Poet and critic Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966) stunned the literary world with the breathtaking achievement of his first published volume in 1938, earning him adulation as "the American Auden." His early success raised critical expectations that Schwartz could never fulfill. Depression and alcoholism marked his later years. Through both his art and his tragic death, Schwartz influenced such literary legatees as John Berryman and Robert Lowell.
Delmore Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 8, 1913. His parents, Harry and Rose (Nathanson) Schwartz, were immigrants from Romania, part of the first great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. Harry Schwartz grew prosperous in the real estate business, enabling the couple to move to an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. When their first son was born, they gave him a traditional Jewish middle name, David, but a first name, Delmore, they intended to sound sophisticated and "American." Always sensitive about his first name, Schwartz would later deal with the issue in his poetry. Rose Schwartz gave birth to a second child, Kenneth, in 1916. Marital problems, caused in part by Harry Schwartz's philandering, plagued their relationship. The couple separated for a time in 1923.
A precocious child with a flair for mimicry, Delmore Schwartz nonetheless had a difficult time in grade school. His only good subject was English, because it engaged his active imagination. His parents' tumultuous marriage, which ended in divorce in 1927, gave the boy plenty of material for morose reflection. He spent his time writing about his feelings in a series of journals. Early in childhood, Schwartz decided to become a poet.
Teachers who read Schwartz's early writing encouraged him to develop his talents. As a teenager, he began to identify with the European avant-garde. His early verses were published for the first time in the Poet's Pack of George Washington High School in 1929. That same year, Schwartz's family lost much of its savings in the stock market crash. His father died in June 1930. An unscrupulous executor embezzled the small amount of money that remained in hie estate after the collapse. At the age of 16, Delmore Schwartz was left practically penniless and without an inheritance. His mother now provided his only means of support
After graduating from high school, Schwartz enrolled in a college prep course at New York's Columbia University. In 1931, he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he was exposed to Marxist philosophy and the bohemian ethic. Schwartz did not apply himself too diligently to his studies, however, and he left the university in June 1932, without completing his final exams.
Schwartz returned to New York City and enrolled at New York University. Schwartz took courses in classical, analytical, and contemporary philosophy. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1935. While at NYU, Schwartz and a group of fellow students founded Mosaic, a literary magazine devoted to Marxist aesthetics. Norman Macleod, R.P. Blackmur, and William Carlos Williams were a few of the prominent poets and critics who had their work published in Mosaic. As editor, Schwartz used the publication as a vehicle to air his own critical opinions. His essays earned the attention of the New York literary community.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Schwartz began graduate study in philosophy at Harvard University. He remained there for the better part of two years, but left without receiving any kind of degree. During that time, Schwartz continued to write poems and critical essays, including some well-received translations of the French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud. His work was published in Poetry magazine, and he was awarded the Bowdoin Prize for best essay by a graduate student in the humanities. In 1936, his poem Choosing Company was published in American Caravanmagazine. Schwartz later explained that this poem illustrated the two difficulties he struggled with in his work: "trying to make a dramatic image of an idea" and "trying to make dramatic poetry out of American speech."
During his second year at Harvard, Schwartz's mother informed him that she could no longer support him financially. So, in March 1937, Schwartz returned once more to New York City. He was now devoted to working full-time as a writer and critic. Later that year, editor James Laughlin included some of Schwartz's poems in his annual anthology New Directions in Prose and Poetry. Schwartz's criticism, fiction, and poetry also appeared in the pages of such eminent literary magazines as Poetry and Partisan Review.
Although Schwartz had yet to publish his first collection of poems, he was already being singled out as one of America's most promising young writers. Critics likened him to W.H. Auden and Hart Crane. In 1938, he attempted to meet those lofty expectations with his debut collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. The book, whose title was inspired by a line from William Butler Yeats, included a short story and a play, alongside numerous poems. It was widely praised as an audacious mix of styles and forms, proof positive of Schwartz's virtuoso mastery of the language. "[N]o first book of this decade in American poetry has been more authoritative or more significant than this one," wrote critic G.M. O'Donnell in the pages of Poetry magazine.
Still only 25, Schwartz was now recognized as one of America's pre-eminent poets. In June 1938 he married Gertrude Buckman, a high school friend. The couple divorced six years later. Schwartz's lofty reputation suffered the following year, when his translation of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell was criticized for its many verbal and grammatical errors. A shame-faced Schwartz was forced to revise the translation for publication the following year.
In 1940, Schwartz was appointed Briggs-Copeland Instructor in English Composition at Harvard. He was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship, a cash grant which allowed him the freedom to complete the manuscript of a new verse play, Shenandoah. The new work, which was published in 1941, examined the naming rites of a Jewish child in the Bronx. Reviews were mostly negative, causing some to question whether Schwartz would ever live up to the promise of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.
Schwartz was named the poetry editor for the Partisan Review in 1943. He remained with the magazine for the next four years, using the influential position to publish the works of other young poets. Schwartz also continued to write his own poetry. His semi-autobiographical piece Genesis: Book One, intended as the first book of a multi-volume epic, was his most ambitious work to date. Critics responded unfavorably, however, causing Schwartz to doubt his own creative abilities.
A better reception greeted The World Is A Wedding, a collection of Schwartz's short stories which appeared in 1948. "In so far as authenticity means truth, these short stories are the most authentic I have read in a long time," declared critic John Hay in the pages of Commonwealth. Shortly before the book's publication, Schwartz stepped down from his teaching post at Harvard and gave up the editorship at Partisan Review. He retained the post of associate editor and lectured on a visiting basis at such institutions as New York University, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. Schwartz married for the second time, to Elizabeth Pollett, in June 1949.
In 1950, Schwartz published his next major volume of poetry, Vaudeville for a Princess and Other Poems. The 56 poems reflected a prevailing sense of failure and regret, which some critics attributed to Schwartz's inability to live up to the potential of his earlier work. Whether he was disappointed in the critical response to this volume or not, Schwartz spent most of the next decade writing only occasionally for magazines and anthologies. In 1955, he left the Partisan Review to take over as poetry editor of the New Republic, where he remained until 1957. His marriage to Elizabeth Pollett ended in divorce in 1955.
A retrospective collection of Schwartz's work Summer Knowledge: New and Selected Poems, 1938-1958 was published in 1959. More than half the poems in the collection were drawn from In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, with only three coming from Vaudeville for a Princess and Other Poems. Schwartz personally re-ordered and re-titled some of the poems, and included a few of his more recent efforts. For the most part, critics dismissed these newer works as embarrassingly sentimental and labored, but praised the collection as a whole.
Long out of critical fashion, Schwartz enjoyed a brief revival of his reputation in the early 1960s. Summer Knowledge: New and Selected Poems, 1938-1958 received the Shelley Memorial Prize, earning Schwartz a $1100 award. In 1960, the poet was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and with it a stipend of $2500. A second volume of Schwartz's short fiction, Successful Love and Other Stories appeared in 1961.
Despite these accolades, Schwartz remained a troubled, unhappy man. He believed that critical recognition had come too late to save his tattered reputation as a poet who had showed early promise, but failed to live up to it. He wrote very little during the final six years of his life. In place of poetry, Schwartz filled his life with a diet of liquor, barbiturates, and amphetamines. His physical and mental condition deteriorated precipitously. Friends and supporters repeatedly tried to steer Schwartz away from his chemical dependencies, but their efforts proved fruitless. Novelist Saul Bellow, a friend of Schwartz's, based the title character of his classic Humboldt's Gift on the despondent, ruined poet.
Schwartz's condition became so grave that he was repeatedly committed for psychiatric treatment at New York's Bellevue Hospital. He resisted all treatment, however, and in January 1966 he left home to take up lodging in a succession of dilapidated hotels across the state of New York. On the morning of July 11, 1966 Schwartz suffered a massive heart attack while riding an elevator in New York City. His body lay in the morgue for two days before being identified. Coroners later determined that a lethal mixture of alcohol and drugs probably caused the poet's death.
Further Reading on Delmore Schwartz
Atlas, James, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet Farrar, Straus, and Guroux, 1997.
Bawer, Bruce, The Middle Generation: The Lives and Poetry of Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell Archon Books, 1986.
McDougall, Richard, Delmore Schwartz Twayne, 1974.
Phillips, Robert S., Letters of Delmore Schwartz Ontario Review Press, 1984.