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Adam Sachs’ Motherless Son, Fathered by Kafka and Louis C.K. and Haunted by Delmore Schwartz

Stories of paternal complications, in a new collection by Adam Ehrlich Sachs and a ‘long-needed’ new selection of the writings of Delmore Schwartz

Adam Kirsch
June 02, 2016
Illustration: Flavio Morais
Illustration: Flavio Morais
Illustration: Flavio Morais
Illustration: Flavio Morais

Is it better for a writer to be remembered as a tragedy, or not to be remembered at all? When Delmore Schwartz began his career, in the late 1930s, he was the precocious golden boy of American Jewish letters, the writer every critic expected to turn out a genius. His story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which he wrote at the age of just 21, was published in the first issue of Partisan Review in 1937, and in many ways Schwartz was the archetypal Partisan Review writer: a polymath, a worshiper of European high culture, a lover of big ideas and violent intellectual debate. From the late 1930s through the end of World War II, Schwartz produced brilliantly promising work in poetry, fiction, and criticism. In the generational race for fame, he had a big head start on his contemporaries, poets like John Berryman and Robert Lowell and novelists like Saul Bellow.

But starting in his early 30s, Schwartz’s life was derailed by alcoholism and mental illness, which developed into acute paranoia. He became convinced that powerful people, including the Rockefellers, were scheming to destroy him. As he passed in and out of mental hospitals, his life fell to pieces—divorce, friendships ruined, jobs lost—and his work declined, the early brooding intensity becoming vague and verbose. When Schwartz died in 1966, at the age of 52, he was living alone in a Times Square flophouse, and his body lay in the city morgue for days before it was identified. The famous lines from Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” could have been written about him: “We poets in our youth begin gladness,/ But thereof come, in the end, despondency and madness.”

Despite everything, Schwartz has never been forgotten. This is owed in large part to the fact that he was friends with so many famous writers, who knew him in his glorious youth. He lives in the pages of Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, where he is immortalized as the mad, scheming poet Von Humboldt Fleisher. And he is the subject of some of Berryman’s most personal poems, such as Dream Song #149:

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably and alone,
in New York; he sang me a song
“I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz,
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts”
when he was young & gift-strong.

These works, along with a major biography by James Atlas published in 1977, were responsible for a short-lived Schwartz revival. Several books of his fiction, poetry, criticism, and letters appeared, mostly from his longtime publisher New Directions. But most of these titles quickly went out of print, and for some time it has been hard to find much of Schwartz’s work beyond the most famous short stories and poems. In particular, the work that Schwartz himself saw as his masterpiece—“Genesis: Book One,” a long autobiographical poem in verse and prose—was never republished after it appeared in 1943.

Now the poet Craig Morgan Teicher has edited the book that has long been needed: a well-chosen selection of Schwartz’s work in every genre. Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz seems to stake a permanent claim in its title: Here is all the Schwartz the world will ever need. And while specialists will always return to the complete works, Once and for All serves as an ideal introduction for the curious reader. It includes enough of Schwartz’s early work—including selections from “Genesis”—to show why he became a legend, and enough of the later work to show how the legend faded. And since it includes a handful of letters, it allows the reader to trace Schwartz’s evolution and decline. In 1939, the proud young poet submits a “letter of resignation” to Ezra Pound, in protest against his anti-Semitism: “I have been reading your last book. … Here I find numerous remarks about the Semite or Jewish race, all of them damning. … A race cannot commit a moral act. Only an individual can be moral or immoral.” By 1958, Schwartz has been reduced to a paranoid recitation of grievances and conspiracies: “I was the object of illegal arrest and detention in Bellevue for seven days, during which, as a result of improper treatment and false information, I had a heart attack on the fourth day and was put in a straitjacket and came close to dying.”

When Berryman says that Schwartz wrote about “Harms and the child,” he is punning on the opening words of the Aeneid, “Arms and the man I sing.” But it is also a fair summary of Schwartz’s great theme, which is the great theme of early American Jewish literature: the weight of the past, the way the traumas and dysfunctions of the parents are transmitted to the children. For Schwartz, who was an acolyte of both Marx and Freud, this burden was at the same time historical—a product of the long Jewish past, and the recent disruptive emigration to America—and psychological—a product of the guilt and resentment the child feels toward his mother and father. The two lenses are superimposed in one of Schwartz’s best poems, “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar,” in which he compared himself at 2 years old, in 1916, with the Romanov princes, who can’t imagine that soon they will be executed. Both the world-historical princes and the insignificant Brooklyn Jewish boy, Schwartz suggests, are doomed by the same forces:

I am my father’s father,
You are your children’s guilt.

In history’s pity and terror
The child is Aeneas again;

Troy is in the nursery,
The rocking horse is on fire.

Child labor! The child must carry
His fathers on his back.

This killing weight is also the subject of Schwartz’s most famous story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” one of two included in Teicher’s anthology. In this short tale, the narrator watches in a darkened movie theater as scenes from his parents’ courtship are projected on the screen. Seeing his young parents together, he notes all the ways in which their incompatibilities, the seeds of future discord, are already obvious. Finally he leaps out of his seat and cries: “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.” The child wants to annul his past, to cancel out the possibility of his own existence.

But every line of Schwartz’s best work acknowledges that this is impossible—that we are constituted by the very past we rebel against. This rebellion sometimes takes comic form, as in the verse play “Shenandoah,” where Shenandoah Fish looks on at the scene of his own bris and protests against the name his parents are about to bestow on him. (Schwartz was often sarcastic about his own first name, and his fictional surrogates tend to have similarly pretentious, unidiomatic names.) Most of the time, however, Schwartz is not a funny writer, but a solemn, melancholic one, often teetering on the edge of youthful pomposity. We hear the true Schwartz voice in “Genesis,” a largely forgotten work that deserves credit as the first “confessional” poem:

Poor boy, how education comes to you!
Learning to be a Jew, attacked because
A Jew, born to the long habit of pain
And alienation, of the people chosen for pain …
Attached for the first time because you are
A kind, a class! As you were not yourself,
The pain of the sole psyche insufficient,
The naked surd’s self-torture not enough!

Jewishness, for Schwartz as for more famous contemporaries like Bernard Malamud, is a kind of intensification of the human condition, a way of experiencing more acutely the themes of modern life—alienation, guilt, loneliness, moral striving. Schwartz’s “resignation” from the cult of Ezra Pound—who was, at that time, the idol of all young avant-garde intellectuals—was part of his insistence that English literature had to make room for Jewishness as a subject and a voice. In this sense, Schwartz was a trailblazer for the golden age of American Jewish literature in the 1950s and 1960s—a Promised Land that, like Moses, he was not permitted to enter.


“I am my father’s father,/ You are your children’s guilt”: I’d be willing to bet that Adam Ehrlich Sachs has read these lines and savored their bitter irony. For Sachs, in his darkly hilarious new book Inherited Disorders, sets out to be the encyclopedist, the poet laureate, of dysfunctional father-son relationships, particularly of the Jewish variety. Schwartz, a first-generation American Jew, felt that he carried the hopes and responsibilities of all his ancestors on his back: It was for his sake that they had suffered, and it was up to him to justify their sacrifices. Sachs, writing in a new century, does not have quite the same acute sense of historic obligation and resentment. But father-son rivalry, the game of expectation and rebellion, what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”—these themes are alive and well, he shows.

In fact, they are so vital that Sachs can’t possibly do them justice in a single story, or 10, or even a hundred. Part of the joke of Inherited Disorders is structural: The book is made up of 117 separate tales, every single one devoted to the subject of fathers and sons. It is like a spoof of the idea of “closure”: Rather than get to the bottom of what drives fathers and sons, Sachs reenacts the compulsive nature of the relationship, finding more and more ways to dramatize it. It is a testament to his wit and ingenuity that the reader only occasionally gets tired of the sameness.

A blurb on the back of the book compares Sachs to a cross between Kafka and Louis C.K., and that sounds about right. Like Kafka, whose story “The Father” is the classic treatment of Sachs’ theme, he captures the feeling of hopeless entanglement in family and history; like a deadpan stand-up, his jokes start out straightforward and then swerve or collapse into absurdity. Take “Diving Record,” which is a single paragraph long:

A Florida man died Monday while trying to surpass his father’s record of deep diving without the aid of oxygen or fins. Thirty years ago, in the Gulf of Mexico, the father famously dove 225 feet without using oxygen or fins. On Monday the son made three dives in the same location, all without using oxygen or fins. His first dive was 167 feet. His second dive was 191 feet. On his third attempt the son managed to dive down 216 without oxygen or fins, but his lungs burst on the way up and he died aboard his diving vessel. At the funeral, his father tearfully admitted that in his record-setting dive he had actually used both oxygen and fins.

At first this could almost be a news story, except that the repetition “oxygen and fins” starts to sound excessive, absurd. The pay-off comes at the very end, when we learn that the father’s heroic deed, the one the son risks his life to match, was a lie. In fact, the father too was human, limited, in need of oxygen and fins. Yet the father was complicit in building up his own legend, thus creating in his son a sense of inadequacy and rivalry so deep that only death can cure it. It is like a Greek myth shrunk to the size of a newspaper clipping.

In story after story, we meet a father of legendary stature whose son spends his life trying to match up; or else it’s a father whose enormous generosity and self-sacrifice become their own kind of impossible challenge. Sachs gives these tales a variety of settings that is itself comic. In “The Family Shiraz,” a winemaker tries to get a better score from the wine critic Robert Parker than his father did; in “The Flying Contraption,” a son kills himself trying to prove that his father’s flying machine is a fraud. Even the sons who resolutely refuse to follow in their fathers’ footsteps end up ensnared, as in “Regret,” where the son of a “dog obstetrician” finds himself unaccountably drawn to the sight of pregnant dogs.

Yet sons don’t come off any better, since it is their misunderstanding and projection that turns their fathers into insoluble problems. A good example comes in “The Stipulation,” about a famous performer whose contract specifies that he can take the stage only if his father is between 30 and 300 feet away from him: The son needs his father close, but not too close. A similar ambivalence is found in “Betrayal,” where a son performs a one-man show designed to “destroy his father, devastate his family”—only to find that the show comes across as so tender and loving that his father leads a standing ovation. Are we to pity the son who can’t communicate his anger, or the father who loves his son so much that he can’t recognize it? Or perhaps this is simply the rare family story with a happy ending, in which love prevails despite everything? Either way, we are left with admiration for Sachs’ insight and his restraint, the way he uses comedy to banish sentimentality. His father must be very proud.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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