Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Growing Pains: Delmore Schwartz, Forgotten Genius

The writer Delmore Schwartz is largely forgotten today, but he once captured the anxieties and hopes of the Jewish intellectuals of the 1930s and stunned his generation with his poems and short stories

Morris Dickstein
August 11, 2011
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

In December 1937, a handful of gifted young New York intellectuals set out to revive a literary magazine that had folded the previous year. Partisan Review was founded in 1934 as an outlet for New York’s John Reed Club, a writers’ organization set up by the Communist Party, but funding problems, changes in the party line, and the growing independence of its leading editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, made it impossible to continue. A year after its initial closure they returned to the fray, this time as anti-Stalinists asserting their autonomy. “Partisan Review aspires to represent a new and dissident generation in American letters,” they wrote in their editorial statement. “It will not be dislodged from its independent position by any political campaign against it.” They still professed loyalty to Marxism as a method of understanding, but not as a movement that could claim authority over the imagination of individual writers. “Conformity to a given social ideology or to a prescribed attitude or technique will not be asked of our writers,” they wrote. “On the contrary, our pages will be open to any tendency which is relevant to literature in our time.”

To drive home this commitment they assembled an impressive cast of older and younger writers for their first issue. It included poems by Wallace Stevens and James Agee, essays by Edmund Wilson and Lionel Abel, reviews by Sidney Hook and Lionel Trilling. But at the head of the issue, surprisingly, was a story by a young, largely unpublished poet, Delmore Schwartz. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” would become perhaps the most beloved piece of fiction ever to appear in the magazine.

Schwartz was born in 1913 to parents, Harry and Rose Schwartz, who were mismatched immigrant Jews. After innumerable quarrels, they would separate when he was 7 and his younger brother was 4. Their unfortunate marriage and its impact on his life would obsess Schwartz for many years. Harry’s real-estate dealings made him wealthy, but he was a chronically unfaithful husband. Full of recrimination, Rose was nonetheless proud of her husband’s success, driving him away yet unwilling to concede the end of their marriage. Delmore attributed his later unhappiness to his parents’ bitter alienation, punctuated by melodramatic demands that he choose between them.

After their divorce, Harry moved to Chicago, where his business prospered and he quietly remarried. Delmore spent summers with his father but grew up with his mother and brother in the lower-middle-class world of New York’s Washington Heights. There they were enmeshed in her extended family, whose lives he chronicled in a long story, “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life,” that provides rich background for “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” When Harry died in 1930, it was found that his fortune had evaporated, thanks in part to the onset of the Depression. As a result, Delmore, like so many writers who came of age in the 1930s, would always be hungry for work and short of money.

Though Schwartz studied philosophy with Sidney Hook at New York University and did graduate work with Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard from 1935 to 1937, his inner bent was toward poetry. He was also a brilliant talker and a restless, omnivorous reader. According to William Phillips, who met him in the 1930s, “one felt immediately one was in the presence of a strange and possessed being, endowed with some extraordinary nervous and intellectual energy.” Schwartz developed a prodigious mastery of poetic forms and a remarkable fluency at deploying them, but the influence of modern masters, especially Yeats and Eliot, kept him from becoming a genuinely original poet. His real breakthrough as a writer came one hot July weekend in 1935 when, at the age of 21, he wrote “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” its title borrowed from Yeats. The story was rooted in his own life, but its nightmarish quality, its brevity and ingenuity, its manipulation of time and place, linked it to the modernist writing of the 1920s. For the editors of the new Partisan Review, the story was a gauntlet laid down to the social muse, an implicit challenge to the naturalism and political engagement imposed on many writers during the Depression. It was at once personal and quietly experimental. The following year, it would serve as the title piece of a collection of poetry and prose that would make Delmore Schwartz the most celebrated young writer of the moment, acclaimed by poets as different as T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, by New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, and Allen Tate, and by the most promising of his contemporaries, including Robert Lowell and John Berryman, who became his close friends.

Schwartz also became a central figure in the emerging group of New York intellectuals who would come into their own in the 1940s, but his writing was palpably different from theirs. Most of them were Jewish, but they showed little interest in their Jewishness, except for their urge to leave it behind. Marxist theory and the appeal of Western culture helped make them universalists, quickening their flight from their immigrant beginnings. Their facility with ideas typically made them critics rather than poets or novelists. Personal writing held little appeal for them, at least until they began to look back years later. During the Depression it seemed an indulgence, even an embarrassment. It could only drag them back to the poverty and, as they saw it, the cultural poverty of their family backgrounds.

For Delmore Schwartz, what lay behind him was everything. His family history, and especially his Jewishness, was the medium that would help him fathom the enigma of who he was. His most ambitious work was a failed book-length autobiographical poem called Genesis. No writer believed less in the Emersonian vision of personal freedom, with its faith in the individual’s power of self-making. In one of his short plays, titled Shenandoah, Schwartz derided the notion that “a man/ Creates his life ex nihilo.” Instead, he took up Freud’s exploration of the family romance, which fed his own bleak sense that family was destiny. He never tired of musing on the cultural contradictions of his own name and the burden it placed on him. In Shenandoah, the mock-tragic verse play, his 25-year-old alter ego, Shenandoah Fish, is transported back to the scene of his own bris, the moment when he, at eight days old, received his impossible name. He blames his parents for their eagerness to gain a foothold in the gentile world while at the same time being tone deaf to its language and culture. The incongruous name came to stand for his divided being, at once comically native and ethnic. He would use it again to join the stories collected in The World Is a Wedding (1948), his most telling book.

This sense of an overwhelming fate, rooted as much in Greek tragedy and Jewish history as in Freud, is what Schwartz means by the enigmatic title of the story “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life.” There, he compares a young man’s insight into his family’s history to a series of lights turned on in dark rooms, beams that illuminate the shadowy places in himself. Disheartened, Schwartz revises Wordsworth’s reassuring faith that “the Child is father of the Man.” His conclusion is more desolating: “What was the freedom to which the adult human being rose in the morning, if each act was held back or inspired by the overpowering ghost of a little child? This freedom seemed to [him] like the freedom, dangerous, dark, and far-off, to become the father of new children without knowing at all what would become of them, what kind of human beings they would be.” He is haunted not only by the unalterable past but by the unknowable future, the blind responsibility of one generation for another. This is the psychological drama behind “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Delmore Schwartz’s most poignant evocation of the power of the past over the mind of the present.

If Shenandoah sends Schwartz’s surrogate back to the moment in infancy when he was given his name, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” takes him back even further—to his parents’ courtship, the very day his father, with little deliberation, asked his mother to marry him. The story is cast as a dream, though we don’t learn that until the last line. These scenes from the past unfold on the screen of an old movie theater, a dream within a dream, since movies have always been seen as dreamlike. The year in the story is 1909; the medium is new and modern, its technique still primitive. The scratchy, fragmentary print, its tintype settings, reflect the unbridgeable distance in time, the awkwardness of the characters, whose unhappiness is foreshadowed at every turn. We learn all we need to know about his parents’ marriage but obliquely, by way of metaphor. Each anecdotal twist of the narrative augurs a failure to which the clueless couple remains oblivious.

The most striking of these turns comes when they stroll along the boardwalk at Coney Island, looking out at the glaring sun and the pounding sea. At first this seems harmless, yet the language resonates. “Overhead the sun’s lightning strikes and strikes, but neither of them are at all aware of it.” Gradually the sea grows more menacing, crashing ominously with irresistible force. “The ocean is becoming rough; the waves come in slowly, tugging strength from far back. The moment before they somersault, the moment when they arch their backs so beautifully, showing green and white veins amid the black, that moment is intolerable.” The waves are beautiful yet shattering, intolerable not in themselves but in the agitated thoughts of the young observer, for whom they signal something painful and inexorable. “They finally crack, dashing fiercely upon the sand, actually driving, full force downward, against the sand, bouncing upward and forward, and at last petering out into a small stream which races up the beach and then is recalled.” But the couple feels nothing of their son’s preternatural sense of dread. “My parents gaze absentmindedly at the ocean, scarcely interested in its harshness. The sun overhead does not disturb them. But I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionate ocean.” Vladimir Nabokov cited this last phrase in a 1972 essay on inspiration to illustrate why this was one of his half a dozen favorite stories. But he was no doubt inspired just as much by the author’s way of visualizing the past, playing with time, which anticipated his own scenic technique for conjuring up his early life in Speak, Memory.

What disturbs the young man is that the past is irreversible, its actors unconscious of the upshot of their choices, the long reach of their mistakes. Looking out at the blinding sun and pounding sea, he continues, “I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my mother and father, I burst out weeping once more.” As the movie unreels, like his own run-on sentences, he turns into the troubled voyeur of his parents’ union, feeling helpless to alter the action as it unfolds. The people on the screen remain deaf to his dire warnings. “Don’t do it,” he says, in the story’s best-known lines. “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 story does little to flesh out this prophecy, except to show us the anguish in which he blurts it out. Each incident that follows subtly accentuates the dissonance between his parents. They step up to have their picture taken, as if to inaugurate their coming life together, but the photographer tries and tries again, somehow unable to get it right. They argue adamantly before entering a fortune-teller’s booth, a bad omen for what their future might hold, until the father angrily stalks out, as he would later walk out of the marriage. Watching the scene, the son feels more and more imperiled, “as if I were walking a tight-rope a hundred feet over a circus-audience and suddenly the rope is showing signs of breaking.” As he grows more vulnerable, more desperate, he shifts from being part of the audience to becoming the featured act.

When the story’s narrator talks back to what he sees on the screen, the other people in the theater object to his unruly behavior. He feels utterly apart from the people in the theater for they are mere spectators, engrossed in a story, annoyed at his disruptions. An usher threatens to put him out, while others plead with him or stare him down in dismay. His outbursts continue, and the usher, as in a scene from Kafka, drags him out with a stern warning: “You can’t act like this even if other people aren’t around.” Perhaps the usher’s meaning is that our lives may not be as starkly determined as he thinks. “Why should a young man like you, with your whole life before you, get hysterical like this?” The ending that follows is ambiguous. Expelled from the theater “into the cold light,” he wakes up “into the bleak winter morning of my 21stbirthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.” A man is coming of age, a new day is dawning, but it’s a harsh, wintry beginning. The morning’s “lip of snow” seems at once chilling and inviting, a cold initiation into maturity.

The story resists explaining why the young man is in such distress, but Schwartz’s other writing fills us in. Like the work of many second-generation American Jewish authors, including Bernard Malamud and Arthur Miller, Schwartz’s stories offer a tale of two generations. In his version, the older generation is emotionally confused, poorly acculturated to American life, and set mainly on material survival—making a living, creating a family, carving a place for themselves and their children in a new world. But some of their children turn out to be artists and intellectuals, doleful creatures, acutely self-conscious, alienated from both work and family, living too much in their own heads, their inactivity heightened by the harsh economics of the Depression. Schwartz’s best stories are either poker-faced satirical takes on the bohemians and outright failures of his generation, as in “The World Is a Wedding” and “New Year’s Eve,” or chronicles of the distressed lives of his parents’ generation, for whom the promise of American life has not panned out.

The later story most closely linked with “In Dreams” is “America! America!,” in which Shenandoah’s mother takes him through the history of their neighbors, the Baumanns, a gregarious, seemingly happy family whose early successes gradually peter out, like the faltering hopes of the Loman family in Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Their children go nowhere while they themselves drift downward. “The expectations of these human beings who had come in their youth to the new world had not been fulfilled in the least.” But the key to the story is not so much the fate of the Baumanns as his mother’s absorbing way of telling their story, her peculiar understanding and empathy. He interrupts her account not with protests but with pained reflections, for he realizes how far he is from ordinary people and their lives, the very people who formed him and made him who he was. Compared to what he learns from these stories, his own cast of mind feels self-conscious, abstract, even solipsistic. His mother “was never deceived about any actual things by words or ideas, as he often was.” The flat, awkward solemnity and almost biblical simplicity of his style, perhaps the most striking feature of his fiction, can be seen as his way of imitating this intuitive wisdom. He often uses a tone of mock-solemnity to take down the pretensions of his contemporaries, but also to point to ultimate things.

His mother’s stories crystallize his disaffection with his life, his way of thinking as a modernist intellectual. Yet channeling those stories makes him, for the time being, a different kind of author.

He reflected upon his separation from these people, and he felt that in every sense he was removed from them by thousands of miles, or by a generation, or by the Atlantic Ocean. … Whatever he wrote as an author did not enter into the lives of these people, who should have been his genuine relatives and friends, for he had been surrounded by their lives since the day of his birth, and in an important sense, even before then. … The lower middle-class of the generation of Shenandoah’s parents had engendered perversions of its own nature, children full of contempt for every thing important to their parents.

As Shenandoah tries to imagine the experience of the older generation—their arrival in America, their early hopes and struggles, their growing disappointments—an unexpected surge of empathy overcomes his usual limitations. “And now he felt for the first time how closely bound he was to these people. … As the air was full of the radio’s unseen voices, so the life he breathed in was full of these lives and the age in which they had acted and suffered.” In resonant lines like these, his language seems etched in granite.

Delmore Schwartz came to consider himself a historian of the great Jewish immigration, not with multi-generational family sagas but through modernist fragments and glimpses, seeing those lives through the eyes of the next generation. The movie scenes of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” like the mother’s recollections in “America! America!,” are spots of time salvaged from oblivion. Reading “In Dreams” soon after he wrote it, Delmore’s mother testified to its uncanny accuracy. On the back of the typescript she wrote, “If there is another word besides wonderful I don’t know[.] I don’t remember telling you all these so accurate.” Achieving this uncanny insight did not make the writer happy. “What will become of me?,” Shenandoah thinks at the end of “America! America!” as he gazes at himself in a mirror. “What will I seem to my children?,” he wonders. “What is it that I do not see now in myself?”

As people in the past could not imagine our present, we can scarcely envision the future. This leap of time, the projection forward that so exhilarated Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” weighed heavily on Delmore Schwartz. In (hopeful) dreams begin (awesome) responsibilities, not thanks to some iron law of fate but because our actions, our character, our choices are fraught with incalculable consequences. We can never know their ultimate impact. This would be a heavy realization at any age, but especially for a young man just turning 21. Amid his short-lived early triumphs and subsequent trials, including mental illness, addiction, and the loss of fluency as a writer, this comfortless knowledge would press on Delmore Schwartz’s mind for many years to come, turning his meteoric rise and fall into a cautionary legend, dimming our sense of his bright beginnings.

Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor emeritus of English and theater at the Graduate Center of the City University in New York, is the author, most recently, of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. His memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education, will be published by Liveright in February.

Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor emeritus of English and theater at the Graduate Center of the City University in New York, is the author, most recently, of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. His memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education, will be published by Liveright in February.