Delmore Schwartz: The Paradox of Precocity

Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz

edited by Donald A. Dike, edited by David H. Zucker, with an Appreciation by Macdonald Dwight
University of Chicago, 500 pp., $10.00

This book, a selection of the late Delmore Schwartz’s essays and reviews, has been much too long in the making. Its author, who died of a heart attack in 1966 at the age of fifty-three, 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. However, we now learn from the editors of this volume that in his later and terribly lonely years he was rather anxious to see his better essays reprinted, while at the same time he was continually inventing new grounds for delay, withholding himself from the task of selection and arrangement until “the plan for publication had regretfully to be suspended.”

To some extent these circumstances (in which the pathogenic element is scarcely to be missed by anyone who knew him well) account for the fact that even his most noteworthy essays are hardly ever to be found in any of the all too numerous anthologies of criticism that have appeared in the past two decades. Hence it is only now that his critical aptitudes and inclinations can be properly appreciated.

I first met Schwartz in 1938, when he was only twenty-four years old, and I was at once struck by his extreme precocity. It was his most conspicuous trait. There can be no disagreement with the opinion of the editors of the Selected Essays that Schwartz had “an extraordinarily intelligent and sensitive mind, a mind nurtured on Joyce, Yeats, Rilke, Eliot, the heroes of modernism, but alert to change in the tradition before and after World War II….” They wholly miss, however, his precocity, which does not even enter their discussion. Yet it might be claimed that it is this very precocity which lifted him to such high ground when he was relatively very young and which began to fail him rather rapidly precisely when others reach their creative maturity.

It is not my intention here to generalize either about the causes or consequences of precocity: I am merely noting an outstandingly paradoxical case of it. Whether Schwartz’s early literary triumph and later decline stand in any …

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