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Dreamer

Delmore Schwartz, once one of America’s most celebrated writers, died mad and forgotten, having produced little in his later life. His story remains a compelling cautionary tale for American Jews.

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Delmore Schwartz.(Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.)

In 1937, a short story titled “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was published in the inaugural issue of the newly revamped Partisan Review. It was written by Delmore Schwartz, a poet, two years out of college. Schwartz’s name was the least luminous on a masthead that included Wallace Stevens, James Agee, Lionel Trilling, and Edmund Wilson, but when the magazine came out, “In Dreams” was all anyone talked about. “Those of us who read it at the time” recalled Irving Howe, “really did experience a shock of recognition.”

With its dreamy exploration of family, memory, destiny, and free will, the story made Schwartz famous. He was celebrated by the greatest writers of his time, edited the most revered magazines, and was fictionalized by Saul Bellow and lionized by Lou Reed. But all that fame and passion was too much for Schwartz to take—depressive and drunk, he sank into an oblivion of minor works and receding glory. By the time he died, at 52, alone in a hotel room, he was largely forgotten.

It was a spectacular downfall, and one, sadly, that overshadows Schwartz’s talent and achievements. Morris Dickstein, professor of English and theater at the Graduate Center of the City University in New York, joined Long Story Short host Liel Leibovitz to talk about Schwartz and his renewed relevance to American readers.



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steve says:

I read once that Delmore Schwartz wrote a roman a clef novel about Paul Goodman and his circle that was never published, but I have never been able to track it down. Does anybody have information about this?

jacob arnon says:

I have mixed feelings about Delmore Schwartz. I love his poetry, but the stories don’t speak to me. Delmore was too fascinated by his own family/self to really meditate about the state of the world while he was alive in his stories.

In a series of brilliant essay Saul Bellow published in book form (It All Adds Up) Bellow apologizes for not paying attention to European Nazism and antisemitism. Sure he knew about it, but didn’t really engage it in his early fiction. He was too fascinated by say Trotsky to engage with antisemitism.

The same is true for Delmore. Some of his poems are superb and I have no doubt that as Morris Dickstein says he was a master of the short story, yet to me there is something missing that you can’t just ignore by mentioning “modernism” and that is the real world beyond Delmore’s dreams, the world that European Fascism created, the world of concentration camps. Perhaps the poet realized that himself later on. Perhaps not.

Bellows novel that deals with the fictional Delmore Schwartz shows a poet incapable of bearing too much reality. Of course that is only a novel…. But as Delmore knew in fiction begins responsibility.

Shalom Freedman says:

I

Shalom Freedman says:

I greatly enjoyed this essay and also the interview Morris Dickstein gave to Marc Tracy. However I have a few problems with the presentation. The first relates to Schwartz’s conception of his own Jewishness. So far as I know it has no real religious or for that matter historical knowledge or connection. It is ethnic and familial and also linguistic to a degree, but it lacks content and meaning. Secondly, though Dickstein does an excellent job of explaining Schwartz’s importance in terms of being a forerunner of those Jewish writers, Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth for whom identity- questions would be central he does not to my mind justify in literary terms the weight he gives to Schwartz. I may be wrong here but it seems to me writers like Bellow, I.B. Singer and in certain works, Philip Roth are on another level in terms of literary power and brilliance of language.
I also would have appreciated it had Dickstein related at greater length to Bellow’s take on Schwartz in ‘Humboldt’.

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Dreamer

Delmore Schwartz, once one of America’s most celebrated writers, died mad and forgotten, having produced little in his later life. His story remains a compelling cautionary tale for American Jews.

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