguin Lives series, short biographies of iconic figures by well-known writers, published by Viking. Volumes included Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, Bobbie Ann Mason on Elvis Presley, Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc, Louis Auchincloss on Woodrow Wilson, Edna O’Brien on James Joyce.
The Penguin series ended after 31 volumes, but Atlas enjoyed the form, and under joint ventures with his own imprint, Atlas Books, he has edited and published biographical series with HarperCollins (Eminent Lives) and W.W. Norton (Great Discoveries). The first includes Michael Korda on Ulysses S. Grant, Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Gottlieb on George Balanchine, and the latter is about great scientists: Rebecca Goldstein on mathematician Kurt Godel and Madison Smartt Bell on Lavoisier.
A new series with Norton, called Enterprise, will focus on business titans, starting with Ken Auletta on Ted Turner.
In My Life in the Middle Ages, many deep questions are posed, but few are neatly answered.
“It’s about the transition from the moment in one’s life when one has infinite hopes and a moment when those hopes begin to go down,” Atlas said. “I’m not an advice columnist, but if you can’t wrestle with that and come out on the other side, I don’t think you’ll have a happy life.”
In the chapter “Shrinks,” he writes hilariously about his succession of psychotherapists, including the one who often dozed off during sessions. “Dr. Edmunds!” Atlas would shout, waking up the therapist, who would insist he had heard everything important. “Money” deals with possessions and wealth-envy and Atlas’s various feckless financial advisers, while “God” relates his explorations of Judaism and other faiths.
In “Books,” he writes about the frustration of so many books, so little time, as one realizes one’s lifetime isn’t unlimited. In “The Body,” Atlas describes the difficulties of coming to terms with physical changes: He can’t drink any more and has to watch his diet. When he’s beaten on the tennis court by his adolescent son, he is surprised by how much it bothers him and later signs up for lessons.
The book’s overarching theme is the cruel margin between what you expect, hope, intend, think you should do with your life, and how it actually turns out. One chapter, “Failure,” has already touched a nerve in some readers. When portions appeared in a recent issue of New York magazine, Atlas was startled at the reaction. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I heard from people on the elevator in my building, on the street. I was talking to an extremely successful New York editor and figure-about-town, and he said everybody feels like a failure. I looked at him and thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ He’s at the pinnacle. I was shocked.”
In the interview, Atlas slouched a little and was full of quiet reflections, spiced with self-deprecating wit. But when he started to talk about his company, Atlas Books, he sat bolt upright in his chair, the wistfulness vanished, and he was like a pumped-up college freshman in his first literary survey course.
“It’s completely new to me, and I’m having so much fun,” he said of the business life. “It had never been an ambition of mine, I completely fell into this by having the idea – short books by distinguished authors on iconic figures. Now I’m sitting around talking in a vocabulary that I never imagined – with my math SATs. Overhead figures and back-end percentages. I like doing deals, negotiating, thinking about how to solve problems. It’s all very entertaining and I don’t have to sit home writing. I had a job for most of the last 20 years and I didn’t like the freelance life. I’m too gregarious.”
Not that he’s stopped writing. With My Life in the Middle Ages out the door, he’s working on a new book, a history of biographers, “from Seutonius and Plutarch, all the way to the present.” He hopes to revise his Bellow biography in a shorter form, and write more essays.It’s apparent that ol’ rocking chair hasn’t got James Atlas yet, and when it does, he’ll probably try to see how fast he can make it go. “I’m not good at tranquility,” he said. “Everything is intense. We live near Central Park, and my wife will say, on a beautiful Saturday, ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ It’s really hard for me. I said to her once, ‘Nothing happens. We just walk around and that’s it.’ She said, ‘And when you’re smacking tennis balls, that adds up to something? What’s the difference?’ I said, ‘You’re winning or you’re losing, you’re beating someone or falling apart. There’s some intense drama.’ It’s not a choice. It’s just my nature.” You might say, it keeps him young.