Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1787
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 sought it, and he went through a succession of different psychiatrists. One of the most pathetic incidents in the book occurs after his second wife leaves him, having been subjected to a “reign of terror” for years by her mentally unbalanced husband. She left word that she would not see him again unless he entered a hospital, and Delmore, in a panic, violently besieged the hotel room of a man he and his wife barely knew, having invented the improbable tale of an adulterous affair between them. Just as he was about to be hauled off to the police station, he informed the detective: “My psychiatrist tells me that I’m not crazy, I’m just angry.” That same day, he was committed to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City.
Before he descended to these depths, however, Delmore Schwartz made a remarkable name for himself among New York literati. With the publication of his first volume at the age of twenty-five, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, he was heralded as the most promising young American poet. He received praise from luminaries such as Allen Tate, Mark Van Doren, John Crowe Ransom, and Philip Rahv. His circle of acquaintanceship was highly impressive. He was at one time associated with the most outstanding group of intellectuals, critics, poets, and novelists of the time, including Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman.
Schwartz’s writings were mythological presentations of his own life. “His only subject was himself—quite undisguised,” he recorded in his journal, and he conceived of his own experience as “fabulous at every point,” celebrating his “detailed and avid memory, his endless tracking down of motives.” His commitment to his writing was absolute, and understandably so, since through his work he channeled his pent-up frustrations and anxieties for as long as he was able. The autobiographical nature of his writings helped him to impose some discipline upon what must have seemed unmanageable drives and influxes of emotion. He experienced at times, even during his college years, long bouts of depression during which he was “trying to feel,” and wondering if he had some deficiency of intellect or sensibility. He subjected his work to impossible standards, measuring his own poems against what he read with unsparing self-criticism. He turned out an impressive amount of writing, including poems, short stories, and excellent literary criticism. The literary criticism, in particular, put aside the self-conscious mannerisms and self-centeredness that sometimes flawed his imaginative works, in favor of confidence and restraint. He published essays on subjects ranging from the aesthetics of poetry to particular poets (Rimbaud, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke), fiction writers (Ring Lardner, John Dos Passos, André Gide, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner), and movie people (W. C. Fields and Mary Pickford). Like his conversational style, his essays and reviews were formidable and incisive, with a masterful sense of language, yet with the strident, humorous, rough edge that so typified his manner of expression.
Schwartz’s poetry and short stories were published in the most respectable literary journals of the period, as were his essays. He was a distinguished contributor to the Partisan Review, where he later became poetry editor, holding that post for more than a decade. He also contributed with regularity to The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Common Sense, The Nation, The Sewanee Review, and The New York Times Book Review. His most popular books, written early in his career, were published by New Directions under the auspices of James Laughlin, and included A Season in Hell (a translation of Rimbaud), 1939; In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (chiefly poetry), 1939; Shenandoah (a play), 1941; Genesis, Book One (poetry), 1943; and The World Is a Wedding (short stories), 1948. In addition, Schwartz filled notebooks and journals to the very end of his life, and he heavily annotated the volumes in his extensive library.
It was supposed to be part of Schwartz’s charm that he was crazy, and one can easily see from Atlas’ account that he was cultivated for this notoriety by that East Coast crowd of eccentric academics in the 1940’s and 1950’s—America’s answer to the Bloomsbury circle. The alienated Jew, the bohemian, the poète maudit, the modern intellectual hero—Schwartz embodied any number of these desirable and therefore popular epithets. But most of all, he was celebrated during his lifetime as a professional maniac. The legend lives on most recently in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, whose hero closely resembles the poet in his later years when Bellow knew him.
Schwartz’s religion was his art, and he used to believe that he could solve life’s problems by sitting at the typewriter and working them through. Poetry animated the past and imbued it with form, discipline, and instructive insight. Art allowed him to escape from the world while promising him salvation: his aspiration was to discover in past experience the remedy for his suffering soul, and only when he could no longer write did he begin the long descent into madness that led to his premature death. Atlas somewhat rushes through these last years, describing an indiscriminate series of academic positions, women, and cheap hotel rooms: Schwartz could never hold onto anything long, and this problem worsened toward the end of his life. He was addicted to drugs and drinking, and possibly the psychotic condition of his last years was in part drug-induced.
It would have been interesting for Atlas to speculate in greater detail on the nature of his subject’s psychopathological condition, since the poet was a devotee of Freud and his own work was so analytically inspired. This tendency to treat insubstantially the crucial etiological factors which destroyed Schwartz, who was himself so obsessed by them, is a flaw in Atlas’ presentation. Such an exploration might have accounted for the poet’s inability to achieve first-rate status as an American writer; the question is ubiquitous and perplexing, given Schwartz’s apparently undaunted preparation and ambition. Had Atlas investigated this, he might have avoided leaving his reader with uneasy feelings about the writer’s artistic as well as personal self-destruction. On the deeper level, Schwartz had no chance for enduring success from the start: the high-powered intellectual society in which he lived, which rather cruelly delighted in taking up the poète maudit, effectively camouflaged for a while the lack of enjoyment and emotional capacity, and therefore true creativity, of this pitiable man. A tribute to Delmore Schwartz is his valiant, lonely struggle to develop subliminal channels for so long in order to stay a severe constitutional impairment.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13
Booklist. LXXIV, November 1, 1977, p. 451.
Kirkus Reviews. XLV, September 15, 1977, p. 1016.
Library Journal. November 15, 1977, p. 2347.
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