Delmore Schwartz

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Schwartz, Delmore (Vol. 4)

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Schwartz, Delmore 1913–1966

Schwartz, an important American poet, playwright, and short story writer, is best known for In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

There have been other tragic generations before the one we identify with Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Delmore Schwartz, perhaps Sylvia Plath as well. Yeats, in Autobiographies, called his "The Tragic Generation," and it was the last sentence in that chapter that A. Alvarez made the title of his book, The Savage God, on writers and suicide.

Theirs has been a tragic generation, an overpublicized truth, and with the exception of Lowell, a generation where the sons died before the fathers (in this case, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate). It's even possible that, having listened to their voices over and over, we know too much about them, or at least more than we should. Since Lowell, Berryman, Schwartz, and Jarrell were all close friends, and since the mode in which all of them expressed themselves was intimate, involved with self-revelation (I hope that M. L. Rosenthal's unfortunate label, "Confessional poetry," is now no longer in use), we come to learn their histories through their own poems. The biographies are there to be read. Lowell addresses Berryman in the Notebook, Berryman addresses God, who "wrecked our generation"; somehow, though, the magnitude of what happened to these lives is lost, and if we've learned to value the poems themselves, to be aware in our own time that Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, Life Studies, and Jarrell's long meditative poems are American classics, still I sense that our appreciation of their work is incomplete.

What informs this suspicion above all is that Delmore Schwartz has been so neglected; nothing demonstrates this more than the fact that virtually no book of his remains in print….

In [Schwartz's] seven books I discovered a voice so brilliant, ardent, and complicated that it threatened to drown out all others. It seems to me now that Schwartz's idiom was the most accomplished and unusual of that celebrated generation, and that his odd, comical, tortured sensibility was, at least when obsessed with self-examination, the most honest….

The question to be asked is the same Schwartz asked about Ring Lardner, whose life ended in a similar decline: "why so successful and gifted a human being suffered so much and so helplessly."

There are some obvious sources to examine; no writer ever revealed more than Schwartz about his own psychoanalytic history, the subject which lies at the center of all he wrote…. So pressing was the desire to relive traumas rooted in the child's earliest development that Schwartz turned often to verse drama, simply in order to be on stage, tormented soliloquist in a play of his own devising…. All the motifs and properties of Schwartz's later work are in [his] play [Shenandoah]: the masterful, controlled blank verse passages alternating with prose commentaries; the comical, extended metaphors (birth resembles "the descent/ Of a small grand piano from a window"); jokes, in the best tradition of ironic Jewish humor (when someone expresses the hope that the child will live to be 110, Shenandoah admonishes: "He should know better what long life avails,/ The best seats at the funerals of friends"); a serious reliance on Freud; and the sad eloquent meditations on art in its relation to society….

Most of his stories take place during the Depression, and in New York, so that the landscape through which the speaker moves is intensely local: the lower middle-class apartment, awkward immigrant parents, the cut-glass chandeliers...

(This entire section contains 1253 words.)

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above the dining room table. Shenandoah exhorts the audience to "see the Particular as Universal," and it was this quality that Schwartz possessed in such ample measure. His portrait of that era accomplishes more than a chronicle or memoir ever could because it's anchored in references which appear in their natural context: at a party, someone takes down Edmund Wilson'sAxle's Castle from the shelf and reads a notable passage aloud; in The World is a Wedding, none of the loquacious characters, in their twenties, are employed; in A Bitter Farce, Shenandoah teaches a class on Louis Adamic's essay, "Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island," while in another story, New Year's Eve, he becomes "locked in what was soon to be a post-Munich sensibility; complete hopelessness of perception and feeling."

But it is more than some vague social oppression that Schwartz's protagonists feel; their hopelessness is encouraged by those around them, who jealously guard their own insecure selves against any violation. At the disastrous party chronicled in New Year's Eve, Shenandoah laments "the self-pity which wept in him," while "in other cages of the room, other human beings were trying without success to get along with each other." It's no accident that the corners in which these tortured, clever, ineffectual people spar more than converse are described as cages; Schwartz's view of human relationships emerges in his prose with a terrible poignance, and among the consistent features of the situations he examined are entrapment and the claustral effects of Others on his nervous personae. In The Child is the Meaning of This Life, where the precocious Jasper Hart grows up amidst an oppressive environment of insensitivity and failure, only later coming to realize that "he looked at the adult world as he had had to look at his mother, suspicious, rejected, ambitious to win more than most human beings desired," these Others are family; in The World is a Wedding, the Others are contemporaries, whose moral ineptitude and lack of grace impose themselves, omen-like, on their creator, so that "each event lies in the heavy head forever, waiting to renew itself." Nothing illustrates this dread before what is inexorable, the lapses that always disfigure our lives, more than the story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities….

What renders his work so valuable, what elevates it to a level where it can be compared with major American writers, is Schwartz's acute historical consciousness….

Schwartz was a profoundly learned writer, whose unobtrusive erudition was made to serve his art in a manner quite opposite to Pound's; he was intimate with all those he convoked to listen to the talkative, guilt-ridden self, and especially with Freud….

In the introduction to Genesis, Book One, he noted that "Some authors are fortunate. They live in an age when their beliefs and values are embodied in great institutions and in the way of life of many human beings." It was just this condition, expressed in a consensus about what elements compose a coherent cultural inheritance, that Schwartz missed in contemporary American life; in compensation, he looked to the tradition which could provide what elsewhere was absent, and that tradition was in literature….

His desire to know, to be certain of reality, was possessed of such urgency that it could only fail to be achieved; in "Poetry as Imitation," he had insisted that a poem "involves knowing of some sort," that "the act of writing a poem is an act of knowing," and that the work of art is capable of "making known," disclosing what would otherwise remain indistinct. So he relied on literature to explicate existence, much in the manner of a Talmudic scholar poring over some obscure text; for Schwartz, writing could provide this gloss, it could elicit those truths buried within events….

Delmore Schwartz understood the world's inviolate sadness …; tacit in all he wrote was Kafka's parable of "Infinite Hope, but not for us."

James Atlas, "Delmore Schwartz: The Mind of God," in American Poetry Review, January/February, 1974, pp. 3-5.


Schwartz, Delmore (Vol. 2)


Schwartz, Delmore (Vol. 87)