Delmore Schwartz

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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.)

Philip Rahv

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[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...

(This entire section contains 1372 words.)

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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 volumeSuccessful Love, the prose becomes flatter and flatter, the narrative movement slows down, dramatic impact is lost in tiresome repetitiousness; and in the novella The World Is a Wedding some of the characters are barely distinguishable from one another as they carry on a prolonged dialogue that is excessively, even compulsively, "literary" in the pejorative sense of that term. (pp. 19-20)

He was not endowed with the capacity to create a solid fictional world seemingly self-governing in structure and possessed of an energy supple enough to establish a necessary congruity between interior and external event and circumstance. In Schwartz's narratives the best writing (and effects) is mostly achieved in lyrical moments and in passages embodying the emotional and intellectual pathos of self-recognition or self-identification.

In other words, his fiction at its best is "personal" in a sense which seldom applies to good narrative prose. For this reason perhaps it is very revealing as biography, more so, it seems to me, than his poems, in which his obsessive search for his true self is transposed into a type of metaphor and image that tends to gloss over the specificity of the person writing in favor of a certain kind of indented generality about the human condition as a whole….

Schwartz's intricate inner life … might be described as a kind of unremitting self-reflexive internal labor … to which I believe both the origin and the imaginative source of his most expressive stories can be traced.

Consider the climactic scene in "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," where the protagonist, easily identifiable with the author himself, watching on the movie screen a series of incidents in the courtship of his future parents, stands up in the theater, much to the discomfiture of his neighbors in the audience, and loudly cries: "Don't do it. It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal and two children whose characters are monstrous." This startling intervention by the dreaming protagonist is by no means to be taken as a literary flourish, a finely devised ending, or some kind of symbolic statement concerning the human condition. It is the writer's adverse yet most intimate confession, the one psychodynamic form open to him for attaining transcendence….

Schwartz, in his more abstract musings, dreamed of a different kind of life, a life in which "the idea of love" held sway, but at the same time he was persuaded that "the ideas of success and failure are the two most important things in America." This distressing state of affairs, in which the real so crudely mocks the ideal, is among the more haunting themes of his creative work. (p. 20)

That he greatly admired Eliot's poetry goes without saying, but what struck me in his truly obsessive talk about Eliot was the note of suspicion it sounded, the elusive hints of literary politics and the gossipy stories that plainly had no foundation in fact about the man behind the career, a man, by the way, he had never known. There was something in these palpably absurd stories, abounding with "delusions of reference," to use a Freudian phrase, that contained in embryo the paranoia that later overwhelmed him….

[As] he grew older his self-concern mounted, so much so that the tendency to ritualize, if I may put it that way, his own unhappiness became more and more marked in the later poetry and fiction. This may help to explain their evident flatness of style and debility of emotional force.

However, he did not falter to the same degree in his criticism. After all, the critical medium permits only a minimum of subjectivity. Moreover, in any case, regarding himself as a creative writer above all and therefore attaching no ultimate importance to articles and reviews, he was able to approach the writing of them with greater relaxation and, curiously enough, in a more disciplined spirit. On the surface his essays are marked by a kind of deceptive simplicity, yet an attentive reading cannot but verify their rare precision of statement and shrewdness of insight. (p. 21)

In his function as a critic Schwartz was far more disinterested than most of his contemporaries. Indifferent to "grand theory" and fashions in "methodology," he was singularly free of ideological prejudice. Also, he was sufficiently well-educated in philosophy to spot with ease the metaphysical presuppositions that some critics unknowingly let slip into their work…. Though highly sensitive to fallacies of discourse, he was never an unkind critic of the sort who is ever on the lookout for faults by way of displaying his superiority. Despite a certain moral insecurity that sometimes retarded his creative efforts, he not only understood literature thoroughly but also loved it passionately. (p. 22)

Philip Rahv, "Delmore Schwartz: The Paradox of Precocity," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1971 NYREV, Inc.), May 20, 1971, pp. 19-22.

Michael Collier

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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.

Bonnie Lyons

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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 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. Darkly rises each moment from the life which has been lived and which does not die, for each event lives in the heavy head forever, waiting to renew itself" … sets the tone immediately, for it must be taken on two levels which contradict each other but do not cancel each other out. The ideas are meant seriously; they suggest Schwartz's tortured sense of time and the perils of consciousness. (p. 261)

Through an artful combination of narrative summary (condensation and generalization) and the full embodiment of a few telling scenes, Schwartz suggests both the inevitable, generally unnoticed movement of time and a sense of timelessness, the revelation of a central moment: he achieves the building sense of development of the novel and the illuminating moment of the short story.

The layers of irony pile up dizzily as the narrator—and characters—peruse the events and other characters from every angle. It is as if the world were a prismatic sphere turned endlessly in the hands of some fascinated Supreme Intelligence. (p. 262)

Schwartz's somersaults of dialectic reach a climax at the final party of the circle [of friends, the characters of the story,] which is breaking up because Rudyard finally accepts a job as a drama teacher outside New York City. Bitter that she has been used by Rudyard and his friends, and particularly that she is still unmarried, Laura tells a distorted version of a Kafka story and compares herself to a cow eaten alive by a hunter and his horse (Rudyard and the circle). Trying to comfort her, Jacob explains "'all of us consume each other,'" and insists that the world is a wedding which means that "'the world is a wedding of God and Nature.'"… He says that Breugel's painting "The Peasant Wedding" exemplifies this notion: "'If you look at it long enough, you will see all the parts that anyone and everyone can have.'"… At this wedding "'if no one can play every part, yet everyone can come to the party … and anyone who does not know that he is at a wedding feast just does not know what is in front of him.'"… (p. 263)

[Beyond] the dialectic between Laura's conscience or consciousness and Jacob's idea of the joy of life is Schwartz's ultimate irony: the fact that Laura's speech is more fitting for Jacob and vice versa. Here is a clear example of the multiscient function of ironic distance. Despite her negative speech, it is Laura who is engaged in the world, who plays a part at the wedding…. In contrast, the idealist Jacob is the true renouncer, the one who stands aside and watches without participating. Despite his life-praising words, he embodies conscience, and consciousness. (pp. 263-64)

This special kind of ironic tension between the "truths" of the characters and their own personalities is evident throughout….

Arguing against a critic who declared that life was too various and vast to be brought as a whole within the compass of a novel, Schwartz once explained that "merely the whole truth about a part of life will suffice—and moreover the part can stand for the whole, the symbol being the very essence of literature."… In the short fiction of his first collection, The World is a Wedding, Schwartz has given us this whole truth about a part of life—and that is why his "social history" of the Jewish middle class in New York during the depression years is so much more than that. (p. 264)

Bonnie Lyons, "Delmore Schwartz and the Whole Truth," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1977 by Newberry College), Summer, 1977, pp. 259-64.

David Zucker

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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 heavy presence of time as a defeating force. The central image is of circular movement. Abraham and Orpheus (the moral and poetic imperatives, if you like) are presented as figures who act out of love, mystery, and ignorance of consequences. Although their actions are "the substance of care" they are "poised on nothing, weighted on the air," and they have an intuitive knowledge or faith in the rightness, or perhaps only the inevitability, of their actions. Thus the poet can invoke their "learned presence" as a comfort in his dilemma. That dilemma is never specifically named, and this vagueness is typical of Delmore's poems. Yet we somehow can intuit the situation: the evocation of loneliness, helplessness, philosophical and imaginative uncertainty, awareness of the infinite choices made in time.

In Genesis and Coriolanus these concerns are dramatized more concretely. But the resigned acceptance of the darkness and the ignorance of the Ego and Id are still present, as in "Abraham and Orpheus." The images in that poem, as in so many other lyrics …, have an uncertain focus, the dreamlike intensity of surrealism. (His stories, of course, develop this magnificently—"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" and "The Statues" being two famous examples.) But I should guess that they derive less from "surrealism" than from the monumental symbolism of Yeats and the fragmented and allusive symbolism of Eliot. Typically, Delmore evokes images of the city that are both dehumanizing and terrifying but also form the backdrop for his heightened awareness of himself as vulnerable and fragile. They have [a] … disembodied, vacant quality…. They also express specifically Delmore's intense insomniac sense of the terrors of night and the qualified promises of early morning. (pp. 96-7)

[We note] his lyric evocations of solitude, of great imaginative masters, of obsession with being caught in a twilight world between past, present, and future. He is constantly dissolving the distinction between universal and personal history. Shadowy philosophers (Plato, Socrates, Marx, Freud, James, Whitehead, Aristotle) are evoked throughout his work to bear witness to events and moods that in themselves appear mysterious, impulsive, melancholy, retrospective. They are appealed to, in effect, to impose intellectual order on a patchwork and exhausted self that yet has immortal longings for beauty, tenderness, grace, and power. Yet these longings too often appear to disguise a brutish, angry, and resentful self…. [In "The Heavy Bear"] Delmore conceives of the self almost as a neo-Platonic spirit which begs release from the gross material (and the womb) enclosing it.

This imprisonment is found not only in the self but also in the family. The figure of the dominant but sinister father is everpresent, of course, in Genesis. But his symbolic presence is felt everywhere. He is softened in the philosopher-presences, but is still judging and overseeing. The mother is the soft, inviting figure for the child to hide in, to protect him from the father and the turbulent complexities of the outside world, especially the world of the city. Moreover, the family itself is connected to the concept of historical determinism, the family and history forming an intricate tissue that the poet cannot escape from, though he would like to. As in "The Ballad of the Children of the Czar," Delmore places the psychological issue clearly in the historical context: that of his own Rumanian grandfather, the events of the Russian revolution, and his family's uncertain place in America…. [The] antagonism between his tormented self—willful, impulsive, yet knowing his own psychological entrapment—and his view of history as "unforgiven," as a determinist force that he cannot escape, and of his family that he is inextricably if rebelliously part of, is the dominant theme of Delmore's work. He is—though the phrase is overworked—the Alienated Man.

Yet there is a strong countermovement to this alienation. It is his romantic lyricism, deeply melancholy but at the same time celebrating the transcendent power of the self over circumstance and the very determinism that oppresses him. This lyric transcendence is best expressed in the title of his selected poetry—Summer Knowledge. Specifically, it is the idea of ripeness, the full maturity of a moment of perception that sees life as beautiful and whole and precious. This reaches one peak in the prose interlude in Coriolanus called "Pleasure," in which he evokes the joys of being alive as a response to the tragedy of Coriolanus himself. Yet one should note that even here, in his manic phase, so to speak, Delmore knows that he must recall the everpresence of the deterministic and tragic.

Pleasure believes in friends, pleasure creates communities, pleasure crumbles faces into smiles, pleasure links hand in hand, pleasure restores, pain is the most selfish thing. And yet, I know, all this is nothing, nothing consoles one, and our problem and pain are still before us. (pp. 98-100)

Delmore's lyric and romantic hope should be viewed as equipoised throughout his work against the despairing certainty of a deterministic and hopelessly entangled ego, itself caught within the net of history and family. The poet's task is essentially "a fixed hallucination / Made by the passion of imagination," as the Chorus finally comments on the plight of the "Sleepless Atlantic Boy," Hershey Green, at the end of Genesis. The central perception left in that poem is that all experience is passing and is to be held in deep suspicion at the same instant that it is relished. (pp. 100-01)

Much could be said negatively about Delmore's elaboration of commonplace ideas [in his criticism]. Yet the very fact that he takes pains to remind his readers of what they may take for granted is a sign of the importance the issues had for him. Modernism, in fact, is the condition which Delmore thought he must define and redefine, no matter if the subject be meter or metaphor, or the themes typical of the pre-Romantic or post-Romantic imaginations…. He argues with great precision and a sense of the importance of the commonplace, for instance, that from the "isolation of poetic sensibility the obscurity of modern poetry also arises."… [As] an extremely tactful essayist, he steadfastly avoids discussing himself or his own work. In this fastidiousness he is like his critical and poetic mentor, Eliot, whose authoritative detachment he consistently admired. (p. 101)

Delmore made [a conscious effort] as a critic to be generous to both the ideas and the particular forms that poets and poems took. He was faithful to his sense of history and to the infinite ways poets took in interacting with history. At the same time that he succeeded so admirably in the primary task of the critic to be a good elucidator and a generous spirit, he also succeeded in commenting indirectly on his own dilemmas as a poetic man. He saw his fellow artists as he saw himself—trying to find a language faithful to the particular torments of our time that his own life so tragically embodied. (pp. 102-03)

David Zucker, "Self and History in Delmore Schwartz's Poetry and Criticism," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1978, by The University of Iowa), Fall, 1977, pp. 95-103.

Irving Howe

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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 together mother-wit from ancestral sources and literary sophistication from European capitals…. He soon became part of the mythology of a literary-intellectual generation, and naturally enough, once the next generation came along, it did not hesitate to stress that the myth had partly been based on misapprehensions….

Schwartz's literary ambitions, like the ambitions of an entire immigrant generation, brought together purity and craftiness, a love for the thing itself and an eye for the main chance. (p. 458)

[Schwartz left a] small body of work, not the sort that even intense admirers would claim to be "major", yet rich in the flavours of New York life, marked by a strong ironic intelligence, and in its sum making a difference in one's perception of things.

There are five or six first-rate stories, notably "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities", "America! America!", and "The Child is the Meaning of This Life". These deal with the comic pathos and hopelessness of the conflict between immigrant families and emancipated children, and the occasional recognition by the latter that they have left behind not only ghetto parochialism but a culture of value. Wry, depressed, insidiously ratiocinative, these stories have little visible plot but much entanglement of characters, stylized dialogue replacing action, and a major dependence on passages of commentary, deflated epigrams, and skittish ventures into moral rhetoric. There is a strong awareness of the sheer foolishness of human affairs, the radical ineptitude of our being, such as reminds one a bit of Dostoevsky's use of buffoonery. But there is also something rare in contemporary writing, and that is a shy aspiration towards spiritual goodness and nobility—perhaps an echo of immigrant voices….

[Schwartz's verse] is flecked with humour, graced with modesty. At their best, these poems are both serious and funny on a high level of intellectual consciousness, bringing together declamation, lyric introspectiveness, and bits of vaudeville. (p. 459)

Irving Howe, "Purity and Craftiness," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 28, 1978, pp. 458-59.


Delmore Schwartz Short Fiction Analysis


Schwartz, Delmore (Vol. 2)