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.
What more can one ask of a biography as generally satisfying as this? I have several reservations—a couple of them hardly more than quibbles, the other somewhat more serious. I wish, for instance, that Atlas had made the same semi-novelistic effort to characterize William Barrett, John Berryman, and R.P. Blackmur that he devotes to his memorable sketch of Philip Rahv. Though we are told a lot about Schwartz’s dealings with Barrett and Berryman, Atlas does not succeed in bringing either of them to life in his pages. A brief portrait of Berryman as a young man would have been especially welcome. Was Schwartz the first recipient of the ardent hero-worship which Berryman later lavished upon Bellow, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Lowell?
R.P. Blackmur obviously played a big part in Schwartz’s life at Cambridge as well as in Princeton; yet there is no evocation (or analysis) of that wily, influential, and enigmatic figure, nor is there an account of their meeting and the ups and downs of their friendship. This is regrettable since Bellow’s caricature of Blackmur as Professor Martin Sewell in Humboldt’s Gift is, while recognizable, distinctly hostile. Blackmur was, after all, a major link between the New Critics scattered around at various academies and the New York intellectuals; he was very much at the center of the group participating in the Gauss Seminars at Princeton (which Schwartz gave in 1949—to be followed shortly by Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, and Irving Howe) and later arranged for Schwartz to teach at Princeton for a year (with Saul Bellow as his assistant). Was there a cat-and-mouse quality to the friendship between Blackmur and Schwartz? Did Schwartz, with his hyper-defensiveness on the subject, come to regard Blackmur as anti-Semitic, as some of the old Partisan Review crowd apparently still do?
I wish, too, that Atlas had been willing to explore further the psychological roots of Schwartz’s paranoia. He is much too quick to settle for the pharmacological explanation, stating that the psychosis could have been induced as well as aggravated by Schwartz’s notorious pill-popping. This may be true as far as the triggering of the florid symptoms is concerned, but the content of the psychosis is another matter. The poetry and stories, as well as accounts of conversations and personal relationships long preceding the amphetamine dependency, are full of indications of a highly suspicious, hostile, and indeed paranoid turn of mind. At the conclusion of “America! America!” Delmore’s fictional double, Shenandoah Fish, turns from the mirror in which he has been gazing and reflects that “No one truly exists in the real world because no one knows all that he is to other human beings, all that they say behind his back….” And a ruefully perceptive poem, published in 1938, begins with these lines:
Do they whisper behind my back? Do they speak
Of my clumsiness? Do they laugh at me,
Mimicking my gestures, retailing my shame?
I’ll whirl about, denounce them, saying
That they are shameless, they are treacherous,
No more my friends….
Atlas does a good job in relating Schwartz’s “virulent” antagonism to “faggots” to his own rejected homosexual impulses and these in turn to the childhood predicament in which Delmore was forced to mediate between his parents to the detriment of his own sexual identity. According to Atlas, Delmore “elaborated his parents’ conflicts into an explanation of how unnatural bonds between father and son can be created that resemble homosexual love.” Yet, though Atlas finds additional evidence of a strong homosexual component in a psychiatrist’s interpretation of a Rorschach administered to Schwartz in his mid-thirties, he fails to make the familiar psychoanalytic connection between paranoia and the repression of homosexual impulse in certain personality types. Freud’s famous paper on paranoia (“Psychoanalytical Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia…,” Collected Papers, vol. 3) seems to me startlingly relevant to Schwartz’s situation—as do, for that matter, the hints contained in such Kafkaesque stories as “The Commencement Day Address,” the recently published “Screeno,” and “The Track Meet,” all of which involve a more or less passive submission to the willful, needy, or arbitrary demands of an “old man” or authoritarian figure (like Reginald Law in “Track Meet”).
Finally, I wish that Atlas’s tendency to overestimate Schwartz’s actual literary achievement—however pardonable in a sympathetic biographer—could have been moderated. It seems to me that the permanently valuable residue consists of five or six frequently anthologized poems (all written by 1938), one later poem (“Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine”), perhaps three short stories (“In Dreams…,” “America! America!” and “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life”), and a dozen or so reviews and critical articles. Schwartz had a marked lyrical-descriptive gift that served him well in a poem such as “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave,” where an insomniac responds to the coming of dawn:
…Strangeness grew in the motionless air. The loose
Film grayed. Shaking wagons, hooves’ waterfalls,
Sounded far off, increasing louder and nearer.
A car coughed, starting. Morning, softly
Melting the air, lifted the half- covered chair
From underseas, kindled the looking-glass,
Distinguished the dresser and the white wall….
Schwartz also had a deep sense of the tragicomic incongruities between his personal longings and the actualities of his existence—a plight for which he found exquisite language in “Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses.” But instead of trusting his own powers of language and vision to carry a poem through, he seems to have felt constantly the need to “shore up” his poems with Eliotesque mannerisms or echoes, with excessively abstract argument, or with sudden leaps into pretentious generalization. The way in which he could belabor a metaphor, relentlessly applying image to theme, is well illustrated in one of his most popular poems, “The Heavy Bear.”
Atlas’s overestimation is more glaring with regard to the stories. No one will quarrel with his praise of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which is indeed a little masterpiece, one of the most luminous and despairing short stories written by an American in this century. But Atlas is unduly distressed that Schwartz’s old friends, Rahv and Barrett, later found so little else to admire in The World Is a Wedding. Surely William Barrett is right in arguing that while two of the other stories are notable (though not at the same level), the rest reveal “the self-complacency of a raconteur retailing anecdotes. The flatness of the style, originally deliberate, becomes monotonous because it is a dodge—an evasion of the requirement that an author imaginatively project his characters before us” (Commentary, September 1974, p. 52).
Two of the better known stories—“The World Is a Wedding” itself and “New Year’s Eve”—are romans à clef that strike me as equally dreadful with or without the key. Who cares if Rudyard Bell is Paul Goodman or Oliver Jones is “really” F.W. Dupee or Grant Landis a caricature of Dwight Macdonald when none of these characters is more than a skimpy bundle of abstractions without the slightest fictional depth or realization? Atlas, I think, involves himself in Matthew Arnold’s “fallacy of the historical estimate” when he declares that in “New Year’s Eve”—that sterile little satire of the early Partisan Review crowd—Schwartz “managed to raise gossip to the level of literary art” and to produce “some of the best social history of his time.” And how else is one to account for his speculation that “the inadequate verdicts” of Rahv and Barrett may have been caused by the familiarity of Schwartz’s style—a familiarity that “obscured for them…its original impact on a generation who saw in the stories the reflection of its own experience”? Does he really mean to imply that the original impact of a work necessarily has anything to do with its lasting value?
Atlas is joined in his high valuation of Schwartz by Irving Howe, who has contributed a foreword to a new selection of the stories to be published shortly—a selection for which Atlas has written the introduction. What is interesting about Howe’s foreword is not so much what he says about the significance of the stories for the intellectual children of immigrant Jews (one has every reason to agree with him) but his attempt—largely repeated from his section on the Jewish novelists in World of Our Fathers—to explain the flatness of Schwartz’s style as an “anti-rhetoric” behind which can be heard the “sing-song, slightly pompous intonation of Jewish immigrants educated in night-schools, the self-conscious affectionate mockery of that speech by American-born sons, its abstraction into the jargon of city intellectuals, and finally the whole body of this language flattened into a prose of uneasiness….” He goes on to say that “in his stories dealing with immigrant Jewish families Schwartz may have begun with an affectionate and deliberate mimicry of immigrant speech but very soon…he yields himself to it almost entirely.”
With the utmost deference to an expert in the field, I submit that Professor Howe may be hearing things. Or that he is confusing the language of such stories as “America! America!” and “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life” with their subject matter, which was not only new in its time but tied to the very heart strings of Schwartz’s and Howe’s own generation of New York Jews. Here are two representative passages:
And now Mr. Baumann was no longer able to support an idle son, for with the hard times people abandoned their insurance or borrowed on it. The father’s difficulties and the son’s arrogance made their quarrels more and more desperate. As Mr. Baumann dressed to pay a visit one Saturday night, he was unable to find the pair of shoes he wanted. As always, he was concerned about his appearance, and he became very irritated at being unable to find his shoes, and came into his son’s bedroom to ask him if he had seen the shoes, and Sidney, outstretched upon his bed, reading and smoking, was annoyed to be interrupted, and replied that his father ought not to be concerned about such a cheap pair of shoes….
In six months Seymour was discharged because of his poor knee. He returned to the heart of the family in better health than he had ever been before and full of loud praise of the army and of military training for boys between eighteen and twenty-one. This praise of discipline was a new version of his affirmation of conventional morality. Yet it was also a sign of his enjoyment of good health.
“My whole life would have been different,” he said, “if I had only been drafted in the last war! I would have learned to take care of myself!”
Yet his return was marked by a complete surrender to his old way of life, his late mornings, long breakfasts, and the attention of his mother.
“Mamma, let the water in the tub,” he said again as soon as he returned and again she waited on him hand and foot. The one habit he retained from the army was that of sitting on his bed and putting on his socks by throwing his legs up.
[“The Child Is the Meaning of This Life”]
Change “Mr. Baumann” to “Mr. Bledsoe,” “Sidney” to “Billy,” and “Seymour” to “Russell,” and one would have no way of knowing whether these potentially comic scenes were set in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, or Macon, Georgia. I find it just as easy to hear Southern as Jewish intonations behind this oddly monotone language. One has only to imagine what Bellow or Malamud or Stanley Elkin or Philip Roth would have done with these scenes to appreciate the difference a real voice (in contrast to the one Howe is forced to supply) might have made. My guess is that Schwartz’s dryness, his heavy reliance upon indirect discourse as opposed to dialogue, the meagerness of his physical descriptions, his insistence upon ironic detachment and distancing—that these reflect Schwartz’s modernist obeisance to the demands of T.E. Hulme and T.S. Eliot for “classical” restraint as opposed to romantic wallowing; but I would also guess that they represent a defense against material so clamorous, so charged with personal (and painful) significance for him, that he could handle it only, as it were, with laboratory tongs.
The fallacies of both the historic and the personal estimate (to revert to Arnold’s terminology) seem to be at work in Howe’s claims for Schwartz. Concerning the second fallacy Arnold wrote: “Our personal affinities, likings, and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work and make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance” (The Study of Poetry). Howe, with characteristic honesty, admitted as much in an article dating from 1962: “I cannot pretend to ‘objectivity’ in writing about the work of Delmore Schwartz, for it has come to be a part of my experience, an imaginative incitement to that struggle for self-discovery by which one tries to remain alive” (“Delmore Schwartz—A Personal Appreciation,” The New Republic, March 19, 1962, p. 25).
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories drops two of the stories from The World Is a Wedding and adds three that have never been reprinted—the three Kafkaesque tales mentioned earlier. Though none of these will, I predict, substantially alter or enhance one’s estimate of Schwartz as a story writer, they have considerable psychological interest and are clearly superior to the omitted stories. With the addition of this new selection and James Atlas’s fine biography, the file on the case of Delmore Schwartz is probably as complete as it needs to be.
March 23, 1978