The Wound of Consciousness.
In his monumental survey Lives of the Poets Michael Schmidt wrote that Delmore Schwartz “of that generation” – Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, Roethke- “flowered exuberantly earliest and faded fastest”. “Not quite enough literary success and personal failure brought him down”.
The Golden Youth
Memoirs about the thirties tend to emphasize Schwartz’s noble features and dignified gait. As a young poet, he resembled Boris Pasternak, who, as Marina Tsvetaeva said, looked like an Arab and his horse. Dwight McDonald described how, “his open, ardent manner and his large, dreaming eyes, sensitive mouth, and proud good looks as of a newly fledged eaglet, made in him seem younger.”Schwartz made a dramatic appearance on the literary scene in 1937, when he was 24 years old, by publishing his most striking creative achievement, the short story ”In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”
James Atlas in his biography Life of an American Poet, describes Schwartz as an aesthete, an enraptured, theatrical young man who could quote ”the whole of any Garbo script at will,” and liked to perform all the parts of The Cocktail Party. Schwartz spoke quickly and emotionally, his words often running together. He was once clocked talking for eight hours straight. Dwight McDonald: “He was a master of the great American folk art of kidding, an impractical joker—words were his medium—outraging dignity and privacy, present company most definitely not excepted, pressing the attack until it reached a comic grandeur that had even the victim laughing.” He amused his friends at the White Horse Tavern with a dialogue in which he played both himself and T S Eliot.
Dwight McDonald recalled that “There was a genial shimmer over Delmore’s talk—as the Irish say, he knew how to put a skin on it—generous, easy and, no matter how outrageously exaggerated, never envious or malicious; like Jove’s laughter. He was egoistic without vanity: he was curiously modest, or perhaps “detached” or “objective” might be better words, about himself and his extraordinary talents.”
McDonald wrote that Delmore could take it as well as dish it out. However, his delusional jealousy and suspiciousness sharpened the edge of the malice with which he gossiped about the private lives of literary figures whom he never met as well as of his closest friends. He was described as having a habit of attributing Machiavellian motives to those closest to him. In later life, he engaged in endless litigation in a futile attempt to regain the family fortune. His stories are filled with frustrated characters whose poverty ruined their lives.
Schwartz was until his death almost continually employed as a professor at quality schools; his work constantly appeared in the Partisan Review and other prestigious organs; he won the big awards and was invited to deliver the big lectures. He was friends with all the right people. Despite erratic mental health, Schwartz managed to hold teaching jobs at Harvard (1940-1947), Princeton (1949-1950), Kenyon College (1950), Indiana University (1951), the University of Chicago (1954), and Syracuse University (1962-1965). He was editor (1943-1947) and associate editor (1947-1955) of the Partisan Review and poetry editor and film critic for the New Republic (1955-1957).
There has been speculation that, despite being married twice and fathering a child outside marriage, Delmore was a repressed homosexual who coped with a fear of same sex affinity by affecting virulent antagonism to “faggots”. On June 14, 1938, Schwartz married his high school sweetheart, Gertrude Buckman. The marriage ended in divorce in 1943. A reading of Schwartz’s letters of the period indicates that the paranoia that was to rule his life for more than twenty years had begun.
On June 10, 1949, Schwartz married the novelist Elizabeth Pollet. He constantly accused her of infidelity and “grand larceny”. She obtained a divorce in 1957. During the last months of the marriage, in 1956, Schwartz had an affair with Eleanor Goff, a dancer who lived in Greenwich Village. From this romance, it appears, Schwartz fathered his only child, a daughter.
By 1945, Schwartz was drinking heavily and taking large amounts of Nembutal to combat insomnia. He soon he added amphetamines to his diet. John Berryman was a much heavier drinker and was frequently admitted to mental wards because of blackouts and erratic behaviour. Berryman had said, after his first meeting with Delmore, that he had never liked “anyone better on first sight”. Nonetheless, Berryman professed to be shocked by Schwartz’s behaviour on occasions. In Dream Song, Paul Mariani’s biography of Berryman, there is the tale of the police releasing Delmore to Berryman’s custody, only for Schwartz to lash out and escape. Back at his hotel, Delmore threw his girlfriend out when she expressed admiration for Berryman’s poetry. Berryman wrote that Delmore was truly “in orbit”. In earlier years Berryman had to intervene when, at a party at Saul Bellow’s house, Delmore seemed to be about to become violent accusing Elizabeth Pollett of flirting with the novelist Ralph Ellison.
On 29 January 1963, while Berryman was teaching at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, he had a surprise visit from Schwartz, who had taken a taxi from Boston and kept it waiting while he talked. He kept hinting that Nelson Rockefeller had been plotting against him. He tried to persuade Berryman to give up his job at Brown and go to New York with him. Delmore was having difficulty putting sentences together.
Disapproving reviews of his sloppy translation of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer did not help his mental state. He continued to write reviews and critical essays of high quality well into the 1950s, but his powers as a poet and storywriter were gone by 1948, when the collection of stories called The World Is a Wedding appeared.
Dwight McDonald wrote a tribute in the New York Review of Books in 1966 after Delmore’s death. “In the fall of 1937, when Partisan Review was about to be revived as a non-Communist literary magazine, a writer with the unlikely name of Delmore Schwartz sent in a short story, ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’, which I and my fellow editors had the sense to recognize as a masterpiece and to print in our first issue… It is as good as a story can be. I’d say after reading it again for the fifth or sixth time, comparable with Kafka, Babel, or Through the Looking Glass.” In 1938, Schwartz published his first book, a collection of poetry and prose. Allen Tate praised the book as “the first real innovation that we’d had since Eliot and Pound.” Time compared Schwartz to Stendhal and Anton Chekhov. Schwartz was never able to equal this bravura performance, and he came to be haunted by his early success.
Way back in 1978, Robert Towers, reviewing Atlas’s biography in NYRB, was sniffy about Schwartz. “I doubt, however, that there will ever be a cult of Schwartz among persons other than the nostalgic members of his own generation, for…the amount of first-rate work which he left is too small to form a lasting pedestal for such a cult-figure”.
Towers writes: “It seems to me that the permanently valuable residue consists of five or six frequently anthologized poems (all written by 1938), one later poem (“Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine”), perhaps three short stories (“In Dreams…,” “America! America!” and “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life”), and a dozen or so reviews and critical articles.”
“To know you is a calamity,” a college friend once told Delmore Schwartz–but not nearly as great a calamity as being him. Schwartz died at the age of 52 in New York City, where he had been living in a seedy hotel. In the pre-dawn hours of July 11 1966, Delmore, dressed in bathrobe and pyjamas, left his shabby apartment at the Columbia Hotel to put the garbage out, wandered onto another floor and had a heart attack. During the last years of his life, Schwartz was a solitary, dishevelled figure, penniless and virtually friendless, his body worn out by years of drug and alcohol abuse. His body lay unclaimed in the city morgue for several days until an obituary appeared in the New York Times.
Berryman wrote in one of his Dream Songs of a “solid block of agony” that consumed him. “I can’t get him out of my mind”. Berryman had seen terrible changes in Delmore who, as a young man had been filled with “surplus love” and had thrilled Berryman with his “electrical insight”.
Since his death, Schwartz’s reputation has enjoyed a renaissance, the result of strong, posthumously published works and of depictions of his life in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975) and in James Atlas’ biography Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977).
Lou Reed’s 1982 album The Blue Mask included his second Schwartz homage with the song “My House”. This song is much more of a tribute to Schwartz than “European Son of Delmore Schwartz” on the first Velvet Underground album “. The lyrics of “My House” are about Reed’s relationship with Schwartz. In the song, Reed writes that Schwartz “was the first great man that I ever met”.
Delmore Schwartz had, wrote Alfred Kazin, “a feeling for literary honour, for the highest standards, that one can only call noble—he loved the nobility of example presented by the greatest writers of our century, and he wanted in this sense to be noble himself, a light unto the less talented…. So he suffered, unceasingly, because he had often to disappoint himself—because the world turned steadily more irrational and incomprehensible—because the effort of his intellectual will, of his superb intellectual culture, was not always enough to sustain him…. “