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.
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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