Book Review: Writer Delmore Schwartz — New Directions Gives His Volatile Brilliance its Due
Once and For All asserts the value of Delmore Schwartz’s provocative and multifaceted literary legacy.
Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz by Delmore Schwartz. Edited by Craig Morgan Teicher. New Directions, 280 pages, $17.95.
By Matt Hanson
Those looking down the roster of The New York Intellectuals will recognize some of the sharpest arts critics America has ever produced: Clement Greenberg, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, and Susan Sontag among them. What isn’t as well-known is the fiction and poetry created by this renowned group of mostly Jewish writers. The brilliant, doomed Delmore Schwartz was one of his generation’s strongest creative talents, but his imaginative work has been sadly neglected. Once and For All is the latest and most comprehensive collection of his work to date and the volume takes on a very valuable task: it attempts to give Schwartz’s provocative and multifaceted literary legacy its long-deserved due.
Schwartz was a first-generation Jewish-American (his feisty and unsparing parents hailed from Romania). He was born in Brooklyn in 1913 amid chaotic family circumstances; despite his tumultuous home life, he was a precocious and ambitious student. His breakout literary work was the brilliant, parable-like story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” It was published as the lead piece in the inaugural edition of the Partisan Review in 1937, and its reception made Schwartz the golden boy of the literary cutting-edge.
The dreamlike narrative depicts a young man helplessly witnessing his parent’s clumsy courtship by way of a series of grainy flashbacks on a movie screen. He watches, with rising horror and agitation, their artless interaction on a date to Coney Island. It sensitively evokes the ungainly process of courtship: “My father tells my mother how much money he has made in the past week, exaggerating an amount which need not have been exaggerated.” The father is gauche, over-bearing, and nervous; he awkwardly arrives too early and unnecessarily brags about his income. His mother is expectant, shy, pathetically underwhelmed. They are each cast in roles that they don’t how to play, afflicted with a case of what critic Edmund Wilson called “the American Jitters.” Namely, struggling to cast off the shadows of the old world and live as newly-minted individuals.
At the moment his father proposes marriage, the narrator jumps from his seat, startling the audience, shouting “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal and two children whose characters are monstrous.” Critic Irving Howe wrote about how those in the hyper-critical PR circle reeled with “the shock of recognition.” Once and For All also includes the complex novella-length piece “The World is a Wedding” which uses a tone of detached irony to provide more shocks, this time about the world of prewar Bohemian New York. The story focuses on the poisonous influence of intellect, ambition, and money on a contentious but tight-knit group of PR-esque intellectuals. Schwartz didn’t write a lot of fiction, and it is often hit and miss, but these two tales suggest that, if he had been able to focus his erratic energies on extended prose narratives, he might have become known as a fiction writer in the social anatomist mode, an unusual combination of the sophistication of Henry James and the realism of Clifford Odets.
Schwartz’s poetry is his greatest achievement; his talent for prose peaked too soon, as with so much else in his volatile life. Reading Schwartz, as he lyrically scours his consciousness, is an intriguing way of cleansing your own. One of his greatest poems is “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me,” which comes with the enigmatic epigraph “the withness of the body” and addresses the teeter-totter gulf between being and becoming, between corporeal clumsiness and grace. It’s one of the best poems about being physically awkward ever written. Schwartz evokes gawkiness with clarity and precision:
The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, disheveling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city…
As a poet, Schwartz remains strikingly relevant, but he was very much a product of his own era, caught up in its obsessions with psychoanalysis and the relationship between the ethereality of literature and the concrete facts of life. Reading “I Am A Book I Neither Write Nor Read” closely, we can make out some early hints of what would be called, in the postwar era, post-modernism. It is now a commonplace that we perceive our lives as texts disseminated among a welter of other texts, one story amid innumerable others. But at least, according to Schwartz, we can take comfort in the fact that we are never alone:
I am a book I neither wrote nor read,
A comic, tragic play in which new masquerades
Astonishing like guns crackle like raids…
I no more wrote than read that book which is
The self I am, half-hidden as it is
From one and all who see within a kiss
The lounging formless blackness of an abyss.
How could I think the brief years were enough
To prove the reality of endless love?
Articulating this love, searching for words that express this transcendent sticking point, was Schwartz’s poetic goal. His all-consuming intellect, his monomaniacal hubris, rarely allowed him to come face to face with what might have saved him. The search for epiphanies is all well and good, but it’s a buyers market as far as the reader is concerned. We benefit from the anguish and toil of the artist grasping for the impossible, but the frazzled ego on the hunt for higher truths often outruns its capacity for emotional and physical survival. The same man who memorably wrote that “time is the fire in which we burn” (memorably quoted in Star Trek: Generations) literally drove himself crazy trying to create the kind of epic work that would permanently justify his early success and finally rank him among the immortals.
Unfortunately, it was never to be. In his respectful introduction, John Ashbery admits that the volume contains the best excerpts from “Genesis”; the mass of the poem veers too far into dense abstraction and digression to be memorable. The inclusion of a short verse play Dr. Bergen’s Belief proves that Schwartz’s caustic eye is at its best when it is sharp; this is a lyrical drama about a sort of L Ron Hubbard-esque cult guru who is trying to repress his grief over the loss of his daughter with airy philosophizing. When Schwartz calms down and focuses on one image or theme the results can be breathtaking; an elegant portrait of a nobly dissolute Baudelaire, fascinating meditations on American culture, the oneiric world of film, and the giddy excess of capitalism, autobiographical reflections on his anxious adulthood, including the galvanizing moment when Schwartz heard newsboys crying out that the country was entering World War I.
In Schwartz’s later years much of his ambition and intellectual energy became unmoored, distorted from alcoholism, drug addiction, ruined marriages, paranoia, and bipolarity. You can sense the desperation in his poetry as his exhausted brain tries to rise above overwork and relentless self consciousness. A title like “Philology Recapitulates Ontology, Poetry is Ontology” makes your eyes cross even if you’re familiar with the terms. There’s anguished self-portraiture in that poem’s description of someone who “talked forever of forever as if forever of having been and being an ancient mariner.” For the record, no one questioned Schwartz’s conversational skills: his drinking and free-associative rants became the stuff of urban legend. Holding court night after night at New York’s White Horse Tavern, he would read out loud from his dog-eared copies of Joyce, Valery, and Rimbaud — in his own translations, of course.
The letters, included at the end of the collection, mark the years of Schwartz’s accelerated decline. There are two missives to Ezra Pound, then in a Washington D.C. mental hospital because of his Fascist sympathies. Schwartz’s obvious admiration for Pound’s work is tempered by his justifiable outrage at the man’s virulent anti-Semitism. There are several manic letters to his doggedly loyal publisher James Laughlin at New Directions about possible royalties for hypothetical manuscripts. He writes to Dwight Macdonald about collaborating on a book to be titled “Eggshells” and lists his address as The House of Mirth. Schwartz’s final letter takes umbrage at his Syracuse landlady’s annoyance at his terrible hygiene and failure to pay the rent, complaints that are simultaneously funny and rather pathetic.
Along his checkered way, Schwartz managed to inspire many of the best of the next generation of poets and writers. Robert Lowell and John Berryman were close friends and each dedicated heartfelt tributes to his memory. Saul Bellow was one of those who buzzed around Schwartz in the glorious early days; the novelist won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Humboldt’s Gift, which chronicles Schwartz’s initial success and his sad downfall. While teaching at Syracuse, Schwartz met the young Lou Reed, became his mentor, and relied on him to drive him home after exhausting rounds of drinking and ranting. He managed to break through to the young songwriter (no mean feat) with the insistence that Reed promise him that he would write well and never sell out. Clearly, the young songwriter took him at his word.
In 1966, Schwartz died — face down in the lobby of a Broadway flophouse — of a sudden heart attack. This was after a long period of being so disheveled that even the kindly Bellow couldn’t bear to cross the street and shake his hand. By some accounts, Schwartz’s body was left for three days before anyone identified it. Let’s hope Once and for All finally does justice to Schwartz’s achievement by putting his volatile legend in context with his true poetic achievement.
Dearest, is all love dark? Must all love be
Hidden in night from the one who is nearest?
Or is the mystery of divinity an abyss of black?
How then can you come to me? Why do you come back?
Why do you desire my love? Is it love, in truth, if I lack
The sight and vision which begins all intimacy?
(from Psyche Pleads with Cupid)
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.