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Schwartz, Delmore, 1913-1966



  • Existence: 1913 - 1966


Delmore Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 8, 1913 to Romanian-born immigrants Harry and Rose Schwartz. His only sibling, Kenneth, was born in 1916. Harry Schwartz was a successful real estate businessman and Delmore Schwartz grew up comfortably middle class. In 1923, his parents separated and in 1927 they officially divorced. Their tumultuous marriage would be the source of anger and disappointment for Schwartz in his writings and future relationships. Schwartz developed an erratic relationship with his Jewish heritage that remained throughout his life, vacillating between engaged optimism and resentment of his parents' generation's traditional ways. Harry Schwartz lost most of his money in the 1929 market crash and died in 1930. The family received none of the little inheritance left after the estate executor embezzled the remaining funds. The crime never went to trial and Rose Schwartz was left to be the sole provider for Delmore and Kenneth.

Schwartz displayed an early talent for reading and writing but struggled in the rest of his studies. While in high school, he published a few poems in the high school literary magazine and was encouraged by teachers to study English in college. After graduation from George Washington High School, Schwartz enrolled in a college prep course at Columbia University and in 1931 he transferred to the University of Wisconsin. He thrived there, being exposed to avant-garde literature and art. Although he was a curious student, his grades were poor and he returned to New York City in 1932. He enrolled at New York University and studied with philosopher, Marxist scholar, and student of John Dewey, Sidney Hook. Hook's influence was profound on Schwartz's studies and early ideas of becoming a writer. Schwartz co-founded and edited the literary magazine Mosaic, in which he published his own essays and caught the attention of other New York writers. He moved to Greenwich Village in his junior year, began writing a purported twelve hours a day, and it was there that he began to make the acquaintance of the New York literary community. He graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1935. In July of the same year, Schwartz wrote his short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." That fall he started graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard but never finished his degree. Through 1936, he wrote prolifically, published poems in Poetry and American Caravanmagazine, and won the Bowdoin Prize in the Humanities for his essay, "Poetry as Imitation." In the spring of 1937, Schwartz ran out of funds and returned to New York, beginning his work full time as a writer and critic.

"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" appeared in the 1937 debut issue of Partisan Review, the left-wing magazine started by Philip Rahv and William Phillips. Schwartz's story appeared alongside writings by famous and influential figures, such as Sidney Hook and Edmund Wilson. His story and its success pushed him into the spotlight and he quickly became a writer to watch, with critics comparing him to W.H. Auden and Hart Crane. A year later, New Directions published Schwartz's first collection of poems and stories, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. It received immediate and intense praise by many, including Ezra Pound, T.S Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, and Vladimir Nabokov. In 1938, Schwartz married Gertrude Buckman, a fellow NYU graduate. The marriage was unhappy from the beginning and ended in divorce six years later.

Successfully published, Schwartz began his teaching career. He was hired as a lecturer and then Assistant Professor at Harvard University. He taught at several institutions throughout his life, including Bennington College, Kenyon College, Princeton University, and finally at Syracuse University. Many other schools extended invitations. Students admired him and he maintained a strong influence on his students. Schwartz also received several fellowships and grants throughout his life, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Prize, a Fulbright fellowship (he canceled it amidst his second divorce), a grant by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a residency at the writer's colony Yaddo. In 1940, Schwartz addressed the Modern Language Association, delivering his "The Isolation of Modern Poetry." Genesis: Book I, a semi-autobiographical piece, intended as the first installment of a multi-volume epic, was published in 1943 and received unfavorable criticism. Schwartz began to doubt his writing abilities.

During his late twenties, Schwartz's alcoholism, drug abuse (he favored barbiturates and amphetamines), and acute depression developed and began to affect his marriage, friendships, and ability to work. Easily angered and increasingly paranoid, he created emotional distances in most of his relationships and struggled to maintain professional contacts with other writers. Other writers respected Schwartz's talent and work but found it difficult to weather his accusations of artistic jealousy, plagiarism, and gossip. Despite his interpersonal challenges, he maintained the role of an important writer and literary figure. He alienated most of his friends but a few remained devoted to him, refusing to relent to his accusations and delusions, including Dwight Macdonald, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, and William Barrett.

In 1948, after leaving Harvard suddenly in 1947, Schwartz published a book of short stories, The World is a Wedding. Critics and literary figures praised it but it failed to sell many copies. His work was widely anthologized during this time and he was considered by some to be the most anthologized poet of his generation. He published critical essays on important literary figures, film and television, and was poetry editor at Partisan Review and later at The New Republic.

Schwartz married Elizabeth Pollet, a younger writer and former student at Black Mountain College, in 1949. The couple moved from New York to rural northern New Jersey to concentrate on their writing. Schwartz became increasingly unwell, drinking even more, and succumbing to paranoid delusions. Pollet left Schwartz in the fall of 1955, after enduring years of his erratic and abusive behavior, and stayed with a friend in a location she kept secret from Schwartz. Schwartz reacted with violent anger and his most elaborate paranoid delusion to date. He moved back to New York and checked into the Chelsea Hotel; accused Pollet of having an affair with art critic and editor of Arts magazine, Hilton Kramer (who barely knew Pollet); physically attacked Kramer in his apartment after repeatedly calling him on the telephone; and was consequently arrested in his hotel room and brought to Bellevue Hospital. After a stay in Bellevue, he was transferred to Payne-Whitney Clinic. Once released from the clinic, Schwartz began to file complaints and lawsuits. One affidavit accused Kramer, Pollet, James Laughlin, Marshall Best, Saul Bellow, The Living Theatre, William Styron, Perry Miller, and Harry Levin of conspiracy against him. Others were subpoenaed. Schwartz eventually narrowed his attack to just Kramer and the legal affair dragged on for years.

Schwartz was often unwell, but he sometimes maintained periods of calm. In 1958, he gave the lecture, "The Present State of Modern Poetry," at the Library of Congress and was interviewed by Randall Jarrell. In 1960 he was awarded the Bollingen Prize for poetry, making him the youngest poet to receive the prestigious prize. After The World is a Wedding, none of his other published works received the same praise as his earlier work. He wrote little that interested others in the last six years of his life and most of his writing activity was filling up notebooks and leaves of paper with lengthy and often illegible writings.

Schwartz's final teaching post was at Syracuse University. Although his appearance was unkempt and he was a severe alcoholic, he had a robust student following. Musician Lou Reed was among his students and Schwartz had a great influence on Reed as a poet and musician. Reed dedicated the instrumental song "European Sun" on the Velvet Underground's first album to Schwartz (according to Reed, Schwartz didn't like song lyrics). Schwartz left Syracuse in January 1966 to return to Greenwich Village, where he resumed drinking at the White Horse Tavern, a favorite of his for years. He was often seen alone in parks or the New York Pubic Library, writing in notebooks.

Schwartz died at the age of fifty-three of a heart attack on July 11, 1966 in a hallway of the Columbia Hotel in Greenwich Village. His body went unclaimed at the morgue for two days until friends were alerted to his death. In the years after his death, there was a resurgence of interest in his work. John Berryman, Saul Bellow, and Robert Lowell are among the writers that profess Schwartz's influence on their own work. Lowell considered him to be the most underrated poet of the century. Bellow's 1973 novel Humboldt's Gift, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a semi-fictional memoir about Schwartz.

Other published works by Schwartz include Shenandoah (1941), Vaudeville for a Princess and Other Poems (1950), Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems (1938-1958) (1959), and Successful Love and Other Stories (1961).

Found in 3 Collections and/or Records:

Margaret Marshall papers

Call Number: YCAL MSS 10

The papers contain personal correspondence, correspondence concerning The Nation and the American Men of Letters series, drafts of her autobiography and other writings, and personal papers.

Dates: 1805-1980 (inclusive), bulk 1930-1974

Delmore Schwartz papers

Call Number: YCAL MSS 334
Abstract: The Delmore Schwartz Papers document the life and work of the writer, editor, and teacher Delmore Schwartz. The papers consist of writings, notebooks, correspondence, photographs, personal papers and effects, drawings, clippings, and printed material. Writings and notebooks comprise the bulk of the papers. Writings include drafts of poems, stories, essays, reviews, criticism, lectures, and other writings. Notebooks span two decades and document Schwartz's increasingly troubled mind and...
Dates: 1906-1975, bulk 1926-1966

Robert Penn Warren papers

Call Number: YCAL MSS 51

The papers consist of drafts of manuscripts and related material, correspondence, photographs, and newspaper clippings documenting Warren's life from his undergraduate years until his death in 1989.

Dates: 1906-1989

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