When Lou Reed died, I read in an obituary, I think in the Syracuse University student paper or at the Daily Forward, about how he had studied English there with Delmore Schwartz. It was a name with which I was only familiar, so, to mark Reed’s death, and to expand my literary horizon, I got a copy of Schwartz’s collection of stories In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. It was timely reading. I’ve been trying to turn my intellectual universe around a more American pivot, while also preparing thoughts about Mordecai Kaplan.
Like Kaplan, Schwartz was a quintessential 1930s New York Jew. That’s pretty much where the resemblance ends. A metaphysical optimist, Kaplan had a dark side, which he kept it under wraps in his diaries. Mostly this unhappiness was bitter in a personal kind of way, reflecting unhappiness with colleagues, congregants, students, and children. But if there was a bitterness in Kaplan’s America, the United States in the age of the Great Depression right before the outbreak of the World War II, then Schwartz was its poet. Kaplan thought that, with a little intelligence, everything was possible, whereas Schwartz will indicate that intelligence gets you only so far, or not very far at all, certainly not as far as you want.
Schwartz was the poet writer of bleak opportunities, of failure, the lower middle class misery of ethnic Jews unable to make it, unable to fit into their environment. Read cynically, one suspects it’s not just because of the Depression, and not just because of native Protestant anti-Semitism, but because these people, the characters who fill Schwartz’s short stories, really are impossible people, human beings whose ambitious self-regard streaks light years beyond their actual mediocre talents.
To a fault, these are all for the most part miserable people. In the title story, a young man sits in a movie theater, watching the story of his parents’ courtship unfold as a silent picture. Dressed in vintage clothing from the early 20th century, the badly lit figures jump around the screen, “the shots themselves…full of dots and rays” and streaks as if it were raining (1). Overwhelmed, the young man bolts up from his seat, shouting, “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” (6). It’s the young man’s 21st birthday. He wakes up from this dream on a “bleak winter morning,” “the windowsill shining with its lip of snow.” It’s the usher who escorts the young man out of the theater who gets the last word. You can’t act this way, you can’t do whatever you want, “Why don’t you think of what you’re doing ?” We are supposed to learn from the usher, “everything matters too much” (9).
These people live in their own world, a cracked one, but always with each other, bound to families, to siblings, to friends from the neighborhood, or from high school and university. Separate, caustic, and cynical with superior attitudes, but stuck together and with each other, “full of [each other’s] lives and the age in which they had acted and suffered” (32). That’s at least the realization of the indolent and unemployed Shenandoah Fish, who spends a lot of late mornings in his bathrobe listening to his mother in the family kitchen talking about the neighbors, the Bauman’s, this in the short story “America! America!” There’s no self-knowledge in the world, because “no one knows all that he is to other human beings, all that they say behind his back, and all the foolishness which the future will bring him” (33).
The worst, the worst of them all, are the circle of friends in “The World is a Wedding,” miserable young people, worst of all the aspiring playwright Rudyard Bell, a devastating portrait of Paul Goodman. Rudyard thinks he’s a genius, but his plays must be awful. Rudyard lives somewhere on Riverside Drive with his bitter sister Laura, an un-marriable young woman who drinks too much gin. For all of them in the circle nothing exists, not the city, just themselves, friends and neighbors. Estranged from each other, they were estranged from the city, which, “as such had no true need of any of them,” which becomes more and more clear during the Depression. But none of the friends, miserable with each other and to each other, none of them will go away, at least not until the end of the story when the group begins to disband (50-1). The world is a wedding, Jacob wants to hope, but Laura knows that no one gets what he or, in her case, she wants, that the world is a funeral, “Let your conscience be your bride” (93).
Better than most, Menachem Feuer understands that Schwartz’s characters are schlemiel figures. Oddballs and failure, they don’t belong to the world. But what so many of Schwartz’s admirers tend to neglect is his characters are mean, and if they are not mean themselves, then they are hapless, surrounding by bitter people who are mean to each other. Ethnic and tribal, they belong to each other, they stick to each other. But there’s nothing soft to this sticking together. It’s just abrasive. In “New Year’s Eve,” it’s 1938, everyone’s drinking too much, full of “unpleasant cleverness,” behaving badly at a party that no one really wants to attend. Everyone’s sorry, sorry for the world on the brink of war, sorry for themselves. The party is marked by “complete hopelessness of perception and feeling” (94, 113).
I wonder if Schwartz’s genius was more famous as a poet than a writer of short stories. In particular, I’d want to look more closely at the poems “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” and at “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.” That said, I’m not sure what to make of the unhappy consciousness reflected here. The title story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” made a huge impression upon the editors of Partisan Review. It was the lead fiction piece when Partisan Review was re-launched in 1937 as an anti-Stalinist organ of leftist thought and culture.
But what is one to think now of these stories with their dirty grey urban palette set apart from the sad and sorry legend that was the life of Delmore Schwartz, their author? The setting of the opening title story makes it almost impossible not to compare the reading of these stories to watching an old movie about the 1930s. With no Shirley Temple cheerfulness, the cut is rough. There’s no redemption, not even of the kind promised by Lou Reed in “Heroin,” not even the lyrical illusion of a “Perfect Day” (which ends, of course, with the admonition, “You’re going to reap what you sow.”) The unhappiness unreels in a more steady, but herky-jerky way. The stories carry a historical tic, a cultural tic, an ethnic tic, a social tic, a class tic, a psychological tic, all rolled up into one.
Overindulged or unloved by their mothers, yes, that’s what Jasper discovers at the end of “The Child is the Meaning of This Life,” it’s always the mother, in this case Sarah, the mother abandoned by her philandering husband, who cannot love her son, Jasper. Everyone settles into middle age (169). In all of the stories, it’s the sisters who are the most miserable, the ones that can’t marry, the ones that do, that ones that lose their husbands, because they die or because their husbands leave them. “Sarah knew that human beings are always fighting with one another and some men are just evil” (168). The promise at the end of “The Child is the Meaning of This Life” is the great-grandchild, the “mystery” and “meaning” of this life, the one promised by Jasper to his grandmother Ruth, the only woman whom he seems to love, and upon whom he dotes. “But the child may be Sarah, Rebecca, Seymour, Nancy, John or myself. Or he may be my grandmother again, but it is not very likely.”
There is no better world. In “The World is a Wedding” Rudyard and the gang dream of setting out on an ark, like Noah, but they grow bored with the idea. In “New Year’s Eve,” “Only a few unimportant or powerless people believed in God or in the necessity of a just society sufficiently to be willing to give anything dear for it.” Shenandoah, the aspiring writer longs for “some other world, “some world of goodness.” Wilhelmina won’t have children in this kind of word. Shenandoah won’t marry her if they don’t have children, he says “stupidly.” Wilhelmina now won’t marry Shenandoah, and Nicholas just wants everyone to drop dead as go down into the subway. “Why?” asks Shenandoah. “Who are you?” replies Nicholas who goes home alone, deciding to have nothing more to do with Shenandoah.