Delmore Schwartz (1913–1966)

In the fall of 1937, when Partisan Review was about to be revived as a non-Communist literary magazine, a writer with the unlikely name of Delmore Schwartz sent in a short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which I and my fellow editors had the sense to recognize as a masterpiece and to print in our first issue. There were also contributions from Wallace Stevens, Edmund Wilson, Agee, Trilling, Picasso, Farrell, Mary McCarthy, and William Troy—we tried to make it a “strong” issue, for obvious tactical reasons—but I think Delmore’s story deserved its primacy. It is as good as a story can be, I’d say after reading it again for the fifth or sixth time, comparable with Kafka, Babel, or Through the Looking Glass.

I think it is the year 1909 [it begins]. I feel as if I were in a moving-picture theatre, the long arms of light crossing the darkness and spinning, my eyes fixed on the screen. It is a silent picture, as if an old Biograph one, in which the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes, and one flash succeeds another with sudden jumps, and the actors, too, seem to jump about, walking too fast. The shots are full of rays and dots, as if it had been raining when the picture is photographed. The light is bad.

The movie is about his parents’ courtship, mostly an excursion to Coney Island that ends in a disastrous quarrel, a clash of temperaments, and obstinacies, that is all the more ominous because the causes are so trivial. As he watches this banal home movie that tells more than it means to, the author becomes more and more upset, weeping at first (“There, there young man,” an old lady sitting next to him says, patting his shoulder, “all of this is only a movie, only a movie”), and then shouting warnings, to the scandal of the audience, at the images of his parents-to-be as they flicker on their unalterable course across the screen: “Don’t do it! It’s not too late to change your mind, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous…. Don’t they know what they are doing? Why doesn’t my mother go after my father and beg him not to be angry?…. Doesn’t my father know what he is doing?” The story ends with his being ejected by the usher (“hurrying down the aisle with his flashlight”) and his waking up “into the bleak winter morning of my twenty-first birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.” An original literary idea that works imaginatively, I think, and that combines the freest, most specific self-revelation with a form that controls the expression of these deep, personal fears partly by “distancing” them in time and medium—a movie is just what suits—and partly by a classical concision—the story is only seven pages long—in which every word counts, as in the opening…

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