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Reading Delmore Schwartz, Our Responsibilities Begin

I came late to Delmore Schwartz. For most of my formative years as a reader, he was just a name, inspiration to my great culture hero Lou Reed, who dedicated “European Son,” on the first Velvet Underground record, to him. It wasn’t that “European Son” was a song I loved — the album has more resonant tracks, including “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Sunday Morning” and “Heroin” — but there was that name, Delmore, exotic, especially when juxtaposed against the common Schwartz. The only book of his I knew about had a title so great, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” that I wrote it in a notebook once, as if it were a secret message I needed to decode.

Reed, I should say, struck me much more viscerally; I think of his 1974 song “Kill Your Sons,” with that heart-stopping second verse: “And sister, she got married on the island / And her husband takes the train / He’s big and he’s fat and he doesn’t even have a brain.” This was my family he was describing, my aunts and uncles, who appeared to embody precisely the sort of suburban Jewish existence I’d been raised to regard with both disdain and distance, as though it didn’t, couldn’t, possibly have anything to do with me.

Reed’s lines, of course, are blunter than much of what Schwartz wrote during his truncated career. (Schwartz died in 1966, at 52, after years of alcohol and madness.) But their intent, their brutality, is aligned. Take the title story of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” a nine-page fiction that portrays the past as a silent movie, the courtship of the author’s parents as a tragedy. “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,” the narrator cries out as he watches his father ask for his mother’s hand. The negation, the self-abnegation — how would Schwartz exist if his parents hadn’t come together? — is part of the point. “And so I shut my eyes,” he writes, “because I could not bear to see what was happening.” It is one of only two passages in the story written in the past tense; the other comes at the end, when the narrator awakens on “the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday,” and realizes that everything about which he’s been railing is already committed to the past. Inevitability, loss, the disconnect of generations and the futility of living:

It’s all there, in a narrative that moves back and forth between the mundane and the fantastic, echoing the ebb and flow of the author’s inner life. First published in the Partisan Review when Schwartz was in his early 20s, it is, along with James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Anatole Broyard’s “Sunday Dinner in Brooklyn” (which resembles it in some ways), among the finest short stories I know.

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” opens “Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz” (New Directions, 293 pages, $17.95), a new collection, edited by the poet Craig Morgan Teicher and with a foreword by John Ashbery, which seeks to reclaim a place, a stature, for Schwartz’s fiction, criticism and poetry. It’s a good book and an important one, both on its own terms and as a way to frame the author as part of a lineage. The temptation, of course, is to consider Schwartz as a self-created (and self-destroyed) genius, the apotheosis of romantic myth. Even the facts — on the surface, anyway — support this perspective: early success (including praise from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot), teaching at Harvard and Cornell, the youngest ever winner of Yale’s Bollingen Prize for life achievement, descent into disorder and disarray. A decade after Schwartz’s death, Saul Bellow would win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Humboldt’s Gift”; the protagonist, Von Humboldt Fleisher, was inspired by Schwartz, with whom Bellow had been friends. Still, if this indicates its own sort of heritage, Schwartz as connected to Bellow and, by extension, to Philip Roth or Tillie Olsen, such a reading is not nuanced enough. Schwartz, it is true, was aware of himself as a Jewish writer; at the same time, he was an experimentalist. “It devolved upon Eliot to become Delmore’s model,” James Atlas explains in “Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet,” which Ashbery quotes in his foreword to “Once and For All”; “he was, after all, the quintessential modernist.… Yet…restrained by the limitations of his own background from emulating Eliot’s cultivated manner, Delmore could only follow an opposite course, and eventually found more congenial models in those exemplary figures of revolt Rimbaud and Baudelaire.”

All of this, the cultivation and the derangement, the immigrant experience and that of the modernist, emerges in “Once and For All,” which offers a primer of sorts. In addition to “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” the book features the novella “The World Is a Wedding,” which operates as satire of the aesthete’s life until, in its final section, it cracks into more. “I don’t mean to say that life is just a party, any kind of party,” a young man named Jacob argues after describing a Breughel painting of a marriage feast. “It is a wedding, the most important kind of party, full of joy, fear, hope, and ignorance.” The metaphor is potent, for it insists that joy and sorrow must be (how could they not?) interwoven, that everything is denser than it appears. The same might be said of Schwartz, who wrote both accessibly and obscurely, especially in his poetry. Among the recovered efforts here is his book-length epic “Genesis,” which Teicher calls “Schwartz’s most ambitious and least successful work.” The idea was to use the author’s life as a lens on broader Jewish experience: “America! America!” he writes, “O Land/Whence come chiefly the poor hurt peoples/Who for a reason good or bad cannot endure/Or be endured by the old Vaterland.” In the next stanza, though, his focus opens further, encompassing not only immigrant but also popular archetype. “That Barnum knew America quite well,” he continues, “He knew the gold rush which the populace/Would run to as to fires. And he knew/The love of freaks, the hatred of the norm, /The passion for monstrosity and shock!”

What Schwartz is addressing in these lines is spectacle, the grotesque, mass culture … all of which aligns him with Nathanael West. Not because of heritage or background — West, born in 1903 as Nathan Weinstein, “did not identify himself with traditions,” biographer Jay Martin once suggested, “but as a new man, a modernist.… He was not interested in religion, so he had very little in common with the Jews of the time” — but because of sensibility, point of view. Both situate themselves between high and mass art, influenced by modernism but also newspapers and movies; how else do we account for “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”? Both are critical of consumer culture but also drawn to it; “In 1937,” Schwartz writes in his introduction to a never completed study of Eliot, “I lived in a rooming house near Washington Square. … I wrote all afternoon and then in the evening I went to the pictures, often walking the two miles to Times Square in order to do so, and going through the dark garment district of that part of the city until I came to the crowds moving about under the garish brilliance of Broadway.” In a 2013 essay, Lee Smith invoked not only Baudelaire but also Whitman as one of Schwartz’s antecedents, framing the writer as a participant “one of our most important and lasting literary traditions… the Brooklyn Jewish Troubadours.” But if there’s some truth to that (certainly Schwartz shares more than a little with poet Charles Reznikoff), for me his is a wider vision, not looking inward, to his Jewishness, but outward, to the city first and then to the larger world.

In that regard, I imagine Schwartz not as an immigrant writer but as an American one, his vision less concerned with escape and assimilation than with the relationship of the individual to a society that is at best indifferent and at worst actively disassociated. A similar intensity marks West — as well as, say, Deborah Eisenberg, Bob Dylan and (yes) even Reed as outsiders but not newcomers, with no choice but to navigate the territory for themselves. The questions are not dissimilar: How do we make sense of where we are? The responses, however… they are observations more than answers, not a code for advancement so much as a whisper of consciousness. Or, as Schwartz asserts at the end of “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar”: “Thinking of my father’s fathers,/And of my own will.”

David L. Ulin is the author, most recently, of the novel “Ear to the Ground,” written with Paul Kolsby. His other books include “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles,” which was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He was also named a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. Twitter @davidulin

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