James Atlas, a leading figure in New York literary circles as an editor, publisher, and writer whose books included well-regarded biographies of Saul Bellow and the poet Delmore Schwartz, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 70.
His wife, Anna Fels, said his death, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was caused by the escalation of a chronic lung condition.
Biography was Mr. Atlas’s forte. He wrote his first, “Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet,” when he was in his 20s. Forty years later, he detailed his “obsession with biography,” as he put it, in “The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale” (2017).
He further spread the gospel of biography as the founder of the Penguin Lives book series, a joint venture of Penguin and Lipper Books that he conceived around 1996 as he was struggling with his Bellow biography. His idea was to pair well-known writers and biographical subjects, with the books to be 150 pages or so, short for the genre. (His Bellow book eventually clocked in at almost 700.)
What emerged was an eclectic and much admired series. Jimmy Breslin wrote on Branch Rickey, the baseball executive. Mary Gordon wrote on Joan of Arc. Larry McMurtry wrote on Crazy Horse. More than 30 books in the series were published before it wound down, a casualty of the economic disruption created by the 9/11 attacks.
But Mr. Atlas resurrected the idea in 2003 with the Eminent Lives series, a joint venture of HarperCollins and his newly formed Atlas Publishing (later Atlas & Co.). The series produced books by prominent authors on Ulysses S. Grant, Caravaggio, Shakespeare, and more.
He also established the Great Discoveries series for Norton, exploring science and mathematics.
Through it all, Mr. Atlas was also doing his own writing. “Bellow: A Biography” came out in 2000.
“I could no more stop reading his biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow after he blew the blinds off the windows in my head,” John Leonard wrote in his review in The New York Times.
Mr. Atlas followed that in 2005 with “My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale.”
While working as an editor and writer for various publications, including The Times, Vanity Fair, and especially The New Yorker, from the 1970s through the ’90s, Mr. Atlas sometimes wrote personal essays as vehicles with which to talk about the pressures and angst of his generation, or at least of the New York-dwelling, literary-leaning part of it. “The Middle Ages” took that approach as well.
James Robert Atlas was born on March 22, 1949, in Chicago, to Donald and Nora (Glassenberg) Atlas. His father was a physician, his mother a homemaker.
Mr. Atlas graduated from high school in Evanston, Ill., in 1967.
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.”
Mr. Atlas, who lived in Manhattan, married Fels, a psychiatrist, in 1975. In addition to her, he leaves a daughter, Molly; a son, William; and a grandson.