More Del­more

David Ulin on the quin­tes­sen­tial mod­ernist.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By David L. Ulin 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 Awa


By Del­more Schwartz

New Di­rec­tions, 293 pages, $17.95

Icame 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 heart­stop­ping 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,” 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 book­length 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 —

I imag­ine Schwartz not as an im­mi­grant writer but as an Amer­i­can one. The temp­ta­tion is to con­sider Schwartz as the apoth­e­o­sis of ro­man­tic myth.

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.”

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