Schwartz letters tell sad tale of early genius gone sour

Letters of Delmore Schwartz, selected and edited by Robert Phillips. New York: Ontario Review Press (distributed by Persea Books Inc.). 384 pp. $24.95. The story of Delmore Schwartz -- darling of the literary establishment in his youth, denizen of various psychiatric establishments in middle age, dead before he was old -- is a sad one and often told. James Atlas told it in his biography of Schwartz; Saul Bellow thinly fictionalized it in ``Humboldt's Gift''; numerous colleagues and friends have written memoirs of the poet. Now we have Schwartz's own version, as told in this engrossing volume of his letters.

Why is this tale of early genius turned into misery and madness so seductive, especially to literary historians? Because it suggests a moral. To wit: Schwartz's tribulations, like those of his self-destructive buddies John Berryman and Randall Jarrell, signify the plight of the American poet. Art is a commodity in America: An innovative poem and a better deodorant have the same status. And since more people sweat than read, the poem is neglected, the poet disappointed, isolated, ultimately driven batty. Ergo, Schwartz was a victim of the sinister logic of capitalism.

That theory tells us what Schwartz symbolized, not who he was. These letters are valuable because, like all letters, they are more than they mean. They reveal the man: witty, passionate, kind, suspicious, rash, a man who combined Byron's 'elan and Coleridge's folly.

As a college freshman Schwartz was insufferable. Too egocentric: ``I am sick of being called an `unusual personality.' '' Too pompous: ``I am very tired of knowing adolescents of the spirit.'' Too literary: ``I should write major prose letters, and I do not.''

And his genius matured faster than his character. In 1938, when he was 24, Schwartz published his first book, ``In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,'' and its extravagant success (Allen Tate called his poems ``the first real innovation since Eliot'') made him famous but marred him for life. Even Schwartz, a master self-deceiver, knew the danger of such acclaim. ``I can't be being praised for the right reasons,'' he writes to his publisher James Laughlin. ``It is much too soon, and it is taking my mind away from working.''

With fame comes a spate of letters to already established admirers: Tate, Pound, Ransom, Van Doren, Blackmur. He regarded the older generaton with the piety of a neophyte and the impertinence of an upstart. He chides Pound for having ``slowed up,'' and then, offended by Pound's anti-Semitism, declares, ``I want to resign as one of your most studious and faithful admirers.''

He conducted equally volatile relations with his peers, the ``New York intellectuals'' -- Dwight MacDonald, William Barrett, William Phillips -- who clustered around the Partisan Review, where Schwartz was an editor. In a letter to MacDonald he signs himself ``Ambivalently, with affection predominant.'' He expected too much from his friends and was too honest to conceal his disappointments. It's hard to dislike him for that. We feel only pity when he confesses to Blackmur, ``It makes me feel a fool not to be able to keep from alienating someone who has befriended me again and again.''

Our pity increases as his fortunes decline. When his first wife, Gertrude, leaves him in 1943, he writes to her ``with helpless inept devotion.'' He eloquently describes the miseries of loneliness and writer's block: ``It is a kind of deafness, pianos are struck, trumpets are puffed, violins are crossed and recrossed, and I hear nothing, knowing there is something to hear, seeing it.'' Gone is the bluster of his youth, in its place self-doubt, paranoia (his friends are ``jurists without portfolio''), and financial worries.

The squalor of Schwartz's final years -- his filthy hotel rooms, his murderous tirades against his second wife and his friends, his straitjacketed confinement in Bellevue Hospital -- these humiliations have been cataloged by Atlas and others. His late letters show, not his madness, but the moving patience with which he bore it, and the hope, however forced, that his talent would return. He continued writing poems until his heart stopped in 1966. In one of his last poems, ``Jacob,'' is the sentence, ``The gift is loved but not the gifted one.'' These letters invite us to cherish the gifted one too.

John Seabrook is a free-lance writer living in New York. -- 30 --

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