Letters of Delmore Schwartz

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

That Delmore Schwartz’s letters should be so full of eloquent descriptions of events and places, of impassioned analyses of himself and others, and of concise and carefully reasoned literary criticism may be a surprise to those who know only the stereotyped clichés about this epitome of America’s “lost generation,” which included his friends and associates John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell. Although Schwartz published before any of them (In Dreams Begin Responsibilities; 1938), he lived long enough to believe himself to be the greatest failure of that group. Nevertheless, he left behind a body of creative poetry and prose, of critical essays, and a voluminous correspondence which is of importance in understanding not only Schwartz and his works but also his associates and his era.

Letters were important to Schwartz. In 1937, when he wrote, “I have the feeling that letter writing aspires to conversation,” he was beginning to fulfill his early promise. By 1951, toward the end of his most productive period, he wondered about his correspondence being read in “international salons and boudoirs of the future.Will they recognize my prime feelings as a correspondentseeking to secure some word from the real world?” He was excessively worried that some readers would see only his negative characteristics and was almost unwilling to believe that others might see his good traits. By 1959, he noted: “Letter writing is an inferior form of friendship, at least for me.” In these comments regarding his letters, the reader can trace what Schwartz himself saw as an irreversible downward curve of his life and career. Speaking in his own voices (authoritarian, pleading, angry, humorous) Schwartz’s living presence stands before the reader of Robert Phillips’ edition of the Letters of Delmore Schwartz in a manner that biography can only weakly imitate.

Indeed, Schwartz’s letters do reveal much of himself: his famous sense of humor; his ideals and standards for creative and critical writing; his problematic relationships with wives, other writers, publishers, and academia. Comments on his era range beyond literature—from World War II, the Ezra Pound treason trial, and Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for president to prejudice against Jews and the New York Yankees baseball team. His angry denunciations of others are balanced by his often comically Machiavellian schemes to advance himself and his friends in jobs and in publishing. Outbursts of destructive anger are balanced by spontaneous enthusiasm and almost vaudevillian humor. Certainly, no reader of his letters will find Schwartz a one-sided man. He emerges as complex as the political and literary era in which he lived. Politically, he rejected the optimistic Marxism of most of his elders at the end of the Depression, rejected the patriotic fervor of World War II, and rejected the optimistic complacency of the Eisenhower years. He enthusiastically embraced literary politics, from his ingenuous cultivation of heroes to his elaborate schemes against those whom he perceived as enemies bent on persecuting him.

James Atlas, in his biography entitled Delmore Schwartz (1977), analyzes Schwartz’s paranoid, manic-depressive behavior as essentially caused by drug and alcohol abuse. Unless Phillips’ selection is biased, and there is no evidence that it is, Schwartz was quite candid about discussing alcohol abuse but never mentioned sleeping pills or Dexedrine dependence, even when discussing his psychiatric treatments. From these letters, it would appear that Schwartz was largely unaware of the dangers of mixing drugs and alcohol. In an effort to cure his mental illness, he analyzed seasonal cycles of his psyche, took injections for a glandular condition diagnosed by one doctor, read Sigmund Freud’s works, and underwent Freudian psychoanalysis—all to no avail. Schwartz’s inner conflicts and uncontrolled psyche affected almost every facet of his life. “The demon of the absolute has me in thrall,” he reported early in life, with none of the sense of foreboding that the reader feels.

Dedicating his life to poetry, Schwartz found himself famous at the age of twenty-three for a short story. Desiring not to be merely an influential poet but a great one, such as T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, he immersed himself in a translation of Arthur Rimbaud, for which his French was inadequate, and a long narrative poem, Genesis (1943), of which only book 1 was published. Craving recognition as an outstanding critic, he postponed finishing contracted reviews and essays, unsatisfied or “ill” again; his thrice-reworked book on Eliot was never published. Searching, often frantically, for teaching jobs, he would suddenly flee from them with no notice, as he did at Harvard University in 1947 and at Syracuse University in 1966. Desperate for marriage and family, he pursued the one woman who always disclaimed interest in both; finally wedding her, he immediately began to distance himself emotionally from her. When was he divorced, he felt so guilty and ashamed that he did not want his Harvard colleagues, his mother, or his draft board to know of his failure. His second marriage followed the same pattern, ending in a paranoid-aggressive situation that finally led his wife to have Schwartz forcibly taken to Bellevue Hospital, a detention that embroiled him in an alienating series of legal suits against his wife, James Laughlin, Saul Bellow, William Styron, Perry Miller, and Harry Levin.

From the letters, the reader learns that Schwartz was often aware of what was happening to him...

(The entire section is 2299 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book World. XV, January 13, 1985, p. 6.

Library Journal. CIX, December, 1984, p. 2273.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, December 30, 1984, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, November 9, 1984, p. 54.