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Jewish World Review May 11, 1999 /25 Iyar 5759

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Is Literary Success Overrated?

(JWR) ---- (
OH NO. James Atlas is an entrepreneur. The most youthfully-famous literary man of my generation, James has lived a life not only successful but admirable --- sober, industrious, loyal, even daring. He has not been punished for his sins, because he has none; he has not burned himself out, because he has never been alit. But now, as a businessman, he burns with a hard gemlike flame. To Michael Wolff in New York magazine, James confided, "'This', meaning business, doing business, 'is much harder than writing.'"

(I'll call him James, as he calls his subjects Delmore and Saul in his books.)

James has abandoned his career as a writer of long biographies -- of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow -- to become a publisher of short biographies (an odd business proposition, since long biographies have been selling magnificently). And, perhaps partly in order to maintain the dignity and gravity of an intellectual, which means suffering, James complains to Wolff how terrible it is to practice --- the art of the deal. "The pain of [getting this deal done] was unspeakable. Writing my Bellow biography was much easier than this. I certainly came to have an appreciation of what kind of stamina is required of the entrepreneurů"

But James has had the closest thing to an exemplary literary success in my generation. If he doesn't care for success, then we can all give up on the idea.

When I first knew him, James was no more than 23, and he was already famous in three countries, the capitals of which were London, Cambridge, Mass., and Chicago, where he and I grew up. I was even a bit sexually jealous of him, because the late Henry Rago, a famous poet in our hometown and Editor of Poetry magazine, had "discovered" James when he was in high school, and used annoyingly to rave about him to his beautiful daughters. When I met him at Oxford, James was already famous as a Harvard literary man, a published poet (in The New Yorker), a frequent reviewer, and a Rhodes scholar. He was possessed of a girlfriend who looked like Botticelli's "Spring" and the coolest flat in North Oxford. I inherited the flat, Sean Wilentz (now the anti-impeachment impresario) the girlfriend, and James went on to bigger things.

But even then I noticed an odd feature in his self-confidence. James's Oxford landlady was a snobbish and icily-sensitive Colonel's lady named Mrs. J. Devere Hunt. And after she counted the silver before my tenancy (not a fork missing!), she softened. "I loved your friend Mr. Atlas. He was so sweet when I told him that I was almost certain he would get this flat. He said 'Oh Mrs. Devere Hunt, I'm always almost getting something I really want!'"

For even then James was careful to paint his success as hardly achieved by him at all. He wanted others to believe it came from great fortune, from the pity of his patrons - that it sprang anywhere than from the talent and charm he was given in abundance.

James soon went on to write his astonishingly-accomplished biography of Delmore Schwartz, to write an autobiographical novel about his Oxford years, to have jobs (at a time when there were no jobs) at Time, The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, the Times Sunday Magazine, The New Yorker. And yet as he grew more successful, the oddest thing happened to his mind, or what he wanted his readers to see of it. He stopped writing poems-I once heard him say hilariously aat a party "I forgot how!" He wrenched his journalism from highbrow to middlebrow-OK, his job was partly to explain to the nonprofessional public lofty ideas and intellectual squabbles. And he was good at his job.

But then he began, I think, to side with his audience rather than with his subject-to despise the professors and pundits he described. On behalf of his affluent readers he seemed to taunt them: "if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"

And I remembered how, at a time when James was hungry for literary fame, he wrote of Delmore Schwartz: "No amount of esteem from others could have assuaged his discontent. That he had not done more, that he had squandered his talent, was the one unforgivable transgression." A couple of years ago James wrote a remarkable piece in the Times Magazine in which he lamented the fall of literature. But in his mind he seemed to reduce literature to the wonderfully enviable education he received, scolding that if we hadn't studied James Joyce with the later Professor Richard Ellman, as he did-well, then, it's hardly worth it for us to bother reading Ulysses. We just won't get it. It's too late-literature was for the likes of his young idealistic self --as long as that self could be ivy-educated and Oxbridge-polished. But literature is emphatically not worth it, not for us middle-aged middlebrow materialistic readers-among whom James aspired, almost yearned to be counted!

What is the lesson of this? Even James's new project is interesting, in a sense turning on his greatest achievements and most difficult accomplishment, early and late- the writing of original biographies - and emptying out its greatest strength. Unfairly one might imagine his reasoning: write biographies, yes, but make them short, magazine-like, write them of people whose lives are already well described, get busy people to write them in spare moments-have celebrities chatting about celebrities. To what has already been said of the biographical subjects you add -- "branding," as he told Wolff. On this project Delmore Schwartz provides a comment:

Never mind fame, observation is The human life divine.

If you let others define your success, I suppose, it will never satisfy you, but perhaps not many could do as James has done, so thoroughly to undervalue his own talent.

So if you can't love your success, love at least your gifts, which are almost certain to be, like mine, more modest than James's. Because as Gide said, "It is impossible to love a second time what one has truly ceased to love, and this is true even when what one has ceased to love is oneself."

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


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©1999, Sam Schulman