James Atlas, an Ambassador for Biographies, Dies at 70


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. His father, Donald, was a physician, and his mother, Nora (Glassenberg) Atlas, was a homemaker.

Mr. Atlas graduated from high school in Evanston, Ill., 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 the noted biographer Richard Ellmann, whose “James Joyce” had especially impressed him.

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