Delmore Schwartz Schwartz, Delmore (Vol. 87) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Delmore Schwartz 1913–1966

(Full name Delmore David Schwartz) American poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, playwright, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism of Schwartz's career and works from 1981 through 1988. For further information, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 10, and 45.

Best known for poems and stories deeply informed by his experiences as the son of Jewish immigrants, Schwartz often focused on middle-class New York immigrant families whose children are alienated both from their parents and from American culture and society. In his writings Schwartz explored such themes as the importance of self-discovery, the necessity of maintaining hope in the presence of despair, free will versus determinism, and the immanence of the subconscious. Thematically influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Plato, Schwartz's work, particularly his inventive use of symbolism, also displays his admiration for the work of such Modernists as William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot.

Biographical Information

Schwartz was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants whose troubled marriage created a turbulent environment during his childhood. Following his graduation from high school, Schwartz studied philosophy at several universities. In 1937 his short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" appeared in the inaugural issue of Partisan Review. This work was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and is widely considered Schwartz's finest achievement. He published frequently and taught composition at a variety of universities, including Harvard and Princeton. Schwartz also served as the editor of Partisan Review from 1943 to 1947 and as poetry editor and film critic for the New Republic from 1955 to 1957. Although the quality of his fiction and poetry is generally considered to have declined after the late 1940s, Schwartz continued to earn respect for his insightful literary criticism, which he had been writing and contributing to periodicals since the mid-1930s. Plagued by insomnia, manic depression, and a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, Schwartz died of a heart attack in 1966.

Major Works

Schwartz's poetry and short stories are characterized by the themes of separation and isolation, often featuring a Jewish-American protagonist struggling to find his place in American society. The title piece of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and Other Stories (1938) is an account of an evening spent viewing a film about the narrator's parents. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities also contains some of Schwartz's most highly praised and frequently anthologized verse, including "The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me," a tragicomic lyric concerning the conflict between mind and flesh; and "In the Naked Bed, in Plato's Cave," based on Plato's famous allegory on the limits of human perception. In Shenandoah, or, the Naming of the Child (1941), a surrealistic verse play, the narrator, Shenandoah Fish, revisits the past and witnesses the acquisition of his unorthodox name and his circumcision. Through such events, Schwartz examines conflicts between the Jewish heritage and modern American culture. Jewish life in the United States is also the subject of The World Is a Wedding (1948), a short story collection that is sometimes regarded as a novella in ten sections. "The Child Is the Meaning of This Life" displays Schwartz's interest in family relationships, the role of the artist, and feelings of alienation; "America! America!," which further examines the character of Shenandoah Fish, focuses on a writer's sense of isolation from his fellow New Yorkers, his family, and his Jewish heritage.

Critical Reception

While the story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" has generally been praised, Schwartz's overall critical reception has been mixed. His literary criticism has always been regarded as perceptive and reliable—informed not only by his immense knowledge of individual writers but also by his understanding of cultural traditions and trends—but the quality of his later poetry and fiction is considered to have steadily declined. Nevertheless, such posthumously released works as Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz (1970) and The Ego Is Always at the Wheel (1986), as well as James Atlas's biography Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977) and Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift (1975)—the protagonist of which was based on Schwartz—revived interest in his career and provided further evidence of his insight into the conflicts associated with Jewish-American identity. As David Lehman observed: "It is hard not to see Schwartz as an emblematic figure, capable of stirring us in his ravings no less than in his brilliant and original literary creations, meant to reproach and admonish us with the purity and grandeur of his aspirations as well as with the unbanished image of his demise."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and Other Stories (poetry and prose) 1938
Shenandoah, or, the Naming of the Child (one-act verse play) 1941
Genesis, Book One (prose and poetry) 1943
The World Is a Wedding (short stories) 1948
Vaudeville for a Princess, and Other Poems (poetry) 1950
Summer Knowledge: New and Selected Poems, 1938–1958 (poetry) 1959; also published as Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge, 1967
Successful Love, and Other Stories (short stories) 1961
Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz (essays) 1970
Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz (poetry) 1979
Letters of Delmore Schwartz (letters) 1985
The Ego Is Always at the Wheel: Bagatelles (fiction) 1986
Portrait of Delmore: Journals and Notes of Delmore Schwartz, 1939–1959 (journals and correspondence) 1986

Jay L. Halio (review date Summer 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fiction and the Malaise of Our Time," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 622-30.

[In the following review, Halio favorably assesses The World Is a Wedding.]

If literature is the light that imagination shines upon reality, then reading literature inevitably uncovers reality as various, complex, and often strange. Perhaps that is why critics used to refer to the "world" of the writer (some still do), or more grandiloquently to his "universe." Yet in opening a work of literature, of fiction, do we not still look for light that it may shine upon our own world, our own reality, the existence that we daily live? Escapist or sensationalist literature apart, does not fiction bear upon our lives, if not directly, then none the less incisively for being indirect? This is the justification for science fiction that aspires to be taken seriously, but it must also be the justification for any fiction that pretends to serious literature, which mediates between the unsifted experiences of our lives and the recurrent need to find some coherence or at least intelligibility in those experiences. Lacking that sort of literature, Alfred Kazin says ("American Writing Now," The New Republic, October 18, 1980), we suffer from a profound cultural malaise. Best-sellers and the literary hype that goes with them are not symptoms but, along with other examples of the "breakdown of...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Irving S. Saposnik (essay date Spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Delmore Schwartz's America," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 151-55.

[Saposnik is an American educator and critic who specializes in Jewish-American literature. In the following essay, he discusses Schwartz's treatment of Jewish-American identity in his fiction and poetry.]

Of all his contemporaries among the New York intellectuals—those who, as Wallace Markfield puts it, used to run with the Trilling bunch—none was seemingly more bothered by his Jewish-American identity than Delmore Schwartz. While he himself would sometimes joke about his origins—"I am of Russian-Jewish distraction"—others among his friends described...

(The entire section is 2564 words.)

Elisa New (essay date September 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reconsidering Delmore Schwartz," in Prooftext, Vol. 5, No. 3, September, 1985, pp. 245-62.

[In the following essay, New examines Schwartz's fiction in the larger context of American and Jewish-American literature.]

(The entire section is 7669 words.)

Mark Shechner (review date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "More on Delmore," in Partisan Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, 1987, pp. 497-502.

[Shechner is an American educator and critic who specializes in Jewish-American literature. In the following essay, he reviews Portrait of Delmore: Journals and Notes of Delmore Schwartz: 1939–1959.]

It is possible to feel overwhelmed by Delmore Schwartz in death as it was in life. Twenty years after his death on July 11, 1966, the movement to resurrect Schwartz has taken an aggressive turn. The publication of his journals is just a ripple in the tide of Schwartziana that has been swelling since 1975, when Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift brought Schwartz back into public...

(The entire section is 2236 words.)

Mark Ford (essay date 31 March 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "No One Else Can Take a Bath for You," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 7, March 31, 1988, pp. 20-1.

[In the following essay, Ford offers an overview of Schwartz's literary career, focusing on his achievements and limitations as an artist.]

It is unfortunate, really, that Schwartz has filtered into the general public's consciousness more because of the outstanding copy his life has proved for other writers than because of his own work. Saul Bellow's superb roman à clef, Humboldt's Gift, was modelled loosely on his relations with Schwartz in the late Forties and early Fifties, and—his first book after winning the Nobel Prize—was a colossal...

(The entire section is 2186 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Wilson, Raymond. "Delmore Schwartz and Purgatory." Partisan Review LVII, No. 2 (Summer 1990): 363-70.

Analyzes the similarities between Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" and William Butler Yeats's Purgatory.

(The entire section is 79 words.)