This biography of the contemporary American poet Delmore Schwartz collects an enormous amount of material from letters, journals, notebooks, poems, short stories, and anecdotes. The information follows a chronological pattern of exposition, as Atlas piles item upon item from the seemingly inexhaustible records on the bizarre personality of his subject. In this way, he achieves a degree of detachment, a questionable virtue given the nature of his subject matter. For clearly Delmore Schwartz was deeply disturbed during the last years of his life, and he managed during that time to alienate many people, including celebrities, luminaries, professors, students, admirers, and friends. Atlas discreetly modulates his tone so as not to aggravate further, to rebuke, or to embarrass those left in the wake of the poet’s mad fantasies and conspiracies. Yet the question remains: would the biography of Delmore Schwartz have been more effective had Atlas investigated more thoroughly the nature of his subject’s delusions? By examining these problems, Atlas would have discovered a penetrating thesis.
Schwartz was an intense intellectual, and Atlas traces the development of this distinguishing quality of his life. Schwartz read ferociously and voluminously from an early age, probably to escape the tormenting atmosphere of his household. His mother is characterized as a whining, manipulative, evil-tempered woman, and his father is described as a philandering, irresponsible playboy, who later deserted the family circle, even though he managed to amass a fortune and financially to support the family—mother, Delmore, and younger brother—from afar. But it seems as though he was as much a contributing factor to Delmore’s emotional distress as the mother, with his pseudo-affectionate, then abandoning, actions toward his sons. While the younger brother seemed to have escaped the harmful effects of such a family setting by withdrawing into the mundane, Delmore dangerously withdrew into fantasy and books, and at an early age he set himself up to become the greatest poet who ever lived.
While not a distinguished student at public school—apparently his emotional problems were already too powerful an obstacle—Schwartz still managed to gain some favorable recognition among certain circles in the teeming intellectual atmosphere of New York City during the 1920’s and 1930’s. But his father’s death, the realization that the elder man had dissipated a fortune, leaving little if anything for the support of his family, and his mother’s growing hysteria all contributed to his increasing unhappiness and alienation from the real emotions of others. He was accepted by the University of Wisconsin, but his studies were soon aborted because of a lack of funds. He enrolled at the Washington Square College at New York University, where he truly began his career, among the literati of that high-powered intellectual society.
At NYU, Schwartz was determined to make a name for himself. He threw himself into campus activities, literary clubs, and social involvements with eminent writers and scholars who visited the university. But his relationships with others were already colored by that emotional detachment which so characterizes narcissistic personality disorders. He entangled himself in relationships with unnatural ardor. He demanded unqualifying allegiance from friends, turning that allegiance into a powerful manipulative weapon by which he dominated their lives. And finally, he broke off abruptly with his various sets of friends, usually by inventing some imaginary slight or grounds for contention. This syndrome sets the pattern throughout his life, from his relationships with colleagues to his involvements with different women. The tragedy is that he was aware to a large extent of the nature of his infirmity. Having studied Freud in the way that he studied and mastered a whole wealth of intellectual knowledge, he attempted to conduct psychoanalysis upon himself. Most astutely, he recognized “the cessation of love object in narcissism,” as he described it, the idea that he was incapable of achieving an intimate relationship with another person. Clearly he was aware of his condition, but helpless to reverse it.
In addition to being unable to conduct a successful self-analysis, it seems as though Schwartz was unresponsive to psychiatric treatment when he...
(The entire section is 1787 words.)