Schwartz, Delmore (Vol. 10)
Schwartz, Delmore 1913–1966
Schwartz was an American poet, playwright, short story writer, critic, and editor. He achieved critical success in his twenties with the publication of the short story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." His subsequent work, however, did not match this early work in either substance or depth. There is a fatalistic and disillusioned quality in his work. The persona revealed in his writing is one of a tormented, egotistical sensibility. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[Delmore Schwartz] was an exceptionally able literary critic. Far too sophisticated intellectually and too much at home with conceptual matters to turn himself into an exponent of any given exclusive "method," he also understood the pitfalls to which critical discourse is exposed when it oversteps its limits to indulge in philosophical or sociological divagations. Sound in his literary judgments, he wrote without pretension or solemnity and without ever divesting himself of his fine and highly original sense of humor.
But it is precisely as a critic that he was grievously underrated, and for reasons not too difficult to identify. In the first place, readers were mainly aware of him as a poet and short story writer, and only marginally as a critic; and, secondly, he himself put no particular emphasis on his critical work, conceiving of himself as primarily a creative writer. Yet in no sense can he be considered an amateur in criticism; he wrote a great deal of it, quite as much as he wrote fiction. (p. 19)
At the age of twenty-four he had already written some of his finest poems as well as "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," the most captivating and, in the judgment of most people who know his work well, the best short story he was ever to compose. What is even more surprising is that in that very year he also published what, in my view, are three superb critical pieces: "The Critical Method of R. P. Blackmur" is a...
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If the task of reading Delmore Schwartz's poetry seems more difficult than it should be, it may be that one finds it difficult to reconcile the reputation of the poet … with the poems themselves. I make this general and possibly incorrect remark to suggest that [the] recently published selection of Schwartz's poems What Is to Be Given might better serve to revive interest in Schwartz's work if Douglas Dunn's thorough Introduction had been placed as an Afterword. Schwartz's work needs to be properly placed, and the only way this seems possible is for a fair and unprejudiced reading of the poems; this is unlikely to occur if all we hear is, "'We poets in our youth begin in sadness; thereof in the end comes despondency and madness'."
Although Schwartz actually was one of the brilliant poets of that generation including Lowell, Berryman, and Jarrell, the reader may find very little to suggest a connection with these poets, so little that such a comparison seems to be made out of deference to certain friendships. The fact is that Schwartz was the first of this generation. We can see the influence of Schwartz on Berryman's early poems. Schwartz is overpowering in his unrelentless seriousness (seriousness not sincerity) and in asking the right questions for his generation…. (p. 118)
The questions that Schwartz asks do rank him with that generation already mentioned, but his style is obviously not as easily placed....
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Schwartz's fictional aims are suggested in his criticism of other fiction writers. This fictional "credo" is clearest in "John Dos Passos and the Whole Truth," a review of U.S.A. which goes beyond its topical subject to make a general statement about the nature of fiction….
This "whole truth" and "imagination" necessary for great literature enter fiction through a "multiscient individual," "the individual of the fullest intelligence and sensibility," who "in some one of many quite different fashions transcends the situation and the subject."…
What distinguishes The World is a Wedding from social history, what makes it meaningful today almost thirty years since its publication in 1948, is this transcendent "whole truth." Schwartz's fiction embodies this multiscient vision … especially in style and language.
Schwartz manipulates language to bracket his stories in irony and to create a distance between the narrative voice and the stories themselves. It is in this tone and distance that the multiscient vision comes into play. (p. 260)
The title of the story I shall explore in some detail, "The World is a Wedding," suggests Schwartz's method, for it derives from conversation within the fiction. This is particularly fitting because Schwartz's stories are supremely cerebral, verbal pieces whose focus is thought—rembrance, analysis, verbal evocation—and the...
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Even joyous passages, as in "The Kingdom of Poetry," are deeply tinged by fatalism. It is as if, true diagnostician that he was, [Delmore] was constantly remembering his depression in the midst of his mania, and vice versa.
This melancholy is deeply rooted in Delmore's view of history and the growth of self. For him, man is constantly shaped by unconscious or dimly perceived forces—as the melancholy commentators of Genesis and Coriolanus point out. Delmore never fixed on the precise ideology for this view of history: he had many different versions and the Choruses reflect them. What is clear from his work is that he believed that against History and the Unconscious the individual can claim only an illusory sense of freedom. Yet he must choose in order to assert his creative power, his dignity. The melancholy tone and theme lie in the tension between this determinism and the assertion of the necessity of freedom. The supreme act of freedom for Delmore was the creative act itself—which either flowed with manic excess or was squeezed painfully from his torpor. He was said to have remarked: "I write when manic, revise when depressed."
In one of his most lyrical poems, "Abraham and Orpheus," this melancholy determinism expresses itself in a form that is quintessentially Delmorean. There is in the poem a very simple lyric repetition which circles around a simple theme: the exhaustion of love and the...
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The slyly clever stories that Schwartz wrote, as well as his rueful, contemplative poems, can leave some readers cold. These stories and poems are associated with the span of influence enjoyed by "the New York intellectuals" from 1937 to, say, 1960, an influence deriving from a special blend of opinion and sensibility: anti-Stalinist left, aggressively modernist, brashly high-brow, freeswinging cosmopolitan, uneasily Jewish. All in all, this adds up to a pretty stiff dose for certain kinds of American literary people. Especially stiff for the academic "traditionalists" straining for Anglo-Saxon attitude and the anti-academic redskins declaring themselves just folks. The New York sensibility had its moment, and that moment is over….
[Embarrasment] regarding his cultural sources, his literary role, his large, awkward body is one of the persistent motifs in his work….
When his remarkable story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" first appeared in Partisan Review …, they read it with delight persuaded that no previous American writer had caught so well the emotional costs of immigrant Jewish life. All the wordless griefs that the second generation felt about parents with whom its ties had been cut seemed to come pouring out in this story about a delusional courtship—and pouring out as art, not mere outcry….
He became famous for his bumbling, erudite, impassioned flow of speech, bringing...
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