Letters of Delmore Schwartz
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 like raving to me; in it God creates the world, and Schwartz quotes the attendant comments:
A Throne said: Wow!
A Power exclaimed: Anything for a laugh!
A Domination remarked: This is pure virtuosity!
Who will not recognize, in these choirs of angels, the critics for the New York reviewing journals greeting a new book of poetry? It may be that Schwartz’s “ravings” are at least symbolically expressive.
The letters here selected by Robert Phillips have been welcomed chiefly as material fleshing out the history of New York literary life in the Thirties and Forties. Schwartz knew the Partisan Review editors and writers—Philip Rahv, William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, William Barrett—even before he became poetry editor for the review in 1943. And it may be correct to see him as part of their movement. But the magazine was not notably concerned with poetry, except insofar as poetry touched on, or could be connected to, political questions; Phillips and Rahv were far more interested in fiction, history, political science, and philosophy than in poetry. Schwartz, on the other hand, was obsessed with poetry, and his acquaintance extended to Stevens, Ransom, Tate, Blackmur, Berryman, and Lowell, among others. Of course some typical political questions arise in Schwartz’s letters; but it is on literary questions that Schwartz rises to eloquence. The letters are partial evidence of what it means to want to be a writer, and are chiefly moving as a document of that passionate and mysterious drive.
Schwartz’s first fame came to him from his fiction, in which he applied the style of “scrupulous meanness,” perfected by Joyce in Dubliners, to the world of New York intellectuals. As Joyce had meticulously exposed the banalities and hypocrisies of his city, while allowing his protagonist an ironic pathos, so Schwartz revealed the anxieties, frictions, and petty vanities of his circle, while allowing the characters—especially those who were surrogates for himself—a mixture of anguish and exaltation as they issued from their immigrant backgrounds. Though Schwartz’s characters now seem, only too often, inert pretexts for the views they enunciate, the mere fact of his having put his social milieu into mimetic form gave his fiction the irresistible interest of a roman à clef. Schwartz seems to have thought of himself chiefly as a poet, and his other ventures—into fiction, drama, criticism, and letters—orbited for him around the central axis of poetry.
It is clear from the joy Schwartz felt in seeing, in 1955, Bellow’s Yiddish-influenced English, that his own Jewish linguistic origins were still a trouble to him: “There was another reason for believing Saul will be a great novelist—the triumph of Yinglish as an acceptable lingo some of the time.” If the world was ready to accept “Yinglish,” the formal constraint Schwartz felt in his own writing might no longer be the only choice for a young Jewish poet. (It is curious that Schwartz did not like Ginsberg’s “Howl” when it appeared; he mistakenly thought that its protests were sham, that the liberties it sought were already won.) Schwartz’s racy language in the letters is far more pure, in a literary sense, than the generally more staid diction of his fiction and his excellent critical essays; and it is more authentic than the strained “poetic” language of most of his verse. I offer an example of each. Here, to set the standard, is a typical letter, written shortly before Pearl Harbor, while Schwartz was teaching at Harvard:
If I continue to write about my state of being in this way, this letter will be like coming into a bathroom full of steaming air from another’s bath, so let fresh air come in by way of the freshman who wrote on his first theme that one of his chief abstractions was swimming. When corrected, he looked at the explanation of what an abstraction is in the English A handbook and found that Germany was given as an example of an abstraction and said then that he didn’t think that Germany was an abstraction, which made a difficult moment for me before the whole class, for I think too, and don’t you? that some abstractions are rather concrete, not to say, motorized and armored.
And here is a passage from Genesis (1943):
O, when the snow falls, he forgives all shame,
Forgets the turning world and every hope,
And every memory of guilt and pain,
He seeks no future and regrets no past,
Satisfied by the fat white pieces’ fall—
As one is satisfied, playing a game!
A game which makes activity pure joy,
Being itself Being itself, and more
Than striving for the absent future end.
Schwartz’s “abstractions” here would not have disappointed the hapless Harvard student. All the charm of the letters has evaporated in the “poetic” turn to a vacuous “philosophical” diction. Here is the portentous opening of the story, “The World Is A Wedding”:
In this our life there are no beginnings but only departures and entitled beginnings, wreathed in the formal emotions thought to be appropriate and often forced. Darkly rises each moment from the life which has been lived and which does not die, for each event lives in the heavy head forever, waiting to renew itself.
And here is a piece of Schwartz’s critical prose of 1950:
In Tate’s writing we get neither deliberate allegorization (although certain poems must be excepted), nor dramatization of particular histories or emotions (and this again must be qualified). What we do get predominantly is the dramatization of such moments of experience as are intensely significant of the generalizations, the framework of ideas, about history and nature which I have just attempted to summarize.
This prose chokes on its own Latinity, and reads like badly digested Eliot. Who can doubt, reading the four passages, that the letters contain the essential writer? However, it is also true to say that the various styles represent facets of Schwartz himself. The local and particular self revealed in the letters loved absurd details of cities, movies, Classic Comics, personal tics, and gossip: “My only desire…is to be a late Shakespearean fool.” The other selves—the poetic self, the fictional self, the critical self—were invaded, in different ways, by the demon of philosophy (“The demon of the absolute has me in thrall”).
In the poetry and fiction, a fatal expository style resulted; passages summing up ultimate meaning regularly killed off the dramatic force of Schwartz’s particulars. Schwartz did not possess in his poetry the courage he saw, admired, and yet criticized in Stevens—the courage to do away entirely with biographical particulars in favor of discourse relentlessly removed from them. He was philosophical enough (he had studied philosophy in college and graduate school) to be one of Stevens’s most fervent admirers; yet his imaginative devotion to mimetic fiction, and his dramatic talents of mimicry and mockery—so evident, according to his friends, in conversation—made it unlikely that his poetry could dispense, like Stevens’s verse, with the intimate side of life.
Instead, Schwartz resorted in his writing to ambitious but ludicrous schemes, in which the vulgar actual is paralleled by the ironically philosophic, exemplified by his autobiographical play Shenandoah, about his own bris. The action of the play consists of a family quarrel over the naming of the new baby. We hear first the conversation of the family and friends:
MRS. GOLDMARK: Do you know, I could read the society page for weeks at a time? If I am ever sick, I will. I feel as if I had known some of the members of the Four Hundred, the Vanderbilts and the Astors, for years. And I know about the less important families also. I know their friends and where they go in winter and summer. For instance, the Talbot Brewsters, who are mentioned today: every year they go to Florida in January. Mr. Brewster has an estate in the Shenandoah Valley….
ELSIE FISH: Shenandoah! What a wonderful name: Shenandoah Fish! [The baby begins to howl.]
But Schwartz does not have the bravery to let this satire have its own independence. Instead, the play is punctuated by the heavy, even if occasionally ironic, interpolations of the adult Shenandoah:
All over Europe…exiles find in art
What exile is: art becomes exile too,
A secret and a code studied in secret,
Declaring the agony of modern life:
This child will learn of life from these great men,
He will participate in their solitude.
The two codes, satiric and philosophic, remain forever parallel. Neither language is wholly Schwartz’s.
In his criticism too, brilliant and amusing observation is suddenly reined in by an enormously inhibited academic tone. Schwartz was at his most unbuttoned in reviewing movies, where his innate irreverence had free play. The stardom of Mary Pickford (whose publicity photos “show her becoming younger from 1914 to 1922”) implies that “America’s sweetheart” may also be “America’s spiritual jailbait.” Victor Mature, who “has moved through every era of man, including the prehistoric…seemed most himself in the Ice Age”; Marilyn Monroe “appeared in Niagara, a film in which the Falls seemed less of a natural force than Miss Monroe.” One-liners like these turn up frequently in the letters; the best of them renames Eliot’s pious “East Coker” as “East Coca-Cola.” Schwartz’s devotion to Eliot’s best work did not blind him to the odd positions that the poet took, satirized by Schwartz in the letters:
Anyway, at present, I am entirely, for the remainder of January, a royalist in literature, a classicist in politics (e.g. the Athenian Republic), and an Anglo-Catholic in all questions of lyric poetry.
An effortless effervescence of this sort is Schwartz’s most distinctive note in the letters. He could not keep it out, not even in job applications: writing to Allen Tate in the hope of a job teaching philosophy at Kenyon, he brilliantly said of under-graduates in philosophy courses,
Their interest ranges from a desire to discuss the universal significance of the cleverness of bees in taking care of honey, through questions as to the possibilities of reincarnation and a rocket to the moon, and it ends up, if the teacher does well enough, with a genuine awareness of their attitudes and beliefs.
Because Schwartz had perception, energy, a ready gift for metaphor, and a serious mind, what went wrong with him as a poet is of real interest. Dwight Macdonald perceived him as “essentially” a poet, and although it was for his prose, and particularly his stories, that Schwartz was first sensationally welcomed on the literary scene, he seems to have decided that his major efforts would go into his poetry, and it was to other poets that he chiefly looked for approval. He even claimed that Joyce’s novels, which he loved and admired, were poems too. And what appealed to him in poetry was precisely its cosmic overseeing power. He was drawn to Yeats and Eliot because in each case a substantial body of philosophical and critical prose existed around the poetic corpus, so that the poems moved in a cloud of “ideas.” In one of the most prescient passages in the letters, Schwartz saw his lifelong submission to the idea of “ideas” as his greatest mistake. He wrote in 1942 to Richard Blackmur:
At the height of your most eloquent intoxication here in September…you declared, “Anybody can have ideas,” in ignorance of which truth, and in the most stupid pride of intellect, I spent years in love with philosophy, contemptuous of all who were not high-toned intellectuals, disdainful of fine arts with their actual glories, and, to be more concrete, convinced that it was most noble to be a teacher of philosophy, but ignoble to teach English, ignoble to write stories and poems about actual things, noble to tap out thin allegories of high-sounding ideas, in love with the platitude of statement and ignorant of what [Robert Penn] Warren justly called its poverty.
This characteristically fervent breast-beating did nothing to change Schwartz’s fatal attraction to exposition without sensuous power. It is too easy to see, in the late poem on Seurat, the manner of Four Quartets taken to an extreme:
This is the celebration of contemplation,
This is the conversion of experience to pure attention,
Here is the holiness of all the little things
Offered to us, discovered for us, transformed into the vividest consciousness,
After the shallowness or blindness of experience.
Eliot’s extreme musicality shaped his reflections into a carrying cadence; but Schwartz, though he had rhythmic instincts, lacked Eliot’s seductive gift for the musical phrase. Nor did he possess Frost’s unerring ear for “sentence-sounds.” At times he succeeded in writing a poem—a short one—in a coherent diction, avoiding the inconsistencies of high and low. In any longer work, the immiscible fluids of his nature separated into the urban and the Platonic.
The attraction of the letters lies principally in Schwartz’s talent for ironic vignettes—little stories of his students, of the small absurdities of the Harvard milieu, of literary gossip. The editorial deletions for decency’s sake are a nuisance, but enough of Schwartz’s satire remains to give some sense of what must be missing. It is hard to say whether aggression or honesty caused the unsuitably frank letters of the Forties (notably to Allen Tate and Dwight Macdonald, who surprised Schwartz by being angry at his criticisms). And it is equally hard to say whether real appreciation or political flattery occasioned the letters of praise to Mark Van Doren. What is clear is that Schwartz bravely faced and examined his own actions as they became more and more peculiar, even to himself:
That it is some deep anxiety that drains off my energy illuminates the ending of every period of energy; for each time, as I look back, I see the growth of anxiety, the outbreaks of anger and accusation, and then the helplessness of mind, as if that were the way I succeeded in hiding from myself what made me anxious.
Schwartz tried “injections” for his “endocrine imbalance” (from a Dr. Sieve who later committed suicide); he tried psychotherapy as well. Both were ultimately ineffective against his paranoia (which never affected his criticism, always sane, always lucid). The native eloquence he never lost emerges even in a late half-insane letter to his Syracuse landlady. But before the paranoid outbursts there had been years of tired letters, keeping a flagging career afloat, spending more and more time on excuses. Even in the later years, though, there are flashes of the old energy. He writes, about a piece by E.M. Cioran on Scott Fitzgerald:
There is something dreadfully off-key—at least to me—in writing about Fitzgerald’s “Pascalian experience” and thinking about him in terms of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky…. The next step would have to be John O’Hara and St. John of the Cross or Walter Winchell and Thomas Aquinas’ Doctrine of the Angelic Intelligences.
But on the whole, the later letters are discouraging. One wants to go back to the early years, to Schwartz at twenty-six reproaching Ezra Pound (with whom he had been corresponding) for anti-Semitism:
Without ceasing to distinguish between past activity and present irrationality, I should like you to consider this letter as a resignation: I want to resign as one of your most studious and faithful admirers.
The sting of style hides in the sentence—in “activity” versus “irrationality,” in “resignation” and “resign,” in the faithful admirer, still studious, now faithless. Or we might turn back to Schwartz at eighteen, writing persiflage to a friend from high school:
You cause me to blush. My Latin book also does: “Sextus loves Marcus the sailor.” “Galba loves his pretty daughter. Galba and his pretty daughter live in the little house.” “Marcus and Sextus hasten to the fields.” Incest and homosexuality wherever my mind looks.
The high aims and fierce idealism of Schwartz’s young nature made him write out, at seventeen, a list of activities to pursue each day (poetry, philosophy, paintings, Bach, writing) and a list of sins to avoid:
To be pure of insincerity, laziness, anger, procrastination, discourtesy, inconsideration, affectation, misunderstanding, absent-mindedness, temporal desire, worry over time, vanity, sensitivity, dignity, loud speech, insulting commentary, irony, arrogance, pomposity, luxuriousness, sublimation, misapprehension, uncleanliness, bizarre dress, consideration of money, jealousy, hero-worship.
The tendency toward judgment betrayed by such a list was perilous to Schwartz as an imaginative writer, even as it was his virtue as a critic. He had very little capacity to register existence without moral judgment, to exist in what Keats called negative capability, except in his letters. There he could write things down out of sheer intrinsic interest, could indulge in unmotivated, undirected observation, could be most himself. When such observation appears, it is purely winning, and suggests why so many people loved Delmore Schwartz. At thirty-two, between wives, Schwartz wrote to Blackmur from Ellery Street in Cambridge:
At last count there were nine sleeping places in the house, which has made some of my guests wonder at the chastity of my life. The truth is, I sleep with my cat, Oranges Schwartz, a girl, very affectionate, so affable indeed that for a time I thought she was a dumbbell. My relation to her is maternal and this shows that I’ve always wanted to be a mother. When I bought her two cans of $.52 sardines last week, Cal and Jean [Lowell] decided that you were right, I was not of this world. When spring comes to Cambridge, I am going to give a cocktail party for Oranges and let Oranges look over some of the better-looking tomcats. Perhaps you can bring Pomfret? Oranges ought to meet a woman of the world.
A stylish letter, pure and comic, with an innate sweetness in it. It is a pity that a writer of such natural talent never quite found his natural form.