Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet
by James Atlas
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 418 pp., $15.00
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories
by Delmore Schwartz, foreword by Irving Howe, introduction by James Atlas
New Directions, 224 pp., $3.95 (to be published April 24) (paper)
Thanks to Humboldt’s Gift, the reminiscences of the old Partisan Review crowd, and the interest already stimulated by Atlas’s biography, Delmore Schwartz may well be, in New York at least, the poète maudit of the moment. He and Sylvia Plath together have displaced Dylan Thomas, who occupied this position in the Fifties and the early Sixties. Presumably the vexed shades of Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton are waiting (perhaps nervously, perhaps eagerly) their turn to be thrust into the glare of public scrutiny. I doubt, however, that there will ever be a cult of Schwartz among persons other than the nostalgic members of his own generation, for—as was not the case with Plath and the other poets—the amount of first-rate work which he left is too small to form a lasting pedestal for such a cult-figure. Though Dylan Thomas’s reputation has plummeted recently, I think it is a safe bet that a good dozen or more of his poems, including “The Force That Drives the Green Fuse,” “Poem in October,” and “Day Breaks Where No Sun Shines,” will be read long after the final, well-meant effort to resurrect a vital interest in Schwartz’s poems and stories has failed. I suspect, too, that the biography under review will satisfy (and thus finish off) our remaining curiosity about the man who so engaged the affections and aroused the hopes of his contemporaries.
Atlas is a very good biographer. He has given us a well-researched, well-written, intelligently sympathetic, and always interesting account of Schwartz’s life. Avoiding clutter, he follows his instinct for the socially or psychologically vibrant detail in establishing the milieu and family from which Schwartz emerged. The same judicious balancing of the public and the private, the personal and the historic, characterizes Atlas’s pursuit of the whole career—from its brilliant opening flash and brief ascent to its longer downward wobble and final, horrendous disintegration. He never loses sight of the fact that Schwartz, though obsessed to an ultimately crippling degree with his own past, was a literary artist ambitiously attuned to the larger cultural expectations of his epoch. If, faced with the ruin that overtook the artist, Atlas is sometimes inclined to overvalue the residue of achieved art, the lapse is surely pardonable.
Schwartz came from a family of Jewish immigrants who, with almost legendary swiftness, had “made it” in the New World. His grandfather Nathanson started out selling marble counters for soda fountains, went into the business of renting and selling pushcarts, and within a few years owned a clothing store in the garment district. His father, Harry Schwartz, prospered selling insurance and real estate and was already a wealthy man by the time he was thirty. By 1929 he was—at least on paper—a millionaire, living it up in Chicago like one of the more lavish characters in a Saul Bellow novel. But the restless Harry, an inveterate philanderer, spent less and less time with his family …