Delmore Schwartz Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Delmore David Schwartz, who once confessed that his only subject was himself, owed his birth to a fluke, a fact that he never tired of recounting. To conceive, Rose Schwartz needed an operation, which she financed by selling a French war bond, the gift of an overseas uncle. Since Harry Schwartz was unaware of Rose’s ploy, Delmore’s birth was the result of a deception that fascinated and repelled the poet for the rest of his life. Life with argumentative and histrionic parents is translated into the art of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” where the boy-narrator watches his parents’ courtship unfold on the screen of an imaginary theater. When they decide, despite lingering doubts, to marry, the boy leaps from his seat screaming at them to reconsider. Perhaps the most traumatic episode of Schwartz’s childhood occurred one summer day in 1921 when Rose dragged him into a roadside café and found her husband with another woman, whom she denounced as a whore. Young Hershey Green in Genesis learns that this incident will critically influence his later life. Schwartz’s father left home permanently in 1923 when Delmore was nine. Like his parents, Schwartz was to doubt the wisdom of marriage; both of his own marriages were conceived in uncertainty and terminated in divorce.

Brilliant but erratic, Schwartz decided early to become a poet, although he majored in philosophy, earning a B.A. degree from New York University in 1935. He started graduate study at Harvard but left in March, 1937, without taking a degree, and returned to New York, where his criticism, poetry, and fiction soon began appearing in magazines. By the early 1940’s, Schwartz’s life had assumed the sort of pattern it would maintain thereafter, eddying between Cambridge, where he taught composition and advanced writing from 1940 to 1947, and New York, where he served as poetry editor of the Partisan Review from 1943 to 1955.

During his adolescence, Schwartz, the...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

From earliest youth, Delmore Schwartz’s entire identity was shaped by his expectation that he would become a great American writer. Tied in with this grandiose fantasy was the anticipation of inheriting great wealth. Although his father had been a millionaire, the crash of the stock market in 1929 eroded much of his fortune, and a dishonest executor dissipated the remaining funds. Schwartz, however, continued to hope for his legacy until as late as 1946. His childhood was much damaged by his parents’ arguments. When Delmore was nine, in 1923, his father left, but his mother resisted a divorce until 1927.

Schwartz attended the University of Wisconsin and then transferred to New York University, where he received his B.A. in 1935. That same year he finally received a few thousand dollars from his father’s estate and enrolled in Harvard graduate school in philosophy, having to leave school in March, 1937, however, because of debts. From 1940 to 1947 Schwartz taught at Harvard as a Briggs-Copeland Fellow. Schwartz’s first marriage—to Gertrude Buckman on June 14, 1938—ended in divorce. On June 10, 1949, he married Elizabeth Pollet. Schwartz was a frequent contributor to Partisan Review, of which he was an editor from 1946 to 1955. Later, from 1962 to 1966, he taught at Princeton and Syracuse Universities. He died at fifty-two without having fulfilled his great early promise. A paranoid failure, he was destroyed by drugs, drink, and many shock treatments.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The saga of Delmore Schwartz’s life reflects the Jewish American experience of the 1930’s. Schwartz was the son of Romanian immigrants, and his career unfolded against the backdrop of political and social tensions of the Depression. Thus, much of his writing articulates the drama of alienation; poetic realism and psychological intensity are common characteristics. The shadow of Fyodor Dostoevski looms over Schwartz’s literary figures—human archetypes of internalized chaos and ritualistic narcissism. Schwartz is often associated with the confessional school of his generation; the school includes John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell. He fits squarely into the Jewish intellectual milieu of the post-World War I era, which produced many luminaries.

Schwartz grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and completed his education at New York University. In 1935, he entered Harvard University to study philosophy and, despite impressive achievements, left after two years, without receiving an advanced degree. Throughout his life he held numerous university and college teaching positions but was reluctant to commit himself to an academic career. His writings suggest a bohemian strain in his personality that drove him toward self-discovery instead of the regularity of a permanent job.

The publication of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities galvanized Schwartz’s career. Within several years, he was recognized as a seminal figure. In 1943, he became an editor of the Partisan Review. The publication of The World Is a Wedding, a collection of semiautobiographical stories, and Summer Knowledge led to numerous awards and several distinguished lectureships.

Schwartz’s volatile personality is apparent in the disenchanted loneliness of his artistic imagery, vividly depicted by Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), in which Von Humboldt Fleisher’s self-destruction is modeled after Schwartz’s pathetic decline. He often hurt those who loved him best, and this led to the dissolution of two marriages, insomnia, acute paranoia, heavy drinking, drug abuse, and failing health. From 1962 to 1965, he was a visiting professor of English at Syracuse University. He was popular with students, but his poetic talents had clearly deteriorated. Many of his later works seem like old pictures reframed, although he retained the brilliant flashes of a virtuoso. He died isolated and alone.