Delmore’s Way

Delmore’s Way

How the stormy eloquence of Delmore Schwartz made possible the glittering prose of Saul Bellow.


In New York Jew, published in 1978, Alfred Kazin recalled that the “twin reading rooms” of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street “gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers…. I was hungry for it all, hungry all the time. I was made so restless by the many minds within my reach that no matter how often I rushed across to the Automat for another bun and coffee…I could never get back to my books and notes…without the same hunger pains tearing me inside.”

What, exactly, was the “it” that the 22-year-old Kazin was so hungry for, sitting in the library in 1938? It was the English language. Not the American, the English. He was mad to read it, and also to write it, teach it, interpret it; to swallow it whole; to possess and be possessed by it. This was the “powerful amenity” he craved for his own life. Immigrant Jews who had fallen in love with English had been sitting in public libraries in New York since the 1880s, and many of them had longed to be intimates of the language in exactly the same way; but at the turn of the 20th century, to think of the language as anything other than a means to an end would have meant that you had climbed the ladder of acculturation three steps at a time. It wasn’t until the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, that this longing had begun to articulate itself with some real, rather than fantasy-ridden, hope of fulfillment. The first generation of college-educated Jews, born in America around 1914, was itself only half-in, half-out; but the hybrid experience alone allowed for their consideration of the exotic notion that English as a destiny might be seen as something other than utopian.

The Depression was one of those periods in American social history when, out of the breakup of class stability, there arises a promise of change experienced as both salutary and threatening. It had brought about a definite leveling of social hierarchies; suddenly, all kinds of people didn’t know who they were or where they stood. People who had never before experienced themselves as outsiders walked around feeling stunned; those who were familiar with the experience often felt themselves oddly privileged; some even saw themselves as walking metaphors.

“There are times in history,” Kazin wrote of the Depression, “when a group feels that it is at the center of events…. It seemed to me obvious that everywhere, even in Hitler’s Germany, to be outside of society and to be Jewish was to be at the heart of things…. I hugged my aloneness, our apartness…as a sign of our call to create the future.”

That’s how Kazin might have seen himself; as for how he was seen by others, that was a slightly different matter. For intellectually ambitious Jews, the late ’30s and early ’40s were the equivalent of life for African-American intellectuals in the ’60s and ’70s: The door of assimilation had been pushed sufficiently open so that some of them could walk through (if they turned sideways), even though just across the threshold the natives stood gazing quizzically, regarding them with thinly disguised distaste or open hostility. At The New Republic, where he was briefly literary editor, Kazin met the poet Allen Tate, one of many upper-class Southerners who were “disturbed by Jews—obsessed, condescending, always just veering off with a smile from some irreversible insult. They were not used to taking Jews seriously.”

Yet no Jew walking through the door of American literary life at this time would have dreamed of writing in any terms other than the ones that the Allen Tates had established. The literature of the period that engages the issue of anti-Semitism—from Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement to Arthur Miller’s Focus to Saul Bellow’s The Victim—says it all. The boldness of these books lay in writing about Jews; it did not lie in sounding like Jews.

The moment, of course, was not far off when, with the publication in 1953 of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, the gap between the two would close with a suddenness that seemed to come from out of nowhere. But that seeming suddenness had been decades in the making; and behind it there was at least one writer very much like Bellow who had paved the way.

Delmore Schwartz is to Jewish-American writing what Richard Wright is to African-American writing. He is the writer without whom, the one whose work most supremely constitutes the bridge between immigrant writing and the writing we now think of as authentically Jewish-American. As such, his work is both moving and instructive. It embodies the step inevitably taken by a marginalized people on their way to cultural equality, the one that requires them to practice imitation at the highest level at the same time that their own native material is subverting the conventional rules of the game.

An epitome of this arriviste generation of Jewish intellectuals, Schwartz was both precocious and reverential, an original and a keeper of the culture. His personality, like that of Bellow’s—shaped by an amalgam of immigrant culture, urban street smarts, and a besotted adoration of European modernism—was marked by a mesmerizing torrent of words that poured incessantly from him. At one and the same time that he was this brilliant, fast-talking New York Jew he was yet imprinted with the conviction that to serve the literary culture formed by modernism was his vocation. Talking with friends in a Greenwich Village cafe, he was where he came from; on the page, he was where he wanted to go.

* * *

Delmore Schwartz was born in Brooklyn in 1913 into a household where more Yiddish than English was spoken, and the family relation to the world was characterized by a mix of crude and shrewd that is common to those profoundly not at home in the culture they inhabit. The parents’ marriage was, as well, a disaster. A sufficient amount of sexual pull had allowed Harry and Rose Schwartz to ignore the fact that not only were they not in love, but given half a chance they would drive each other into an isolation of the spirit strong enough to unhinge them both. By the time Delmore was 9, a thousand domestic horrors had taken place, and the father was gone from the house, leaving the mother alone with two young sons, to tear her hair and scream “Gevalt!” at the world for the rest of her days.

Obsessive about whatever engaged his attention, Delmore early on took refuge in omnivorous reading. It was modern English poetry, however, that developed into a religious devotion. First thing in the morning, before he dressed or had breakfast, he read T.S. Eliot or W.B. Yeats. High-school friends confirmed poetry as Delmore’s “sacred obligation.” Yet it was an extended piece of narrative prose that catapulted him to literary fame.

In 1937, when he was 24 years old, Delmore sent a story to Partisan Review, the left-wing magazine then being run by anticommunist Marxists who had a passion for literature as well as politics. The story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” was a remarkable piece of modernist writing applied to the kind of autobiographical material the magazine’s mainly Jewish editors had never before seen thus treated. The day after it was published, Delmore awoke a literary celebrity.

In the story, a first-person narrator sits in a movie theater watching a single afternoon in his parents’ courtship play itself out on the screen. He sees his father, who’s just made a killing in business, walking cockily along a Brooklyn street, toward his mother’s house. As the film unfolds, the parents leave for a trip to Coney Island, the father boasting and the mother preening—all their future failure foretold in this moment. The narrator begins to weep. “There, there,” an old lady sitting next to him says, patting his shoulder, “all of this is only a movie, young man, only a movie.” The narrator struggles to bring himself under control but, repeatedly, he is overcome, and begins to shout at the screen, “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.” In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator is ejected from the theater by an usher who reprimands him (“Don’t you know that you can’t do whatever you want to do?”), and then we have the final, legendary line: “I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my twenty-first birthday, the window-sill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.”

Thirty years later, Irving Howe would write that it was only now that he realized the key sentence is the one spoken by the usher: “Don’t you know that you can’t do whatever you want to do?” This, Howe thought, contained the meaning of the story: the narrator’s desperate longing to “unwind the reel of our lives,” as Howe put it, interwoven with the writer’s equally desperate knowledge that it could not be done. The interpretation speaks to what many others came to feel was Delmore’s abiding strength as a poet and a writer of fiction: his precocious sense of life’s inborn bitterness. It was all water under the bridge before one had even begun.

Nonetheless, it was the phrase “shining with its lip of snow” that became emblematic, for those who read the story in 1937, of a piece of writing that had made literature out of the kind of material that had not before had the magic of poetry applied to it—not at this level, at any rate. True, Clifford Odets had electrified the New York theater two years before with the lyric-sounding rhetoric of Awake and Sing, a Depression melodrama set among the Jewish working class. But today Awake and Sing—a time-bound product of social realism—is an embarrassment, whereas “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” retains the mysterious, tragic force of lasting literature.

* * *

Schwartz was from the start a presence among the New York literary intelligentsia: a luminous wunderkind stamped with despair and exhilaration. Like the time itself, everything about him was out of control—his beautiful, anxiety-ridden face, his stormy eloquence, his outrageous self-dramatization. He charmed and alarmed. There was a sweetness of spirit at the center of all his dishevelment that made nearly everyone who knew him hold him in tender regard. At the same time, his superior mind was often experienced as flawed by psychological disorder. Three for whom he was memorable in every regard were Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, and Alfred Kazin. Their impressions cast as much light on their own temperaments as they do on Schwartz, but no doubt what each one saw was there to be seen:

Dwight Macdonald: “He was a great talker and he never held back, no hedging around with small talk and cautious civilities, unpacking his mind instantly like one of those Armenian peddlers who used to come to our summer home in New Jersey and who would have their enormous cardboard suitcases unstrapped and displaying their treasures of lace and linen before my mother could get the door shut.”

Alfred Kazin: “In those first days he looked what he was—obsessive, unable to let go on anyone or about anything but more gifted than anyone else…. He looked, as a friend said, ‘our poet.’ No writer of my generation…knew so well from the inside what literature was and what a poet should aim at…. He stood for something, and he knew it.”

Philip Rahv: “He invariably presented himself as a person perpetually harassed but exempt of all blame…. Saturnine by temperament, he took an exceedingly comfortless view of the conduct of human beings, of whose motives he was chronically distrustful; and his habit was to denounce endlessly what he saw as their moral lapses even while taking care to exculpate himself.”

Here, in these brief remembrances of Schwartz, is the classic description of the feverishly talented urban neurotic (Jewish, of course) who, within a decade after World War II had ended, would be unpacking his mind on the page to a culture-changing fare-thee-well. Saul Bellow, anyone? Woody Allen? Philip Roth? In the 1930s and ’40s, however, he was still writing the king’s English; the gap between sounding one way and writing another had not yet begun to close.

Schwartz was made wildly anxious by the unexpected success of “Dreams”—now he clutched his head 12 hours instead of six out of the 24—but he began writing poems, stories, and criticism at a steady clip, continuing to impress his editors and his readers with his strong originality, especially in fiction, where he demonstrated repeatedly a striking ability to incorporate into richly proper prose the taste of the life in which he’d grown. One piece in particular, the novella The World Is a Wedding (1948), is an excellent example of this synthesis. It tells the story of a group of homegrown Jewish intellectuals in their late 20s and early 30s who, trapped by the Depression in a spiritual and financial stasis, meet every Saturday evening to lick their wounds, otherwise known as discussing art, literature, philosophy, what have you. Here is the book’s second paragraph:

The circle of human beings united by need and love began with the graduation or departure of Rudyard Bell from school…. His sister Laura’s apartment was the place where the circle came to full being. When Rudyard graduated, he decided to devote himself to the writing of plays. His aunt had suggested that he become a teacher in the public high school system until he had proven himself as a dramatist…. [Rudyard] said that to be a playwright was a noble and difficult profession to which one must give one’s whole being. Laura Bell had taken care of her younger brother since he was four and she said then that Rudyard was a genius and ought not to be required to earn a living. Rudyard accepted his sister’s attitude as natural and inevitable, such was his belief in himself and in his power to charm other human beings.

Thus in a way, this refusal to become a teacher and to earn a living was the beginning of the circle.

One by one, the psyche of each member of the circle is dissected in the mind of another of the story’s characters fully enough for the reader to see clearly that worldly failure is linked to the outrageous features of personality among these boy-men, for which the times alone cannot be held accountable. But as the business of “getting on with life” is at a standstill, they are able to live almost exclusively among themselves where, without the sobering mediation of that larger world, it is safe to rage and taunt, envy and vent.

Worship of literary talent and philosophical intelligence dominates the members of the circle, along with the ever-rising anxiety that others may have more of it than they themselves have. This anxiety induces the mad imperiousness with which they all speak, and allows social behavior of the crudest order to pass for normal. When Laura complains that Rudyard, who lives with her, reads a newspaper at the breakfast table and a book at the dinner table but at neither meal speaks to her, he replies, “Reading is superior [to conversation] in general, as authors are superior to other human beings.” Rudyard himself (for whom the model was supposedly Paul Goodman) now reads like a poor man’s Lytton Strachey, his own tittering unhappiness at not having had his genius recognized a deranging characteristic.

The novella captures neatly the surreal quality of outsiders living inside a compensatory bubble of their own making, sealed in by the silence of what, for them, feels like the universe. Always a humiliation to people of high intelligence and even higher ambition, among these passionately insulted temperaments such isolation breeds the meanest kind of insularity. Not only do these characters fail to bond with one another in adversity; they tend to hate and scorn those whom they most resemble—exactly as one does inside the degraded intimacies common to family life.

This is the story that Schwartz understands in his nerve endings: the one that tells of those deprived of agency by the kind of cultural self-consciousness that short-circuits experience. Behind the self-consciousness, needless to say, lies the obscuring embarrassment—the shame!—of being who and what one is; the shame that, in the case of Jewish-American writers, would soon enough give way to an angry, pent-up sense of entitlement—all it took was a world war—that compelled them to fling themselves down on the page without restraint.

* * *

To a striking degree, Delmore Schwartz was place-bound, the place, of course, being New York City. All his life, he remembered how much he had suffered as a Jew at Harvard, where he went in 1940 to take up a teaching post. Once he opened his mouth, the patricians in the English department recoiled from him, and it wasn’t so much that he was aggrieved by the rejection he met with as that the inner conflict it aroused in him was damaging. At the same time that he despised the academic mandarins at Harvard, he found himself hungry for their recognition and acceptance, and for this he hated himself. Self-hatred led to a creative inertia out of which he derived at least one invaluable insight:

—I think maybe an artist’s faculties
Can function at their best only if caught,
Caught like a forest in a blazing fire,
Only if drawn into the age itself,
Like a witty fellow present at a party
Who cannot be himself, cannot be happy,
Cannot be witty and enthrall the guests
Unless he feels at home, at ease, marked out
By sympathy, expectancy, and joy…

Here, in this poem, we have Schwartz and his moment in a nutshell. The generation of Bellow (and, later, Roth) would make a literary virtue out of overwhelming rather than succumbing to the world as it was, but the generation of Delmore Schwartz could not function unless reassured daily that it was loved and admired by the world as it was. What is most astonishing is how much he suffered, daily and by the hour, from the inner conviction that ruling-class rejection was preventing him from honoring his self-imposed obligation to save English literature from the philistines.

To spend one’s life making and thinking about literature and its cultural meaning was, for Schwartz, more than a calling; it was a responsibility. As he saw it, it was the obligation of the artist and the intellectual to reject the allure of mass and middlebrow culture, because each foretold the death of literature as we knew it. It was, equally, the task of the critic to preserve for the common reader the culture within oneself that makes poetry flourish.

In his critical essays, Schwartz attached a prophetic meaning to the act of reading as well as writing. He wanted his own criticism to supply an inner excitement that would fortify, not deplete, the visceral connection between the reader and the book. For years, he wrote about writing in this spirit, with a full appreciation for those critics who, in his view, contributed significantly to clarifying the larger relation between literature and the culture of a shared sensibility. In Edmund Wilson, he found the perfect subject to allow him to think out loud, and in the best way, about what writing about writing could mean.

Reviewing a new collection of Wilson’s pieces in 1942, Schwartz takes the opportunity to meditate on the older critic’s career in order to pinpoint the source of his excellence. Straightaway, he tells us that Wilson is far from the literary critic of his dreams. In fact, properly speaking, he doesn’t see Wilson, a man of letters visibly unresponsive to form, as literary at all. For Schwartz, form is integral to the meaning of a literary work. For Wilson, what matters is not how books are written, but what they are talking about, and how they affect the culture at large. It is Life with a capital L that interests Wilson. Life and Society. Life and the National Culture. Literature, for him, is instrumental: the interpretive art that helps the reader break through into the real world. His strong point is always placing the book in its social and political context. Form is wrapping paper. It might be necessary to spend some time “taking off the wrapping-paper and undoing the difficult knots of the cord tied about it, but the main thing is the gift inside, the subject-matter.”

This inability to see form as an element of literary importance is a limitation that often makes Wilson sound philistine. The indiscriminateness with which he pursues a line of thought that allows him to speak of Proust and Dorothy Parker in the same sentence, or to compare Max Eastman favorably with André Gide, is, for Schwartz, pure pain. But if Wilson is not in love with writing as such, and if Schwartz is appalled by this absence of sensibility, why is he writing about him? The answer to that question is the subject of his essay.

Wilson himself, Schwartz explains, is a kind of American figure who crops up repeatedly in the national literature and is revelatory of the culture: the man rooted in an old America that has been devoted to an idea of the republic that originates with the Revolution, and is repelled by the rapacious money society that has been growing steadily in America ever since. For Wilson, the money mind-set had come to represent the failure of imagination that leads directly to the kind of moral dilemma familiar to the characters in the fiction of Henry James, and central to the disillusion at the heart of Henry Adams’s Education. The clash of thought and feeling between the ennobling idea of the republic and the meanness of its actuality is the subjective concern of the two Henrys, and it was Wilson’s as well. He is their true heir.

This depth of wholeness between the man and his culture is the quality of Wilson’s that Schwartz is intent on appreciating, and the thing that he, against all odds, identifies with. Throughout the Wilson essay the tone of voice that Schwartz adopts is, above all else, comradely; as though he and Wilson are fellow workers who may differ on how best to serve the common enterprise but are essentially at one on what the enterprise is. These qualities of mind and spirit make of the essay a memorable piece of writing. They also place Schwartz squarely beside the Alfred Kazin who for the same reasons developed a passion for Henry Adams, and the Irving Howe who came to revere Emerson.

The fellowship among Wilson, Adams, and Emerson originates, of course, in its ability to sink undivided roots into cultural criticism: a characteristic immensely exciting to these turn-of-the-century critics from Brooklyn and the Bronx, who yearned passionately to do work of the first order—for which they suspected the word “undivided” was key, at the same time that they determined to ignore their own suspicions.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the time would have to come when such yearnings, saturated as they were in sentiment and accommodation, would give way to the push for authenticity that required the abandonment of sentiment and accommodation. Paradoxically, Delmore Schwartz wanted full citizenship in a world that he could enter only by declaring himself in terms that were anathema to that very world. It was an act his generation was constitutionally incapable of performing.

* * *

It is a romantic illusion on the part of those born into the wrong class, race, or sex that imitation achieves integration. To the contrary: Instead of pleading with the gentry to be let in—“Look, I can do you to perfection”—those born on the wrong side of the cultural divide must harden their hearts against the hope of inclusion and become the incarnation of the very identity that is keeping them out. This because it is only through the insistent insinuation of the authentic that cultures change; and it is only through that change that the marginal can progress from the periphery toward the center.

To read The World Is a Wedding today is to find oneself in the always interesting company of those half-in, half-out, clearly torn between nostalgia and breakout. The writing is informed by an uneasy pathos that, as critic Martin Greenberg wrote, “permits the author both to disavow the life that he describes and to affirm his relation to it.” It is this hesitation at the heart of the enterprise that both defines the fiction of Delmore Schwartz and makes it falter, that reveals the writer’s reluctance to create characters whom he cannot bear to throw to the wolves. Some two decades later, in the early 1960s, it was precisely the glittering, take-no-prisoners prose of Bellow and Roth that the American language was ready to embrace as though it had long been waiting for its invigoration.

When Saul Bellow began the writing that would eventually earn him a Nobel Prize, what he wanted was not to serve high culture; it was to cover the page with the taste of his own life. On the other hand, he also wanted T.S. Eliot to know that he had read as many books as had Eliot; or for that matter as had Delmore Schwartz. In Humboldt’s Gift, we have a highly successful braiding of these twin literary needs that became a signature trait.

Well before Humboldt’s Gift was written, Bellow had established himself as the creator of a narrator whose voice echoes that of the Jewish intellectuals of the previous generation, at the same time that it is its own fiercely original self. The major characters in this book are the writer, Charlie Citrine (a barely disguised Bellow), and the poet, Von Humboldt Fleisher (a not-at-all-disguised Delmore Schwartz). Citrine, when young, had taken the intensely literary Fleisher for his mentor, his guide, his gold standard. To live for art was everything to Fleisher; to make money from art was to have sold out. In the goodness of time, Fleisher stops getting published and declines into mental dishevelment while Citrine flourishes, becoming rich as well as famous; whereupon Fleisher sneers at his commercial success, and everywhere he goes puts Charlie down. Nonetheless, the memory of Humboldt in his salad days eats at Charlie, and he cannot forget how much larger than life the now-destroyed poet had once been.

As an introduction to an evening of conversation with Humboldt, Charlie tells us that he must first place the event in a bit of cultural history: “There came a time (Early Modern) when, apparently, life lost the ability to arrange itself. It had to be arranged. Intellectuals took this as their job. From, say, Machiavelli’s time to our own this arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project.” It is the very embodiment of Humboldt’s talk:

Reasoning, formulating, debating, making discoveries, Humboldt’s voice rose, choked, rose again…. He passed from statement to recitative, from recitative he soared into aria, and behind him played an orchestra of intimations, virtues, love of his art, veneration of its great men—but also of suspicion and skulduggery. Before your eyes the man recited and sang himself in and out of madness.

First came politics—a long, wild disquisition on Eisenhower, McCarthy, Roosevelt, Truman; then came pop culture—the tabloid columnists Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Leonard Lyons, Red Smith; after that, on to General Rommel and from Rommel to John Donne and T.S. Eliot; then “the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas and the secret motives of Arnold Toynbee, and (somehow) the used-car business. Rich boys, poor boys, jewboys, goyboys, chorus girls, prostitution and religion, old money, new money, gentlemen’s clubs, Back Bay, Newport, Washington Square, Henry Adams, Henry James, Henry Ford, Saint John of the Cross, Dante, Ezra Pound, Dostoevski, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, Gertrude Stein and Alice, Freud and Ferenczi.”

Bellow ventriloquizes Schwartz so brilliantly that we cannot help but see what Bellow would be up to for the rest of his writing life: putting himself on the page by invoking the sound of the high-culture Jew filtered through the voice of a narrator who has swallowed the same library. But it is now not so much a matter of putting its imitative devotions behind him as folding them into his own down-and-dirty vernacular. Voilà: Jewish-American authenticity.

For Delmore Schwartz to take such liberties with English would have spelled literary death. But it is certainly because he lived when he lived and wrote as he wrote—that tender hesitation of his being the necessary precursor to explosion—that the next generation of writers continued to hear Delmore’s voice in their ears all their writing lives.

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