In the summer of 2013 I began to make the rounds, in an electronic fashion, of literary magazines to remind them of the upcoming centenary of the birth of Delmore Schwartz, the man who was hailed in the 1930s as the “American Auden.” Schwartz was responsible, in the words of Allen Tate, the second poet laureate of the United States, for “the first real innovation” [in poetry] that we’ve had since Eliot and Pound”—surely the anniversary merited recognition.
As an admirer of Schwartz since my undergraduate days four decades before, I would suggest to print and net publications that I was the ideal candidate to write an appreciation of the man whose first book of poems and short stories, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, had been praised by the likes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound—when Schwartz was just 24.
The response I got at each successive literary doorstep on which I stopped was umbrage along the lines of “Well of course we’re going to do a retrospective on Schwartz, we have someone working on it already!” The offended dignity was voiced in each case by someone whom you suspected, from their excessive protest, wouldn’t know Delmore Schwartz from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Art is long, life is short, goes the aphorism, but in Schwartz’s case the life was short (he died at 52, in 1966), and the art—for reasons hard to fathom—didn’t outlive him by much. The publication in the 1970’s of Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s roman a clef starring Schwartz, and a biography by James Atlas produced a temporary uptick in Schwartz’s reputation, but that brief burst, like the last fireworks of the summer, seemed to confirm the end of the bright display of his powers once the publicity and sales fizzled out.
Schwartz was a victim of drink like Dylan Thomas, his contemporary and fellow habitué of The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, but the life of the latter ended on a victory lap of the United States, while Schwartz’s body lay unidentified for two days in a morgue after he died. Schwartz left his unpublished papers, which could have provided the perennially impecunious poet with some savings, behind him when he abandoned Manhattan for a teaching post at Syracuse University in 1962. The moving man hired by the landlord to clean out Schwartz’s apartment knew the poet from evenings at the White Horse and, recognizing his manuscripts, stored them at his own expense rather than throw them out. Years later, having a drink with the son of Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, the moving man asked whether Macdonald would be interested in them. Those papers, once bound for the dump, are now in Yale’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Schwartz was the son of a garrulous and melodramatic mother and a philandering father, a successful real estate man. The two clashed often; in what would prove to be a fulcrum in the young poet’s life his mother spotted his father’s car parked outside a Long Island café and dragged Delmore inside to confront his father and his mistress when Delmore was just seven years old. The parents eventually divorced, with Delmore spending summers with his father in Chicago living in luxury—there was a $10 bill at his place at the breakfast table every morning—until his father lost most of his fortune in the crash of October, 1929. He died the following June when Delmore was sixteen, and the son would spend a great deal of time and energy over the rest of his life trying to salvage what he could from his father’s estate. He had once expected an inheritance of $100,000 (approximately $1.5 million in today’s dollars), but would live mainly on a meager income as poet, editor and teacher for the rest of his life.
The sense of a lost paradise of youth haunted Schwartz, who feared that the high praise with which his work was met in his twenties would similarly disappear. “All these fine reviews” he received made him “terrified. It can’t last, I can’t be being praised for the right reasons by so many people, it is much too soon,” he wrote to one of his publishers. This premonition turned out to be true, as the young man who had once corresponded in a familiar tone with Ezra Pound and believed that Ernest Hemingway might provide him with a blurb for the jacket of his first book fell out of fashion. He would win the Bollingen Prize in the 1959 at a younger age than any poet before him, but he descended into alcoholism and mental illness and never fulfilled the promise of his youth.
Schwartz is the author of a one-liner that is oft-repeated but rarely credited to him—“Even paranoids have real enemies”—and the premature eclipse of his career can plausibly if not convincingly be laid at the feet of his natural predators—fellow poets. Schwartz was Jewish, and I think it is fair to say the first great Jewish-American poet. He was nonetheless a bit of a snob, looking down his nose at the gaucheries of his lower-class co-religionists, the denizens of the tenements, the refugees whom Emma Lazarus celebrated, at the same time that he looked up to T.S. Eliot, the ur-WASP poet, like a poor boy with his face pressed up against the window of the store where the rich kids got their toys. He was thus betwixt and between the world of his fathers, and the Anglophile poets of the American canon, but his poems were too philosophical to fit the fashion of those high priests. Archibald MacLeish, two decades older, had decreed that poems should be, not mean, but Schwartz’s poems were full of meaning of the deepest sort. He was widely read in philosophy, and did graduate work in that discipline at Harvard without earning a degree.
But he deserves to be better remembered and read. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (the line is taken from Yeats) is a technical breakthrough for the short story in America, and his poems are the sort that recall William Blake’s disparagement of the “high finishers” of “paltry Rhymes,” the poets who specialize in verbal decoration without inspiration. As Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron, Schwartz was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, but like Coleridge, he had drunk the milk of Paradise.
This article first appeared in Easy Street.