Letters of Delmore Schwartz
selected and edited by Robert Phillips, foreword by Karl Shapiro
Ontario Review Press, 384 pp., $24.95
The life story that can be pieced together from Delmore Schwartz’s letters has already been told, if rather externally, in James Atlas’s biography (where Schwartz is called “Delmore” throughout, a choice that comes to seem patronizing). The central fact of Schwartz’s life—declared but only sketchily described in these letters—was his manic-depressive illness, which began in his youth as inexplicable and prolonged periods of inertia, apathy, and reclusiveness alternating with periods of intense activity and intenser hope. The illness culminated in the squalor of his paranoid lawsuit (after involuntary commitment at Bellevue in 1957) against “Hilton Kramer, Elizabeth Pollet, James Laughlin, Marshall Best, Saul Bellow, The Living Theatre, William Styron, Perry Miller, Harry Levin”—the list includes his publisher, his second wife, fancied rivals for women, and old friends. By the time of his death in 1966, in his fifty-third year, Schwartz was unrecognizable as the brilliant boy he had been in 1937, when the Partisan Review published his story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”
Schwartz’s illness, with its attendant drugs (Nembutal to help him sleep in manic phases, Dexedrine to enable him to function in depressive times, alcohol to quiet anxiety, all chronicled by Atlas but mostly unmentioned in the letters), caught him up in a nightmarish rhythm of promises broken, expectations dashed, projects unfinished, advances unearned, and friendships eventually broken. He was reduced to making humiliating requests for money, reading engagements, and jobs. Biographical narration necessarily smooths over, with its explanatory connective tissue, the raw guilt and sheer raggedness that such a downward-turning life produces in its unhappy subject. Schwartz was at the mercy of his body: after driving him to an inspired hyperactivity, it withdrew its energies, leaving him listless, blank of mind, weak of affect, irritable, apologetic, and empty-handed. The letters take the reader through Schwartz’s own cycles of feeling: as his exhaustion gradually infects one’s own self, the mania, when it returns, seems—as it does to him—heartening, hopeful, a sign of life and work. The cost it exacts becomes evident later, as all the vital signs begin to sink once more.
The Cambridge journals of Sylvia Plath connect the reader to a similar alternating current. But Plath’s mania takes chiefly the form of worldly and sexual ambition, her depression the form of suicidal despair. Schwartz, though not without immense worldly hopes, centered his mania on his immediate projects—at first, his own poems and stories, later, various projects that were supposed to make money (a Viking Portable Heine, a textbook with Saul Bellow, both unrealized). And his depressions were not suicidal; they were guilt-ridden, full of self-loathing and self-abasement for work undone.
The overriding component of physical and psychic illness makes a treatment of Schwartz’s life and letters difficult. And there are still many unpublished writings, some of them unfinished autobiographical novels, some of them journals, some of them what Atlas calls “weird, uncanny raving,” though the passage he offers as proof does not sound …