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Orpheus in Purgatory

by Lewis MacAdams

...Whose Characters are monsterus
In Donald Margulies' play Collected Stories, an aging writer named Ruth Steiner clings to the memory of a fictional affair she'd had with the very real Delmore Schwartz in 1957. At that time, Schwartz was only a furious echo of the man who'd been the most promising American poet of the generation that grew up during the Depression and came to prominence during the Second World War.

Photo of Delmore with his mother
Schwartz with his mother, 1914-15
 

     
Delmore (no one ever called him anything but Delmore) was born in 1913 to Romanian-born immigrant parents who had met on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His father Harry made a lot of money selling real estate to the greenhorns that followed him to America. But Harry and his wife Rose fought constantly and bitterly in public, repeatedly dragging Delmore and his brother Kenneth into their nightmare. One night the feuding couple woke nine-year-old Delmore to tell him they were splitting up and that he had to choose instantly with which parent he wanted to live. Harry moved to Chicago and married someone else. Rose moved with her sons to a dreary apartment on the northern tip of Manhattan and subjected them to an adolescence stained with recrimination and lament.

     

Photo of Schwartz
Schwartz at Camp Pocono, 1926
 

In spite of that, the blond, wide-blue-eyed Delmore appeared to be on the fast track to mainstream American success. He learned to read at three. He became the star of the George Washington High School poetry club, skipping the last semester of high school for early enrollment at Columbia University. In 1932, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, which was then so awash in avant-garde ideas about education that the school was being investigated by the State legislature.

The next Fall Delmore was back at New York University to study contemporary philosophy with Sidney Hook, a Marxist scholar and a student of American pragmatist John Dewey. Hook's insistence that Marxism was a method, not a set of fixed ideas, made him a hero to the young, mostly Jewish New York intellectuals fed up with Communist Party orthodoxy. The summer after his Junior year Delmore moved from his mother's apartment to a dismal room in Greenwich Village, vowing to work twelve hours a day to become a great poet. Miraculously, a month later, in July 1935, he penned a masterpiece, a short story called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities."

In the tale's most famous passage, Delmore sits in a movie theater with his eyes fixed on the screen, watching his future mother and future father riding a streetcar headed for Coney Island, on a Sunday in 1909. Over dinner on the Boardwalk, Harry asks Rose to marry him. Horrified, Delmore jumps up from his seat and shouts "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!"
 

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities
Among the young intellectuals drawn to Hook's ideas were Philip Rahv and William Phillips. Convinced of the need for a left-wing magazine of American politics and culture, they persuaded the Communist Party to start The Partisan Review in 1934, with themselves as its editors. Following three years of increasingly bitter discord, Rahv and Phillips commandeered the magazine for their own circle, quickly transforming it into the most important radical political journal in the United States, and a critical platform for Delmore Schwartz.

In Rahv and Phillip's premiere issue, in Autumn 1937, the lead piece (at the top of an all-star batting order of leftist American intellectuals that included Hook, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling and James T. Farrell) was "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." For Delmore's fellow second-generation New York Jews, appalled and embarrassed by their parents' Old-Country ways but chained to them by love and -- far more than they wanted to admit to themselves -- by Jewish culture, the story was just as much Delmore's.

A year later, on Delmore's twenty-fifth birthday, the story was the title piece of his first collection of poems and stories, published by James Laughlin's New Directions, the premiere avant-garde publisher of its time. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities was praised by luminaries on both sides of the Atlantic, including T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell and Vladimir Nabokov. Awards, honors and fellowships followed.

Photo of Schwartz
Portrait Study of Schwartz, 1938
Photo by Mrs. Forbes Johnson-Storey
 

     
Delmore took up the life of a migratory professor. The forced conviviality of stays at Harvard, Bennington, Kenyon College, Princeton, and the writer's colony Yaddo doubtless contributed to his increasingly heavy drinking. Delmore especially reveled in Harvard's intellectual excitement, but he was ambivalent about Cambridge, and acutely aware of the school's genteel but all-too-real anti-Semitism. So in 1947, a 12-year association with Harvard came to an abrupt end when Delmore abandoned his Assistant Professorship for New York City without letting his Department know that he was gone.

In 1948, Delmore's book of short stories, The World Is a Wedding, was published to wide acclaim. Commentary magazine called the title story, a thinly-disguised portrait of many of Delmore's friends, "the definitive portrait of the Jewish middle class in New York during the Depression." Time compared Delmore to Stendhal and Chekhov. He was now the poetry editor of the Partisan Review, the author of definitive essays on Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, and probably the most widely anthologized poet of his generation, yet he remained virtually penniless.
 

Orpheus in Love
     

Photo of Schwartz
Schwartz and Gertrude Buckman, 1938
 

In 1937, Delmore married Gertrude Buckman, whom he met when they were both studying literature at NYU, though it turned out she'd gone to George Washington High School with him and published her poems alongside his in the school poetry anthology. Their wedding turned out to be a divorce foretold. The bride's parents wept bitterly throughout the ceremony, and Delmore got drunk at the reception and passed out. By the time Delmore returned to New York from Cambridge in 1947, he was alone.

In the summer of 1948, Delmore re-connected with an old flame, Elizabeth Pollet. Pollet was more than a decade younger than Delmore, but she was already, at 26, an accomplished writer who'd just left her first husband after a single disastrous year. The comely daughter of a painter, she was a former student at the counter-culturally seminal Black Mountain College, and she went on to become a well-known novelist.

Photo of Elizabeth Pollett
Elizabeth Pollett, 1949
 

     
Delmore and Pollett married in 1949. Many years later, in her introduction to Delmore Schwartz's posthumously published journals, Pollett would remember "the Delmore I loved. The Delmore who fascinated me, to be with whom meant breathing not only with one's lungs but with one's mind. Above all, there was the poet, the Orpheus, transcending this world to make music out of things he alone had penetrated to and heard." Unfortunately, there was another Delmore, with whom she was trying to live, and he was growing increasingly erratic as a result of the long-term ingestion of massive amounts of alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines.

In 1952, Delmore and Elizabeth retreated to a dilapidated farmhouse in rural New Jersey which Saul Bellow, who'd later write a novel about Delmore called Humboldt's Gift, described as "Greenwich Village in the fields." Pollett described the following year as a turning point in Delmore's life. "He had about five jobs, was working his head off, and was increasingly out of touch with reality." Being with him, she wrote, was "like living on the side of a volcano."
 

In a Glass Darkly
In fear of his increasingly violent jealous rages, Pollett moved out, though she would continue to see him for two more years. After he attacked art critic Hilton Kramer, who he hallucinated was having an affair with Pollett, Delmore was handcuffed, straitjacketed and remanded to Bellevue Hospital. Though he could still function well enough to be the poetry and film critic for The New Republic, to lecture at the Library of Congress and to become the youngest poet ever to win the Bollingen Prize for poetry (1960), he drifted through a succession of depressing West Village cold-water flats, and drank heavily at the White Horse Tavern, one of the two most famous literary bars in America. The other one, in the Italian corner of the Village, was the San Remo.

Around the time he would have met Donald Margulies' character Ruth Steiner, Delmore was living at the seedy Hotel Marlton on W. 8th St., watching his beloved baseball team, the Giants, and haunting the White Horse. There, with a pair of beer steins always at the ready, he would hold forth, reciting to an attentive supply of literary college girls from his tattered, heavily annotated copy of Finnegan's Wake. From 1962 to 1965, he taught at Syracuse University, where he inspired, among many others, Lou Reed, who dedicated "European Son" on the Velvet Underground's first album to Delmore.

     

Photo of Schwartz
Schwartz in Washington Square Park, 1961
Photo by Rollie McKenna
 

In the years before his death, a disheveled Delmore could frequently be found on a bench in Washington Square Park, a worn-out body in a worn-out suit, a pathetic figure with grimy hands and greenish pallor. Even the eager Ruth Steiners had departed from his life. But the final entries in his published journals from 1959 are filled with literary projects, translations from Paul Valéry, lengthy quotes from Hamlet, and transcendent fragments of new poems. "The years pass and the years pass and the years pass," he wrote in the margin of a letter, "& still I see only as in a glass/darkly and vaguely." He died in 1966. No one claimed his body from the morgue for two days.

Lewis MacAdams' "Birth of The Cool", a history of the idea and practice of cool, was published early this year by Free Press/Simon & Schuster.

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