Commentary Magazine

Delmore Schwartz, by James Atlas

The Light that Failed

Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet.
by James Atlas.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 418 pp. $15.00.

Delmore Schwartz burst upon the literary world in 1937, when his story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” was selected as the lead offering in the first issue of the new Partisan Review. Immediately he was hailed by the chief poets and critics of America and England, among them R.P. Blackmur, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Mark Van Doren. Soon he was in correspondence with admirers like W.H. Auden, Van Wyck Brooks, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound. Although there was little likelihood that his cerebral poems, stories, verse plays, and reviews would ever become popular, whatever the twenty-three-year-old Schwartz wrote was published and acclaimed.

The response to his precocity was quite as remarkable as the brilliance of this young man’s first stories and poems, which he never surpassed. And so was the impact that he made upon the people with whom he soon came into contact in New York, at Harvard where he began to teach, and at the writers’ colonies. From the first, he monopolized and bullied friends, drawing them into the web of his complicated plans for self-aggrandizement, his always unhappy love affairs and marriages, and the increasing depression and paranoia that lasted until his death from a heart attack in a cheap Manhattan hotel in 1966. They remained loyal even in the face of his denunciations, securing him teaching jobs, grants, lecture invitations, and places in anthologies. (By 1947 he was the most anthologized poet of his generation.)

Since his death, he has been the subject of memoirs by his contemporaries, William Barrett (COMMENTARY, September 1974), Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, and Philip Rahv. He figures importantly in poems by Robert Lowell and by John Berryman, who for a while in the 40’s was his Boswell. There are unpublished manuscripts about him by Harry Levin of Harvard and by Sidney Hook, the latter titled “Delmore Schwartz as a Student.” James Atlas has drawn on these materials, along with unpublished journals and letters, to produce a balanced account of a notoriously unbalanced life.

Despite his impact on other writers, Delmore Schwartz left few works of permanent interest. Among these are his first story, a few stunningly evocative lyric poems, and possibly some of the hundreds of literary reviews and essays that he turned out with undiminished professional competence between 1935 and 1962. Though for the most part he wrote about himself, he was a poet of abstractions. In his poem, “The World Was Warm and White When I Was Born,” for example, he speaks of his birth in the summer of 1914, but instead of details about a particular life, he concentrates on the abstractions of the title, on the future and the past, and on the love of truth which becomes the truth of love. The abstraction, love, comes into many a poem of depression and loss, too often creating a simplistic polarity between cynicism and sentimentality. Schwartz departed at his peril from the theme of failure, which, as Atlas points out, he had made his own before he was twenty-five.

As a poet, Schwartz suffered an important limitation. He was a traditionalist as well as a modern. His settings, themes, and subjects are all derived from the modern masters, and everywhere in his poems one hears echoes of Yeats, Eliot, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens. But his poetics are those of Milton, Shakespeare, and the lyric tradition of the 19th century. Thus, he encourages a comparison of his work with the greatest English poems, while at the same time having made it impossible for himself to write in any startlingly new way—the very thing he wanted most to accomplish. In an early sonnet, for example, he speaks of the self’s ignorance of what “Is safe, blue, right, cold, blind, soft, real and hot.” The line’s abstractions and meter are both under control, but technically it is more traditional than daring.

The irony here lies in the fact that if Delmore Schwartz’s literary generation is to be believed, his was its most original spirit. He compelled friends into his orbit chiefly by the brilliance of his talk, which seemed to herald a new intellectual and artistic style. Its power lay in the surprising juxtaposition of abstract rhetoric with the mundane concerns of popular culture and a liberal sprinkling of colloquial pithiness. Saul Bellow captured it when he placed Schwartz at the center of Humboldt’s Gift:

He was simply the Mozart of conversation. . . . His spiel took in Freud, Heine, Wagner, Goethe in Italy, Lenin’s dead brother, Wild Bill Hickock’s costumes, the New York Giants, Ring Lardner on grand opera, Swinburne on flagellation, and John D. Rockefeller on religion.

This was what came to be known as the Partisan Review style. If Delmore Schwartz did not originate that style, his speech, as far as his contemporaries were concerned, was its most perfect realization.

Yet Schwartz believed that the vulgarities of popular culture had no place in great literature, and he struggled all his life to keep them out of his writing. At seventeen, he resolved “to see no moving pictures, read no cheap books, listen to no catgut music at all.” And in whatever he wrote, he conscientiously excised such matters. Furthermore, as the young English teacher in the story, “A Bitter Farce,” explains to a student: “To use words like crack or words like wangle is to succumb to slang usages. You can be simple, natural, and direct without using slang.” Delmore Schwartz’s stories are all of these things, but often they are also dull. Seldom in their language or content does one find more than a hint of what made him so interesting: his baseball statistics, odd lore garnered from reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and whatever it was he found in the Police Gazettes and girlie magazines that littered his floor and the back of his car.

All of his life, Delmore Schwartz struggled to find what he called “a different light”—the secret of originality that would permit him to join the great figures of modern literature. And all the while he was systematically extinguishing the colloquial originality that had already been granted him. As a writer, he succeeded in making himself, in the final analysis, conventional. Why? Possibly as a result of his rage for fame, which was identical for him with entering the mainstream of English literature. He may have feared to be daring lest he fail or appear unserious.



Throughout the 40’s, Schwartz abandoned lyric poetry to labor over a verse play about the first seven years of his life, unpublished novels about the intellectual circles he moved in, and a book on T. S. Eliot. In no case did he discover how to incorporate into his work the brilliance of his conversation, or his vision of the mundane. It remained for others to perfect the Partisan Review style in criticism and to give it life in fiction. Its elements come together in Humboldt’s Gift, which must be considered Delmore Schwartz’s apotheosis. At the beginning of the novel, Humboldt/Delmore drives the narrator to New Jersey, discussing along the way “machinery, luxury, command, capitalism, technology, Mammon, Orpheus and poetry, the riches of the human heart, America, world civilization. His task was to put all of this and more, together.” In Bellow’s novel as in life, Humboldt/Delmore never succeeds in this task, but as the drive continues, Bellow demonstrates how it might have been done:

The car went snoring and squealing through the tunnel and came out in bright sunlight. Tall stacks, a filth artillery, fired silently into the Sunday sky with beautiful bursts of smoke. The acid smell of gas refineries went into your lungs like a spur. The rushes were as brown as onion soup.

You can be simple, natural, and direct without using words like snore and squeal, but that is all you will be. Bellow’s poetry of the immediate, perhaps because it lay too close at hand, always eluded Delmore Schwartz. He imagined that he could be an exception, a “genius” with “blazing gifts lighting the world.” He ended instead as a representative figure of his age and milieu.

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