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.
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.
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.
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."