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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 significant relation to his deepening neurosis and final collapse into paranoia I have no means of knowing. My concern is primarily with his career as a writer who made a brilliant debut in several literary genres and with the singular circumstances surrounding the debacle that ensued.

Let us take a closer look at that career. At the age of twenty-four he had already written some of his finest poems as well as “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” the most captivating and, in the judgment of most people who know his work well, the best short story he was ever to compose. What is even more surprising is that in that very year he also published what, in my view, are three superb critical pieces: “The Critical Method of R.P. Blackmur” is a definitive essay; another is the long and thoroughly cogent analysis of Yvor Winters’s Primitivism and Decadence; and still another, entitled “John Dos Passos and the Whole Truth,” is as fair in its argument as it is perceptive of that novelist’s strengths and weaknesses—perhaps the most plausible single evaluation of Dos Passos as yet available to us.

Now while it is well-known that many poets have produced their best work in their early twenties, it is only very rarely that a critic has contributed anything memorable at that age. Usually it is not until their early thirties that critics are able to write anything really substantial exhibiting a mature cast of mind. And this is exactly where the paradox of Schwartz’s precocity calls attention to itself in a striking way. The criticism he wrote even as late as 1953 (such as “The Duchess’ Red Shoes,” for instance, an essay on Lionel Trilling as notable for its humor as for its insight into that critic’s social bias) has enduring value, while the poetry he published in his thirties and forties is clearly inferior to his earlier work in that medium. Thus the thematic richness as well as the diction, versification, and rhythmic range of the verse contained in Vaudeville for a Princess (1950) is almost embarrassingly feeble in comparison with such earlier poems in his first collection as “The Heavy Bear that Goes with Me,” “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave,” or “Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses.”

The same goes for his later fiction. In my reading of it only four of his stories are truly superior: “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” “America! America!,” “The Statues,” and “A Bitter Farce,” all written, I believe, before the age of thirty. Moreover, in the later stories, such as “The Child Is the Meaning of this Life” and those collected in his last volume Successful Love, the prose becomes flatter and flatter, the narrative movement slows down, dramatic impact is lost in tiresome repetitiousness; and in the novella The World Is a Wedding some of the characters are barely distinguishable from one another as they carry on a prolonged dialogue that is excessively, even compulsively, “literary” in the pejorative sense of that term.

No, it cannot be said of Schwartz that he was a born writer of fiction. He was not endowed with the capacity to create a solid fictional world seemingly self-governing in structure and possessed of an energy supple enough to establish a necessary congruity between interior and external event and circumstance. In Schwartz’s narratives the best writing (and effects) is mostly achieved in lyrical moments and in passages embodying the emotional and intellectual pathos of self-recognition or self-identification.

In other words, his fiction at its best is “personal” in a sense which seldom applies to good narrative prose. For this reason perhaps it is very revealing as biography, more so, it seems to me, than his poems, in which his obsessive search for his true self is transposed into a type of metaphor and image that tends to gloss over the specificity of the person writing in favor of a certain kind of indented generality about the human condition as a whole. Now that Schwartz’s career is part of literary history and his life and character have acquired a certain interest, it may well be worthwhile to examine some of his stories with an eye to the self-revealing and self-evaluative matter contained in them.

This is of particular pertinence to the volume under review, which opens with Dwight Macdonald’s essay in appreciation, comprising a personal impression of its subject rather than a literary or critical portrait. Macdonald’s appreciation is generous and just on the whole, but in some ways it strikes me as wide of the mark and deficient in the comprehension of his friend’s difficult and extremely problematical character. Above all, Macdonald appears to be quite unaware of Schwartz’s intricate inner life, which might be described as a kind of unremitting self-reflexive internal labor and to which, I believe, both the origin and the imaginative force of his most expressive stories can be traced.

Consider the climactic scene in “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” where the protagonist, easily identifiable with the author himself, watching on the movie screen a series of incidents in the courtship of his future parents, stands up in the theater, much to the discomfiture of his neighbors in the audience, and loudly cries: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal and two children whose characters are monstrous.” This startling intervention by the dreaming protagonist is by no means to be taken as a literary flourish, a finely devised ending, or some kind of symbolic statement concerning the human condition. It is the writer’s adverse yet most intimate confession, the one psychodynamic form open to him for attaining transcendence.

Schwartz, with whom I was associated for more than ten years in the editorial enterprise of Partisan Review, was an off-and-on friend of mine. His rambling talk during the long walks we took from the office of the magazine on West 47th Street to the Village, where we both lived, is still vivid in my mind, and everything he told me about his parents, his brother, and his early experiences tended to reinforce the impression of him I had on first reading his story. Saturnine by temperament, he took an exceedingly comfortless view of the conduct of human beings, of whose motives he was chronically distrustful; and his habit was to denounce endlessly what he saw as their moral lapses even while taking care to exculpate himself.

It is only within his creative work that the vein of self-accusation is to be discovered. At times it comes through even in his poetry, as the following lines, for example, that appear in Genesis:

…I could endure
My dark body’s awkward bru- tality,
I could endure my soul’s black guilt which hoped
The world would end, and all things, screaming, die
Because I was in my ambition stopped
The while my brother, friend, and enemy
Succeeds with seeming spon- taneity,
And wins the girl, acclaim, the world’s applause!

Oddly enough these deep suspicions of himself never entered his conversation, in which he invariably presented himself as a person perpetually harassed but exempt of all blame.*

Schwartz, in his more abstract musings, dreamed of a different kind of life, a life in which “the idea of love” held sway, but at the same time he was persuaded that “the ideas of success and failure are the two most important things in America.” This distressing state of affairs, in which the real so crudely mocks the ideal, is among the more haunting themes of his creative work. In his stories it is often wistfully alluded to and is directly, though briefly, spoken of in The World Is a Wedding. Two characters, Jacob and Edmund, participate in the following dialogue:

Nevertheless the fact remains that practically everyone is unhappy. Now if the idea of love supplanted the ideas of success and failure, how joyous everyone might be! and how different the quality of life!”

You’re just dreaming out loud,” said Edmund to Jacob, thinking again how he had failed once more to be appointed a teacher.

Thus ideal hopes are sardonically dismissed by the real, which the author resists so little as to implicate even small children in his disconsolate submission to the pessimism it evokes in him. For instance, in “The Statues” the protagonist Faber Gottschalk, an unsuccessful dentist of thirty who is clearly another persona of the writer, speaks to a crowd assembled on a street corner:

So I say to you…those who have been in favor of getting rid of this statue, which they avow to be obscene, tell us that the children will be corrupted by it. I will not say in reply that we cannot permit our lives to be determined by what the children will or will not see. Such an argument would be easy, although true enough. I will not advance the argument that those of us who really know children and have lived with them know very well that it is the children, not the adults, nor the statues, who are corrupt, whence it is that our adult lives are a long suffering and chiefly unsuccessful attempt to free ourselves from the utter corruption of childhood, infancy, and the egotism contracted in the womb. I myself remember very well, how at the age of eight, on a visit at my aunt’s, my two female cousins, twins, took me into the closet and taught me certain things of which I must already have been somewhat aware, because I was scarcely surprised by what they did to me.

In writing this speech Schwartz, an assiduous reader of Freud, was probably inspired by his theory of “infantile sexuality,” but if so he had gone considerably beyond it, showing that he had got more out of that theory than Freud had put into it. Actually, there is nothing in Freud’s theory that allows one to draw a moral condemnation of childhood as utterly corrupt, for in Freud’s view “infantile sexuality” belongs to the natural order of things. I think that it was really not sexuality that Schwartz had in mind in the above passage. It seems to me that here he was indirectly affirming his conviction that the delinquency, as he saw it, of his character—the egotism and boundless ambition as well as the guilt—had been entirely determined by his earliest experience. The “family romance” which he never ceased lamenting, extended beyond the limited Freudian conception of it.

Manifestly in his mind’s long reflection on itself, a true inspectio mentis, he could conceive of the idea of freedom, especially liberation from an apparently coercive past, the fatality of his childhood, only as a nebulous hope, the inconceivable dream of redemption of a foredoomed life. Yet at the same time he was disposed to consider his precocity as an endowment conferred upon him once and for all, in compensation perhaps for the delinquencies he detected in himself. Even in this regard he was fated to be disappointed, for he never anticipated the decline of that precocity and to acknowledge it was beyond his powers.

But the boundless ambition that was part of the precocity never left him. He wanted to be a great poet and because of this aspiration he was fascinated above all by T. S. Eliot’s career—the paradigmatic instance of the success he craved. That he greatly admired Eliot’s poetry goes without saying, but what struck me in his truly obsessive talk about Eliot was the note of suspicion it sounded, the elusive hints of literary politics and the gossipy stories that plainly had no foundation in fact about the man behind the career, a man, by the way, he had never known. There was something in these palpably absurd stories, abounding with “delusions of reference,” to use a Freudian phrase, that contained in embryo the paranoia that later overwhelmed him.

Even his singular personal charm, and the slight stutter that served only to draw attention to his frequently extravagant speech, whose undercurrent of humor accentuated all the more his exigent sense of being-in-the-world, could seldom obliterate the worried self-concern that possessed him. And as he grew older his self-concern mounted, so much so that the tendency to ritualize, if I may put it that way, his own unhappiness became more and more marked in the later poetry and fiction. This may help to explain their evident flatness of style and debility of emotional force.

However, he did not falter to the same degree in his criticism. After all, the critical medium permits only a minimum of subjectivity. Moreover, in any case, regarding himself as a creative writer above all and therefore attaching no ultimate importance to articles and reviews, he was able to approach the writing of them with greater relaxation and, curiously enough, in a more disciplined spirit. On the surface his essays are marked by a kind of deceptive simplicity, yet an attentive reading cannot but verify their rare precision of statement and shrewdness of insight.

I have already noted the excellence of his earliest essays, those dealing with Blackmur, Winters, and Dos Passos, and it is necessary to add that later on he wrote extremely well on Eliot’s poetry and literary ideas, on Yeats, and on prose writers like Faulkner and Ring Lardner; and he was among the first to lay bare the class bias or impulsion informing Trilling’s account of the novel, that is, of the social ethos implicit in the genre.

Notable also is his essay on Edmund Wilson, which to my mind is the one truly exhaustive and percipient appraisal of that author’s work in its totality that we have. Toward the end of the piece, after distinguishing clearly between different types of literary criticism and disclosing occasional failures of taste and sensibility in Wilson, Schwartz finally sees him as being at once something more and something less than a literary critic in the accepted sense of the term. His conclusion is worth quoting, at least in part:

But it does not matter, because the whole of Wilson’s work actually represents something else and just as important as literary history and literary criticism. Once we have seen both history and criticism as a device or pretext or convenient form, we can see how Wilson has provided a history of the American of “fundamental decency,” who has come from “the old American life” and has borne this feeling about Life throughout the America of his time, Princeton, the first World War, the Greenwich Village and the New York of the Twenties, the social ferment and the moral disillusion of the Thirties. The actuality of this experience is to be found nowhere else in the writing of our time.

It is as if we were provided…with the history of one of the sons of a hero of Henry James; but this character has not only gone to Europe to bring back the art treasures of the Old World in Axel’s Castle—he has had his moral experience in the Soviet Union, rather than in the Italy of Milly Theale, or the France of Lambert Strether…. Another comparison worth taking with the utmost literalness is to The Education of Henry Adams, for in Wilson we have another and later and more difficult education under circumstances which Adams foresaw but did not live to experience. It is an education without conclusion, but fruitful and illuminating in the concreteness of its experience: the Soviet Union, for example, is something lived through by one kind of American.

In his function as a critic Schwartz was far more disinterested than most of his contemporaries. Indifferent to “grand theory” and fashions in “methodology,” he was singularly free of ideological prejudice. Also, he was sufficiently well-educated in philosophy to spot with ease the metaphysical presuppositions that some critics unknowingly let slip into their work, perhaps because of a simple misunderstanding of philosophical terms or sheer ignorance of the rules of the game. Thus he was able to reproach both Blackmur and Winters for indulging in “philosophy-mongering,” that is for habitually referring to philosophical ideas and definitions in a manner “unfailingly inexact.” Though highly sensitive to fallacies of discourse, he was never an unkind critic of the sort who is ever on the lookout for faults by way of displaying his superiority. Despite a certain moral insecurity that sometimes retarded his creative efforts, he not only understood literature thoroughly but also loved it passionately.

So Delmore, whom I remember as being more depressed by life than fearful of death, is no longer with us. His fate calls to mind certain lines of a sixteenth-century French poet, author of Les Tragiques:

Avorté avant les jours,
D’une âme pleine d’angoisse.

  1. *

    If Macdonald’s impression of him differs so drastically from mine, it may well be because Schwartz cultivated two quite distinct modes of behavior in his relationship with people. When the relationship was in the main social, as I think it was with Macdonald, his manner was chiefly adapted to attract and entertain, as by piling one funny story upon another in a deadpan fashion, with his talk imparting a sense of rueful detachment. No wonder Macdonald can write: “There was a genial shimmer in Delmore’s talk…generous, easy and, no matter how outrageously exaggerated, never envious or malicious; like Jove’s laughter. He was egoistic without vanity….” This benign impression is not at all artificial, but in being entirely synthetic it excludes any attempt at analysis.

    Schwartz’s bearing was quite different in truly intimate relations, as for instance with the women he lived with and the male friends he knew since boyhood, or with someone like myself, with whom he was involved in a practical enterprise in which role-playing could scarcely be maintained for very long. I am inclined to believe that this second Delmore was the more genuine one, for in these more familiar circumstances his genial tone and effort to amuse receded as his dark and somber moods and entanglement in various and sometimes fantastic intrigues connected with both his literary and academic life came frequently to the fore. The editors of the Selected Essays come close to the truth in stating that though “a passionate believer in the supreme importance…of love, Delmore proved himself incapable of permanent relationships.”

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