Second Acts: Delmore Schwartz


Stories by Delmore Schwartz are not nearly as abundant as stories about Delmore Schwartz. While the latter may be more amusing, they are ultimately tragic, for that is how Schwartz has gone down in history—as a tragic figure, a poète maudit or doomed poet, a talent squandered and a life frittered away in copious drinking and a penchant for pills (Nembutal for sleep, Dexadrine for energy). Schwartz died in 1966, aged 53, in a Times Square hotel populated by transients and prostitutes, his body having gone undiscovered for three days. It was, by anyone’s reckoning, an unhappy ending.

The stories by Delmore Schwartz—those, too, have an air of tragedy about them, how could they not with this legacy hanging over them? But some have his genius and originality, the mania he medicated and the melancholy he staved off with equal vigor. None of the stories in the collection recently published by New Directions, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories, ends on a high note. In the title story, Schwartz’s most famous, a boy abruptly and unhappily comes of age; in “America! America!” the narrator realizes no one truly knows himself, or his fate; in “New Year’s Eve” a party on that night ends drunkenly, with the protagonist proclaiming his “complete hopelessness of perception and feeling.” Schwartz had a knack for unhappy endings long before his own. Still, the new collection of Schwartz’s stories, with a preface by his former student at Syracuse University, Lou Reed, and explanatory material by Schwartz’s biographer, James Atlas, and his friend Irving Howe, is a happy occasion. Not every story is a winner, but the title story is still a knockout.

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was written in 1935, when Schwartz was 21 years old. It is largely autobiographical. As the story begins, the narrator, a young man, says, “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater, the long arm of light crossing the darkness and spinning, my eyes fixed on the screen.” The sense of the conditional, the “I feel as if,” mixes with the concrete throughout the story, giving it its dreamlike feel. A few sentences later he tells us the exact date: “It is Sunday afternoon, June 12th, 1909, and my father is walking down the quiet streets of Brooklyn on his way to visit my mother.” The young man relaxes into watching the film of his parents: “I am anonymous, and I have forgotten myself.” The movie is like a “drug.” He projects himself into his father’s consciousness: Does he want to propose, to be married? Then into his grandfather’s: Will this young man make a good husband for his daughter? As the young man watches his parents’ courtship, he begins to weep. Is it because his father is already lying to his mother about how much money he is making? It’s unclear, and suddenly they are at their destination, Coney Island.

On the boardwalk, watching his parents staring at the ocean, the young man has another outburst of weeping. His neighbor reassures him that it’s only a movie, but he’s despondent. He leaves the theater, and when he returns his father proposes. He can’t help but rage 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.” The story goes on with more of his parents’ Coney Island antics, and ends with the young man emerging into the daylight. Suddenly we are back to reality: it is “the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.” He has not been able to stop his parents from ruining their lives, and by extension, both creating and ruining his.

“In Dreams” startled the editors of the fledging Partisan Review, reborn in 1937 as a non-Communist literary magazine, who recognized it as a masterpiece. They published it as the lead piece in their first issue along with contributions by Wallace Stevens, Edmund Wilson, James Agee, Lionel Trilling, Pablo Picasso, and Mary McCarthy, among others. Editor Dwight MacDonald wrote in an obituary of Schwartz, “I think the story deserved its primacy. It is as good as a story can be, I’d say after reading it again for the fifth or sixth time, comparable with Kafka, Babel, or Through the Looking Glass.” When the story was published in book form along with Schwartz’s other stories and poems a year later, Schwartz received praise from Stevens and his hero, T.S. Eliot, as well as his contemporaries Robert Lowell and John Berryman, both of whom became his intimate friends. Thus was his brilliance established, and Schwartz went off to teach and do graduate work at Harvard (where he would never finish a degree). He married his childhood sweetheart, Gertrude Buckman, a marriage that would end acrimoniously.

Schwartz used his background again and again in his stories: his parents, Harry and Rose Schwartz, were immigrant Jews who never should have married. They separated when he was seven and his younger brother was four, and their constant fighting and propensity to try and get Schwartz to take sides haunted him his entire life. His father, a philanderer, made money in the real estate business but lost it in the Depression. They separated yet Rose was unwilling to give Harry a divorce for many years (Schwartz writes about a family very much like his own in “The Child is the Meaning of This Life”). Eventually when they did divorce Harry moved to Chicago and remarried. Delmore then split his time between the lower-middle-class world of New York’s Washington Heights, the setting for most of his stories, and spent summers with his father and his new wife.

Schwartz’s Jewishness is a given in his writing; the world of his stories is the world of his family, with their constant squabbling and misapprehensions and dreams of “refinement.” As Shenandoah Fish, the narrator in “America! America!” describes the tension between his generation and that of his parents: “But since he was an author of a certain kind, he was a monster to them. They would be pleased to see his name in print and to hear that he was praised at times, but they would never be interested in what he wrote. They might open one book, and turn the pages; but then perplexity and boredom would take hold of them, and they would say, perhaps from politeness and certainly with humility, that this was too deep for them, or too dry.” The Jews of Washington Heights would not—would never—understand Delmore’s downtown friends, with their ever-splintering Marxism, their Freudian family romance, their worship of Eliot, of Yeats, of the other moderns still very much in vogue as Schwartz tumbled from teaching job to teaching job, his behavior becoming more erratic and his writing less compelling.

Though “Dreams” and subsequent publications in Partisan Review assured Schwartz’s name would be linked with those of Macdonald, William Barrett, Phillip Rahv, and the other New York Intellectuals, Schwartz was equal parts clown and critic. Macdonald writes, “He was a master of the great American folk art of kidding, an impractical joker—words were his medium—outraging dignity and privacy, present company most definitely not excepted, pressing the attack until it reached a comic grandeur that had even the victim laughing.” Rahv remembers him as less jovial. “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.” Though these might seem like dialectically opposed views, one bitter, one sweet, they are oddly consistent with the reminiscences of Schwartz’s other friends. He was the joker and the cynic, the sulker and the jester. William Barrett, in his memoir, The Truants, clarifies that Rahv’s piece pertains more to Schwartz in the years of his decline, and that Rahv and Schwartz’s relationship was always somewhat contentious. Schwartz was known for this observation about Rahv: “‘Philip Rahv does have scruples,’ said very reflectively and gravely; a judicious and reflective pause; then, with a sudden wide grin, ‘but he never lets them stand in his way.’”

Of all of the stories about Schwartz, the most famous is Saul Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize- winning 1975 novel Humbolt’s Gift but the most moving is Jean Stafford’s 1948 short story “Children Are Bored on Sunday.” Stafford’s story too has a touch of the autobiographical about it. After her split from her first husband, Schwartz’s friend Robert Lowell, Stafford spent time in a mental hospital and emerged a much more fragile and self-conscious creature. In “Children” the Stafford character, Emma, encounters a character much like Schwartz, called Alfred Eisenburg, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday afternoon, a place she had hoped to be alone, free from the judging eyes of her old crowd. She remembers the parties, much like the one Schwartz described in “New Year’s Eve.” Schwartz: “On this memorable evening and at this New Year’s party, the idiom which prevailed might perhaps be said to be that of unpleasant cleverness.” A few hours later at the same party, Stafford: “The most surprising thing of all about these parties was that every now and again, in the middle of the urgent, general conversation, this cream of the enlightened was horribly curdled, and an argument would end, quite literally, in a bloody nose or a black eye.” Emma remembered flirting with Eisenburg at one of those parties, though she couldn’t remember whether he was a painter, a writer, a composer, or a philosopher. She did remember, though, that he too had been having a bad time—a divorce, no money, visits to a psychoanalyst. By the end of the story Emma has felt herself a kindred spirit with Eisenberg: “And there was no doubt about it; he had heard of her collapse and he saw in her face that she had heard of his.” They go off to find someplace for a drink, to collapse together, perhaps, or at least to take comfort in the other’s wounded presence.

Schwartz once wrote that “the ideas of success and failure are the two most important things in America.” In this he echoed the thinking of one of his literary idols, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a figure who haunted him, according to his friend Barrett: “Fitzgerald was the symbolic figure of early success that had then deserted the writer, and as such he had taken possession of Delmore’s imagination. Fitzgerald’s saying that ‘in American lives there are no second acts,’ ran as a refrain of despair through Delmore’s conversation.” Those who have early success are not doomed to such despair, but they do have that higher perch from which to fall. Schwartz would never again write a story as good as “In Dreams,” would never love a woman as much as his first wife, would alienate his friends over the course of a long and destructive mental illness. Yet he has inspired works from Stafford’s and Bellow’s to John Berryman’s Dream Songs and Lou Reed’s “European Son” and “My House.” Schwartz’s life appropriately muddles the line between success and failure in an almost dreamlike way; he has had a second act of sorts, just not one he has been around to enjoy.

Lisa Levy is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at and is @RealLiveCritic on Twitter. More from this author →