Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories
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, and Delmore himself, from the age of seven, grew up in a drab apartment in Washington Heights which he shared with his tormented mother and his younger brother.
The parental situation seems to have been expressly designed for the emotional crucifixion of the elder son. Delmore’s father was generous, mercurial, unreliable, and ruthless in the pursuit of his own pleasure; the mother, Rose, was (naturally enough) aggrieved but also parsimonious, hysterically self-dramatizing, and more than a little mad. Whenever they were together, they quarreled unceasingly. When Delmore was only six, they awakened him one night with the demand that he choose between them. Throughout his growing up, the boy was a pawn in the battle between the separated and ultimately divorced parents. Though he came to dislike his mother, Delmore felt acutely the pathos of her situation and was racked by pity and guilt. Some idea of what he was up against can be gleaned from the fact that Rose Schwartz threatened to kill herself when Delmore “abandoned” her in order to marry Gertrude Buckman; she also told her younger son that he would have been better off in Buchenwald than married to his non-Jewish wife.
From this scarifying background—made even drabber and more constricted by the Depression and the evaporation of Harry Schwartz’s fortune after his death in 1930—sprang a young man of startling good looks who had read Blake, Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, and Hart Crane by his mid-teens and all the philosophers by the time he was twenty. The impact of his appearance, conversation, and evident talents was enormous. William Barrett, whom he met in 1933, when they were both twenty, remembered him as “the most magical human being I have ever known” (Commentary, September 1974, p. 48). Philip Rahv, who sought him out in 1937 shortly after Partisan Review had accepted what was to remain his best known (and best) short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” wrote decades later of Delmore’s “boundless ambition that was part of the precosity that never left him,” of “his singular personal charm and the slight stutter that served only to draw attention to his frequently extravagant speech” (The New York Review, May 20, 1971).
Atlas is at his best in conveying the exhilaration and promise of this period, when Schwartz was turning out poems and stories, audaciously challenging Ezra Pound by letter, reviewing Ivor Winters, writing critical essays of remarkable quality on Hemingway, Dos Passos, Pound, Auden, and R.P. Blackmur, and all the while rushing excitedly about to meet every literary broker in New York. Editors sought his work. When his poems, together with the story which gave the collection its title, were published in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (New Directions, 1938), they garnered the extravagant praise not only of the New York intelligentsia but of such commanding voices of the day as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Mark Van Doren, and Wallace Stevens. The New York literary world was evidently eager, hungry even, to welcome this “newly fledged eaglet,” as Dwight Macdonald later called him, who was at once an intellectual, a modernist, and a Jew. James Atlas sums up the situation very well:
Where Jewish writers like Clifford Odets, Daniel Fuchs, and Henry Roth had confronted their experience directly, Delmore claimed as his imaginative province the cosmopolitan world of letters purveyed in the pages of Partisan Review. Faintly Marxist, imbued with a sense of history’s fatal flaws in the wake of the Munich Pact and on the verge of World War II, Delmore was, as [Irving] Howe suggests, “the poet of the historical moment quite as Auden was in England.” It was as if the self-constituted intelligentsia with which he had allied himself required a spokesman to dramatize its cultural dilemmas.
But this early morning sunburst was soon overclouded. By 1945 Schwartz was not only drinking heavily but also taking large amounts of Nembutal to combat the insomnia that had plagued him for years; soon amphetamines were added to his daily dosage. His marriage to Gertrude Buckman broke up. He was badly shaken by the disapproving reviews of his sloppy translation of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer and his grandiosely conceived but inordinately long and self-indulgent autobiographical poem, Genesis, which in 200 pages failed to carry its hero, Hershey Green, beyond his seventh year. Although he continued to write reviews and critical essays of high quality well into the 1950s, Schwartz’s powers as a poet and story writer were pretty well burned out by 1948, when the collection of stories called The World Is a Wedding appeared.
Not long after his marriage to Elizabeth Pollet in 1949 the paranoid symptoms (long latent) that were to cause such devastation began to make their blatant appearance, lending a new and lurid coloration to the alternations of manic exuberance and radical self-doubt and depression that had always characterized his emotional life. Now delusional jealousy and suspiciousness dangerously sharpened the edge of the gleeful, inventive malice with which he habitually gossiped about the private lives of not only his closest friends but also of T.S. Eliot and other literary figures whom he never met. In little more than a dozen years this “new Hart Crane,” this “American Auden,” had undergone metamorphosis into Saul Bellow’s Von Humboldt Fleisher. Yet Schwartz’s literary reputation remained high for at least another decade.
One of the achievements of this biography is its re-creation of the literary scene during the twenty-year period of Schwartz’s eminence. Though the world of the New York intellectuals—and especially the Partisan Review crowd—is becoming almost as repetitiously discussed and over-documented as Bloomsbury, Atlas’s account is to be welcomed. It captures well the combative quality of the discourse of this self-consciously modernist yet intensely insular group—a discourse that drew its energies from Marxist factionalism and its style from the natural arrogance of a cultural elite combined with the insult-swapping exuberance of East European Jews. Freudianism made its contribution too, providing a theoretical basis for an aggressive questioning of behavior and motive.
Atlas traces the shifting alliances—personal and sexual as well as intellectual—that so fascinated Schwartz. Following Schwartz to Harvard and Princeton, he attempts, with partial success, to separate the strands of reality and fantasy in the wary relationships which this gloweringly defensive New York Jew established with the English departments—then predominantly staffed by upper-middle-class Protestants—of those institutions. Most important, he makes credible the enormous emotional investment which the New York intellectuals made in Delmore Schwartz and the reluctance with which they surrendered the idea (of which vestiges can still be found) that in him they had produced a major creative writer from their own ranks. Schwartz of course is historically important as a precursor, as a man whose work provided a tantalizing hint of the rich material which other (and less crippled) Jewish writers have worked so effectively.
The book contains much good gossip, attaching names and facts to the vague rumors that have been afloat in Manhattan for years. It identifies, for example, the young man—now an influential figure in the cultural establishment—whom Schwartz relentlessly persecuted for a supposed affair with his second wife. An interesting by-product of the biography is the documentation it furnishes for the episodes involving the Humboldt-Delmore character in Bellow’s loose-jointed but entertaining novel. Bellow, it becomes clear, worked very close to the actuality of the situation, changing names but little else as he described the life Delmore and Elizabeth lived in their run-down farm in western New Jersey and told the story of Delmore’s fantastic plot to obtain an endowed professorship at Princeton. Though Schwartz was enthusiastic in his praise of The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day, he later, in his madness, turned violently against his good friend Bellow, who, like Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift, had set about raising money to have Schwartz transferred from the psychiatric ward of Bellevue to the Payne Whitney Clinic. Atlas not only confirms the factual basis of events in the novel but from time to time draws upon the actual language of Humboldt’s Gift—language as imagistically vivid, allusive, and funny as any that Bellow (always a remarkable stylist) has produced—to enliven his own portrayal of Schwartz during that period of his life.