James Atlas: “The Award Enabled Me to Just Write”
In response to the current budget proposal to completely defund the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, PEN America asked Members to share their experiences with the NEA or NEH. From editors to historians to teachers to novelists, our Members have benefited from the NEA and NEH in a variety of meaningful ways. We present here a handful of their stories.
James Atlas, publisher, novelist, editor, and literary critic
I received an NEH grant in the mid-90s for work on my biography of Saul Bellow, which in the end took 11 years to write. The award was for $30,000, a significant amount in those days (and now)—money that enabled me to work part-time at my job at The New York Times, to travel for archival research, and to just write. My book was published in 2000 and widely recognized as a significant contribution to American letters.
The following year I was invited to be on the selection committee for biography and was honored to become part of a program that I felt mattered to American culture. I remember going to Washington for a meeting and how proud I felt to be part of our great experiment in democracy. As for my NEH award, I list it on my CV and consider it a major achievement in my literary career.