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 definitive essay; another is the long and thoroughly cogent analysis of Yvor Winters's Primitivism and Decadence; and still another, entitled "John Dos Passos and the Whole Truth," is as fair in its argument as it is perceptive of that novelist's strengths and weaknesses—perhaps the most plausible single evaluation of Dos Passos as yet available to us.
Now while it is well-known that many poets have produced their best work in their early twenties, it is only very rarely that a critic has contributed anything memorable at that age. Usually it is not until their early thirties that critics are able to write anything really substantial exhibiting a mature cast of mind. And this is exactly where the paradox of Schwartz's precocity calls attention to itself in a striking way. The criticism he wrote even as late as 1953 (such as "The Duchess' Red Shoes," for instance, an essay on Lionel Trilling as notable for its humor as for its insight into that critic's social bias) has enduring value, while the poetry he published in his thirties and forties is clearly inferior to his earlier work in that medium. Thus the thematic richness as well as the diction, versification, and rhythmic range of the verse contained in Vaudeville for a Princess (1950) is almost embarrasingly feeble in comparison with such earlier poems in his first collection as "The Heavy Bear that Goes with Me," "In the Naked Bed, in Plato's Cave," or "Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses."
The same goes for his later fiction. In my reading of it only four of his stories are truly superior: "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," "America!," "The Statues," and "A Bitter Farce," all written, I believe, before the age of thirty. Moreover, in the later stories, such as "The Child Is the Meaning of this Life" and those collected in his last volume Successful Love, the prose becomes flatter and...
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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. Schwartz is the philosopher of that generation and his work never made the kind of surface and stylistic changes which Lowell and Berryman made. Neither the ironic flamboyant personality of Berryman, the historical energy of Lowell, nor the Frost-like monologues of Jarrell are found in Schwartz. Instead, Schwartz presents abstractions of philosophy through language charged with the hopeful energies of love and the annihilating pessimism of egotistical despair. (p. 119)
Michael Collier, in Agenda, Winter-Spring, 1977.
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 sharing and comparing of thought—conversation. They are highly internalized both in location (inside apartments) and in characterization. With minimal description of landscape or of the physical traits of characters, the fiction relies on internal analysis and conversation for revelation. To a large extent the events themselves have little significance except as their meanings are fully analyzed by the characters; the movement of the mind is the highest form of action….
Section one [of the story's ten sections] displays the multiscience in both the complex style and in the ideas and beliefs which give direction to the work. The disarming first paragraph—"In this our life there are no beginnings but only departures entitled beginnings, wreathed in the formal emotions thought to be appropriate and often forced....
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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...
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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...
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