Delmore Schwartz

1913–1966
Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz had, writes Alfred Kazin, "a feeling for literary honor, 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.... He was the prisoner of his superb intellectual training, a victim of the logic he respected beyond anything else. He was of the generation that does not come easily to concepts of the absurd."

Mental illness haunted Schwartz for approximately twenty years. Marlene Nadle reported that it sent him "in and out of sanatoriums and into and out of the isolation of hotel rooms. It was an illness he accepted almost fatalistically." "Lost he was," said Kazin, "but he was not enough 'lost' in the demonic poet's tradition of losing himself to this world and finding himself in a richer world of private vision.... He was not a seer, not a visionary of 'the lost traveller's dream under the hill,' of the 'holy madness' that Yeats claimed to find in Ireland itself—the madness that Christopher Smart knew, and Hoelderlin, and Blake."

Schwartz nevertheless possessed a dazzling intellect, one equally fascinated by the ideas of Marx and Freud and by popular culture. He spoke quickly and emotionally, his words often running together, and was once clocked talking for eight hours straight. After the death of Dylan Thomas he inherited the role of house poet at the White Horse Tavern in New York. He was known to amuse his friends with a dialogue in which he played both himself and T. S. Eliot. He could turn his humor on himself; Nadle recalls how "he couldn't quite see Delmore as a name for a nice Jewish boy. To explain this exotic happening he embroidered elaborate tales about his being named after a Tammany politician. Other times the story would be that he was named after a pullman car, or a building on Riverside Drive."

Kazin remembers the author as one who "believed in nothing so much as the virtue and reason of poetry.... In Delmore's world of writer-heroes, none was greater than Joyce," the critic continued, noting that Schwartz was known to carry with him a heavily-annotated copy of Finnegans Wake. "Joyce, after all, had proved that naturalist art could attain to the condition of poetry. But beyond this intense loyalty to the great modern tradition—this was Delmore's religion and his faith—it was his need to be intellectually serious, in his favorite form of irony, that explains the extraordinary style of The World is a Wedding."

The author's view of life was a tragic one. Morton Seiff called him a "desperate counterpart of Rimbaud.... Both [were] aware that the supports of their respective cultures [were] tottering and new beliefs must be found to nourish the religious impulse of man." Schwartz wrote of the city, about which he had no illusions. He was "concerned with fundamentals, with the problem of identity, of knowledge and belief, haunted by the noise time makes, able to write wittily and movingly," according to Babette Deutsch. He chose as his theme "the wound of consciousness," he once said, and he wanted to show the miraculous character of daily existence. M. L. Rosenthal said that Schwartz "has many moments of pure music to offer, and some moments in which he speaks in the accents of greatness, and he holds us even in his failures with the honesty and contemporaneity of his voice."

He died, ostensibly of a heart attack, outside a stranger's door with no one to come to his aid. For three days no one came to claim his body. His friends, who reported that Schwartz had dropped out of sight for a year prior to his death, learned of his death by reading the obituaries. He died at the Columbia Hotel in New York, in the city whose artifacts were contributing to "our anguished diminution until we die."

In 1975, when Saul Bellow's novel, Humboldt's Gift, was published by Viking, Karyl Roosevelt stated that the protagonist Humboldt was "a thinly disguised portrait of the late poet Delmore Schwartz, with whom Bellow had a complex friendship in real life." Walter Clemons and Jack Kroll wrote of that same character as "a loving portrait of Delmore Schwartz, whose precocious early poems prefigured the flowering of the powerful generation of poets who came to the fore in the '40s—Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman." More recently, volumes of Schwartz's letters and journals have been published. Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin: Selected Letters chronicles the correspondence between Schwartz and the influential founder and publisher of New Directions. Laughlin published much of Schwartz's work, but the poet also worked informally for the publishing house, reading manuscript and jacket copy and offering ideas for new series for the publishing house. A more-significant window on Schwartz's life and work is present in Portrait of Delmore: Journals and Notes of Delmore Schwartz, 1939-1959. In classic Schwartz style, the journals are chaotic compilations of private thoughts and feelings, bits of poetry and fiction, lists of alcohol and drugs consumed, and more. Noted Stanley Moss in the New York Times Book Review, "There is a rhythm of horror, a relentless, tragic monologue, smirking, mean, petty comments, dirty laundry, things just dumped, but also, and not least, absolute honesty." Newly famous at the beginning of the volume, Schwartz by the end is in a state of marked emotional, intellectual, and physical decline. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the volume "the furthest penetration into Schwartz yet" and remarked that "no reader of modern American poetry will want to forego it."

Craig Tapping summarized the writer's life and work in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay: "The clashes which Schwartz believed his name embodied—between social aspirations and cultural values, old world civility and new world philistinism, and generational differences between immigrants and their American-born offspring—are the subject of much of his prose fiction and poetry. All of Schwartz's writing attempt[ed] to evoke, analyze, and at times transcend what he saw as the inevitable disappointments and profound disillusionment which life forces on people."

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