Delmore Schwartz: Diminished Responsibility and Literary Genius

'In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories'

By Joshua Lambert

Published March 31, 2010.
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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories
Delmore Schwartz
New Directions, 1978. 202 pages.

Delmore Schwartz was a poet first and foremost, and an important one, but his short stories—a valuable selection of which are collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories—aren’t too shabby themselves. Concerned for the most part with sensitive young men at odds with their families, these pieces often hark back to the 1930s, to the Great Depression as it was experienced in New York City, and to the philosophical struggle between left-wing ideologies and the desire to earn a solid living that characterized Jewish communities of that era. That conflict has long been more or less resolved, but in Schwartz’s telling, it retains a kind of freshness and poignant humor: in a representative moment, one of Schwartz’s young intellectuals introduces his mother to a brilliant scholar and tells her, “You have just seen a genius”; without missing a beat, she answers him, “How much money does he make?”

The most famous story here is the title piece, originally printed in Partisan Review in 1937, which also, confusingly enough, provided the title for Schwartz’s first collection of prose and poetry the following year. In it, a young man in a movie theater watches a film of his parents’ courtship, feeling more and more uncomfortable, until at the moment his father proposes marriage, he cries out: “Don’t do it… . Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.” The concern with familial dysfunction and the autobiographical impulse are both typical of Schwartz’s fiction. The other stories range from surreal and absurd fables (“The Track Meet” and “The Commencement Day Address”) to detailed fictionalized accounts of Schwartz’s circles (for example, “The World Is a Wedding”; “New Year’s Eve” is based on a party thrown by the Partisan Review crowd). They are almost always anchored by a sensitive avatar for the author, sometimes called Shenandoah Fish. Among the strongest of the pieces is “America! America!,” which describes a gregarious but troubled immigrant family who find the United States enthralling, if often tragic, and hold tight to their high hopes for it; the mother of this tribe, while spoiling her youngest son, “hoped and expected her grandchildren would be millionaires and grandsons, rabbis, or philosophers like Bergson.”

Schwartz received acclaim—he was praised by luminaries from T. S. Eliot to Vladimir Nabokov, and he was handed a plum assistant professorship at Harvard without having finished a Ph.D.—but he was also haunted, paranoid, and dissatisfied in his personal life, in part, at least, because of the failure of his parents’ marriage during his childhood. His fiction, an irreplaceable body of work, reflects his extraordinary sensitivity, humor, and insight.

Further reading: Selected Poems (1967) provides an introduction to Schwartz’s verse. Readers interested in the poet’s personal life have a tough choice, between James Atlas’s splendid biography (1977) and Saul Bellow’s fictionalized treatment, Humboldt’s Gift (1975). Additionally, two collections of the poet’s letters have been published (1984, 1993), as well as selections from his notebooks and journals (1986

Josh Lambert contributes book reviews and essays to the Forward and other publications, and is the author of “American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide” (Jewish Publication Society) from which this essay was taken.

Read Ken Gordon’s Talmudic take on Delmore Schwartz


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