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What Is What Was? | The Nation

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What Is What Was?

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Most of the book's citations from me are from letters Bellow wrote me or I him.3 Such citations constitute the sort of record biographers and other historians have drawn on for the two or three hundred years in which history has been assessed as a function of it. If I'd given Atlas access to my diaries, he would have found another source of Bellow matter that would have expanded--if not deepened, let alone altered--his view of his subject. The subject of every biography has had millions of thoughts and experiences that have never--thank God--been recorded. It means that the gulf Johnson wrote about is an uncrossable one.

About the Author

Richard Stern
Richard Stern's tenth novel, Pacific Tremors, will be published in 2002; his others include Golk, A Father's Words and...

The difference between modern history/biography and, say, what constituted their equivalent in Thucidydean Athens or seventeenth-century Europe is enormous. Scholars don't believe that Pericles delivered the magnificent oration that Thucydides attributed to--that is, wrote for--him, though he probably delivered a speech that resembled it. Our problem with a presidential speech today is not the actuality of the words pouring from the presidential mouth but who wrote and even who conceived them. We're content that our conception of Periclean Athens is to no small degree that of Thucydides' interpretation of it, but the historical standard is different for modern events and people, those who leave their tracks in letters and diaries, interviews and film.

Atlas uses such archival materials and such biographical techniques as interviews, and he is far more aware of the hazards as well as the advantages of such usage than, say, Vasari was in his verbal portraits of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, some of whom he knew. An experienced journalist, Atlas has a nose for bias and such vested interest as the desire of ordinary people to be part of the record of extraordinary ones. (This is probably a trait of most biographers.) He also raises the question of how his long biographical labor affected his book. Did he, like his mythical namesake, get so weary of "holding up" the "bewilderingly complex" Bellow world that the exasperated weariness created a portrait as far from actuality as Thucydides' Pericles was from the "actual" Pericles?

I've known Bellow for almost forty-five years. For many of those years, we've been close friends and have said things to each other we may not have said to other people. We have also quarreled, disagreed and not seen each other for months and even years at a time. Our politics have been different, and the difference counted--perhaps more for him than for me. Nonetheless, we are close enough so that a few days before I write these words, we could tell each other on the phone--the first time we'd spoken since my wife and I stayed with him and his wife in their Vermont house two years ago--that we loved each other. We are old men now, and I believe that we both thought it possible that we wouldn't see each other again. In that conversation, I told Bellow that I'd read much of Atlas's book and that he shouldn't be concerned about it. I said that Atlas had built a crate large and secure enough to deliver the marvelous sculpture within.

A few hours later, I finished the last 100 or 150 pages of the book. In them, I detected the kind of weariness Atlas himself mentions, but I saw it as a weariness complicated by judgmental anger. Atlas had interviewed many people who'd been hurt--or said they'd been hurt--by Bellow. Partly as an attempt to maintain his independence of and objectivity about Bellow, partly from exasperated weariness, partly from his sense that he'd surrendered--his verb--his life to another man, a man whom he'd been seeing in part through the angry eyes of others, Atlas became harsher and harsher in his assessments. So I wrote Bellow telling him that although what counted--the portrait of a remarkable person becoming over decades ever more remarkable--was intact, I believe that it was deformed by Atlas's querulous anger, if not by sanctimonious contempt, and that he and Janis (Bellow's wife) would do well not to read it. "Hector and Andromache," I wrote, "Don't need to know Thersites' version of their lives."

This was perhaps as unfair to Atlas as I thought he was, at times, to Bellow, but then Atlas writes that I am Bellow's "old and loyal friend," the "Boswellian explainer of the great man to the general public," so any unfairness to him has been--clairvoyantly?--subverted.

Very well. As friend of subject and author,4 I am disqualified from reviewing this--I'll risk two adjectives--fascinating and sometimes brilliant book. I will instead talk about Johnson's concern, the gulf between actuality and its representation in biography, conversation and history.

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