On a Story by Delmore Schwartz

In “Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is one of those astonishing literary works born in a rush of inspiration that stakes out the genius of a young new writer. Sholem Aleichem describes writing “Dos meserl” (“The Penknife”) in a single night, and, though he later revised it slightly, it remains his most self-revealing story. Franz Kafka was still in a state of exhilaration as he recorded in his diary that during the previous night of September 22–23, 1912, he had written “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) in a single sitting from 10 at night to 6 o’clock in the morning. In Delmore Schwartz’s case, we have not his own description but that of his then closest friend, William Barrett, who dropped in on him one morning in 1935, when they were both 22, and was handed a freshly typed story. Barrett was totally unprepared for the jolt it gave him. “[Here] was something completely formed and wonderfully perfect.” All three stories, including Delmore’s—Schwartz is one of those artists one inevitably finds oneself calling by his first name—reflect the nocturnal conditions of their composition, as though writing through the night had induced a dreamlike opportunity for uninhibited thought and feeling. Each was also about an initiation into maturity, but “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was destined to be more than a personal breakthrough. It became a founding document of a new intellectual movement.

The origins of the literary community that came to be known as the New York Intellectuals are usually traced to the founding of Partisan Review in 1934 as an organ of the communist John Reed Club of New York, whose motto was “Art is a weapon in the class struggle.” The Bolshevik revolutionaries who created the Soviet Union intended to change the entire world order, and they established the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 to “struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie.” The Comintern spread its ideas in America through Moscow-directed publications like the New Masses, the Daily Worker,and the Yiddish daily Di Freiheit. While the John Reed Clubs were not technically American affiliates of the Comintern, they too were expected to follow the Communist Party line, and the Partisan Review editors dutifully took up the challenge, promising to “combat not only the decadent culture of the exploiting classes but also the debilitating liberalism which at times seeps into our writers through the pressure of class-alien forces.”

Delmore Schwartz in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ca. 1940s. (Photo by Gertrude Buckman.)

Nonetheless, before long Partisan Review editors William Phillips (born Litvinsky) and Philip Rahv (born Ivan Greenbaum) tired of being political hacks, closed the publication and severed ties with the movement. It being America, they were not sent to the Gulag but, as Phillips would later recall, merely “called every dirty name in the Communist political lexicon. . . . People we had known for years stopped talking to us; when we met them in the street they looked the other way.” This experience of expulsion must have helped them consolidate their own cluster of writers and thinkers to form the first European-style intelligentsia in America.

Two years after closing the earlier magazine, the same editors used private funding to revive it under the same name. Although they continued to proclaim that “[a]ny magazine, we believe, that aspires to a place in the vanguard of literature today, will be revolutionary in tendency,” they renounced all party supervision:

[W]e are also convinced that any such magazine will be unequivocally independent. Partisan Review is aware of its responsibility to the revolutionary movement in general, but we disclaim obligation to any of its organized political expressions.

Phillips and Rahv would remain in the leftist camp on their own cultural terms. No longer heading up a communist outpost, they formed an American bridgehead for European ideas.

The corrosive effects of Soviet oversight had been felt most keenly in literature and the arts, whose standards of excellence were always at odds with, and often in defiance of, political requirements. Now free to publish writers outside the communist orbit, Phillips invited the politically unaffiliated Delmore Schwartz to contribute. Delmore’s story was accepted just as he had shown it to Barrett two years earlier, and it was given pride of place in the first issue of the new Partisan Review, December 1937, ahead of a poem by Wallace Stevens, an essay by Edmund Wilson, book reviews from Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, and others, not to speak of Pablo Picasso on the “Dreams and Lies of Franco.” The story may have sent a clearer message about the nature of the launch than the somewhat turgid statement of aims the editors had trouble hammering out. It announced youth: Delmore was then 24 years old.

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”—the title adapted from William Butler Yeats—was an ideal story to introduce literary modernism, the second of the two Ms that were said to govern the magazine (Marxism, albeit not the official Soviet line, still being the first). Modernism in literature can be understood most simply as a reaction to the writing that emerged from the 19th-century belief that society was knowable and could be represented through characters and events that mirrored real life. Born of what Irving Howe calls “a breakup of the traditional unity and continuity of Western culture,” modernism challenged our cognitive and moral sense of security. Responding to new findings of psychology and physics, incorporating new media such as telegraph and film, and unsettled by the horrors of industrial warfare, modernist works challenged bourgeois contentment. Here, in fact, was where the two Ms met: Both were antibourgeois to the same degree. Delmore’s story fit the bill; it was also brilliant. Irving Howe was stunned when he read it as a teenager, and others, too, “remembered the story long after forgetting everything in the first issue.”

The opening of the story plunges us into a strange situation:

I think it is the year 1909. I feel as if I were in a motion picture theater, the long arm of light crossing the darkness and spinning, my eyes fixed on the screen. This is a silent picture as if an old Biograph one, in which the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes, and one flash succeeds another with sudden jumps. The actors too seem to jump about and walk too fast. The shots themselves are full of dots and rays, as if it were raining when the picture was photographed. The light is bad.

The narrator feels he is watching one of those old-fashioned grainy movies, yet the film itself positions us precisely in Brooklyn, New York, on a Sunday afternoon, June 12, 1909. A man is on his way to pick up his date. Once he passes the scrutiny of her family, the couple goes off to spend the day at Coney Island. At the amusement park, they walk along the boardwalk, ride the merry-go-round, and go for dinner at a restaurant, where the man proposes marriage and the woman accepts. After that, they have their picture taken, and the young woman wants to have their fortunes told. But instead of the romantic follow-up that we might have expected, tension grows between them until the man marches off and the fortune-teller holds the woman back from going after him. The odds for this union are not good.

Our emotional attachment in reading this story is not to the couple but to the narrator as he reacts to what he sees happening on screen. He is the child who will result from the events of that day, desperately eager for the people he identifies as his father and mother to pay closer attention to what is at stake in their courtship. The film is, quite literally, the young man’s projection of how he came into being, but, whereas psychoanalysis is intended to bring the understanding that helps cure neurosis, our narrator’s projection is an inexorable sequence of frames that predetermines what no amount of self-understanding can change.

When the narrator’s mother comes downstairs all dressed up for her date, her father observing the interaction between the pair does not like what he sees. “He is worried; he is afraid that my father will not make a good husband for his oldest daughter.”

At this point something happens to the film, just as my father is saying something funny to my mother; I am awakened to myself and my unhappiness just as my interest was rising. The audience begins to clap impatiently.

Once the technical problem with the projector is taken care of, the onscreen romance resumes, but we are now aware of the son’s uneasiness about the process that brought him into being.

Several things are happening at once—the film is being shown in the theater, the audience is there to be entertained, and the narrator, the person speaking to us, is growing ever more anxious. He interrupts the film whenever he can no longer bear to watch the unfolding action, that is, when he sees what his parents fail to see for themselves. At one point, his mother and father lean on the rail of the boardwalk and absently stare at the ocean.

[T]he waves come in slowly, tugging strength from far back. The moment before they somersault, the moment when they arch their backs so beautifully, showing green and white veins amid the black, that moment is intolerable. They finally crack, dashing fiercely upon the sand, actually driving, full force downward, against the sand, bouncing upward and forward, and at last petering out into a small stream which races up the beach and then is recalled. My parents gaze absentmindedly at the ocean, scarcely interested in its harshness. The sun overhead does not disturb them. But I stare at the terrible sun which breaks up sight, and the fatal, merciless, passionate ocean, I forget my parents. I stare fascinated and finally, shocked by the indifference of my father and mother, I burst out weeping once more.

The old woman sitting next to him in the theater tries to calm him, but he has to go to the men’s room, “stumbling over the feet of the other people seated in my row.” He can neither influence his parents retroactively nor find any companionship in the audience around him.

The power of the descriptive prose tells us that the young man must be a writer—or a poet. Indeed, Partisan Review’s editors and their circle knew that in writing this story, Delmore—described by his biographer James Atlas as “one of the most self-conscious writers who ever lived”—was drawing on his own family life, and, through the presence of the theater audience, admitting the author’s anxiety into the story along with that of the son’s.

Rose and Harry Schwartz, ca. 1910, Brooklyn, New York. (Courtesy of Syracuse University Archives.)

He was born in Brooklyn in 1913, and the unsettled quality of his life began in childhood with the separation of his parents when he was seven and his younger brother four. His mercurial father made money in real estate, and Delmore was raised by his mother with expectations of wealth that crashed with his father’s death just after the market crash of 1929. Everything we know from independent sources confirms the author was portraying his actual motherand father in this story according to their personalities and temperaments, and probably piecing together this day of their courtship from details gleaned, mostly from his mother, over the years. He apparently showed it to her soon after he wrote it, and Atlas tells us that there is a typescript of the story on which his mother scrawled:

Dear Delmore
If there is another word besides wonderful I dont know I dont remember telling you all these so accurate. Please save the story and bring it home for me. There are moments in my life, thet [sic] I believe all my struggles are worthwhile.

It is impossible to know how much of Delmore’s own later psychological struggles derived from his innate brain chemistry (Atlas diagnosed him as bipolar) and extravagant drug and alcohol abuse, and how much from his upbringing or self-invention, but in the story he traces it back to the circumstances of his conception. He is trapped in the life spawned by the pairing of this mismatched man and woman.

Our narrator dreams that he is viewing this film not privately or with people who care for him (say, in a home movie) but in a public theater where the rest of the audience is interested only in the story and cannot put up with his agitated reactions. He is uneasy about turning personal life into fiction, about having his life displayed. But he cannot have it both ways—had his parents not met and married, he would not be alive, and had he not created this work, we would not be reading him.

On the vertical scale, free will does not extend to the predetermined parts of one’s identity, and horizontally, creation stops at the point that the artist releases his work to the audience. One might as well invoke Ecclesiastes: “Only that shall happen / Which has happened, / Only that occur / Which has occurred; / There is nothing new / Under the sun.” However, this is not a work of Solomonic composure but acute distress.

The intense subjectivity of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” signaled the Partisan Review’s defiance of communism’s collectivist assumptions, political priorities, and narrative style. Its pessimism reflects the Marxist analysis of American doom, albeit without attribution to socio-economic causes. The culprit here is not failed capitalism but the “American dream” and a father who “has always felt that actualities somehow fall short.” On that fateful day, he isn’t ready for marriage, yet he thinks of “big men he admires who are married: William Randolph Hearst, and William Howard Taft, who has just become President of the United States.” Caught up in possibility, he ignores probability—he does not take realistic measure of himself.

This view of America was already familiar from, most famously, the great Jay Gatsby, whose dream blindsided him to the selfish depths of his society. Delmore may have been saluting James Joyce’s Ulysses, much beloved by Jewish intellectuals for its portrayal of a Jewish father, Leopold Bloom. Stephen Dedalus, the symbolic son “Poldy” Bloom acquires in place of the biological son he has lost, declares, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”—the very sentiment of Delmore’s narrator, who is struggling to awake from the nightmare of his own personal history. In the compressed scheme of this story, the son isthe outcome of the father’s irresponsibility. America is built on endless opportunity. Classical tragedy is based on fatal probabilities. The young man in this movie theater experiences the American dream as a tragedy.

It comes as no surprise that when he wrote this story Delmore was reading Kafka’s The Trial, in which the narrator wakes up on the morning of his thirtieth birthday to find himself under arrest. In Kafka there is no named city, no established time, no patronym or firm identification, and no actual crime or possibility of exoneration. Josef K.’s main problem is deracination, and the resulting insecurity of his status determines his doom: He is killed “like a dog.” Delmore revises Kafka in the process of adapting him to liberal, transparent America. We are given to know that the father will not become a mature husband and that his son will grow up unhappy. One can see Willy Loman waiting in the wings as the American Jewish father, along with Alexander Portnoy as the American Jewish son.

It is only at the point of ending that this story veers from its pervasive fatalism. Our narrator has been distraught that these two incompatible people are joining in a marriage which will produce two children with “monstrous” characters, yet when the father seems about to walk away from the marriage their son shouts in fear, “What are they doing? Don’t they know what they are doing?” shocking the audience and bringing the usher with his searchlight down the aisle to drag him away. The usher has the final word:

“What are you doing? Don’t you know that you can’t do whatever you want to do? Why should a young man like you, with your whole life before you, get hysterical like this? Why don’t you think of what you’re doing? You can’t act like this even if other people aren’t around! You will be sorry if you do not do what you should do, you can’t carry on like this, it is not right, you will find that out soon enough, everything you do matters too much,” and he said that dragging me through the lobby of the theatre into the cold light, and I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.

Thus, the child, monstrous or not, was born unto them after all, and on this day of his majority he is risen from his nightmare into a crisp winter morning, with the shining lip of snow on the windowsill suggesting a new departure. What is more, perhaps this dream will beget responsibilities, one of them being this American Jewish cautionary tale.

My pared-down account of the story is perhaps enough to show why it struck its immediate readers so forcibly and how it became a milestone in American—and Jewish—literary history. It is a sobering study of no-longer-immigrants who have not yet found their balance in the new land. The narrator’s cries in the dark theater cannot affect the course of events. The artist baring his suffering cannot expect anything from an audience that appreciates the entertainment but is indifferent to his pain.

While the ominous force of the story derives most obviously from the young man’s condition and sense of himself, it is hard to imagine that someone of Delmore’s intelligence and sensibility was not affected as well by what he knew of the mounting dangers to the Jews of Europe. Rarely has a sense of foreboding had greater justification or found subtler expression. The story admired for its personal singular intensity is also an augury of desperate times.

The story’s relation to modernism is likewise instructive. In many ways it satisfies Ezra Pound’s directive to “make it new”—it tells a real story in an imagined context, introduces the medium of film into the medium of fiction, arrests and manipulates the normal narrative sequence, and comments on the story while telling it. But Delmore also avoided some of the pitfalls of modernism. He evokes the reality of a Jewish family in Brooklyn, and if he does not emphasize their Jewishness it is only to the degree that theyno longer live by its mores. In giving us an actual family that matters very much to him, he overcomes one of the handicaps of modernist writing that too often fails to fully engage us emotionally. We do not care as deeply about Clarissa Dalloway or even Molly Bloom as we do about Elizabeth Bennet or Dorothea Brooke. Writing from the depths of his experience, Delmore’s Jewish modernism was specific enough to be recognizable and deeply affecting.

He was, in fact, the first in that Partisan Review coterie to recognize that literary modernism confronted Jews with a special problem. Some of its greatest practitioners were openly anti-Semitic, and the movement’s antipathy to family, community, and nation made it generally antagonistic to the Jewish people. Jews were inherently bourgeois.

Here a brief sidebar may be in order. In 1938, the year after the publication of this story, Ezra Pound published Guide to Kulchur, which contained scurrilous remarks about the Jews. Pound was then in Italy, politically associated with fascism, on behalf of which he later broadcast during the Second World War. Delmore wrote Pound to say that his arguments were illogical and contradicted views the poet had expressed elsewhere.

A race cannot commit a moral act. Only an individual can be moral or immoral. No generalization from a sum of particulars is possible, which will render a moral judgment. In a court of law, the criminal is always one individual, and when he is condemned, his whole family is not, qua family, condemned. . . . Furthermore, this view of individual responsibility is implicit in the poetry for which you are justly famous.

But I do not doubt that this is a question which you have no desire to discuss with anyone who does not agree with you, and even less with one who will be suspected of an interested view. Without ceasing to distinguish between past activity and present irrationality [in other words, though you may still be a great poet] I should like you to consider this letter a resignation: I want to resign as one of your most studious and faithful admirers.

If Pound had left moral responsibility behind, Delmore had not. “If he is attacked as a poet,” he later wrote when Pound was charged with treason for his wartime broadcasts from Italy, “then we will certainly defend him strongly and at length. But . . . no one’s actions can be defended on the ground that he is a great poet.” Respect for writing did not mean absolving the writer. Quite the contrary, it meant distinguishing the man from his art, and between the good and the rotten in both.

Delmore’s signature story never specified exactly what responsibilities begin in dreams, though I infer they include mature self-knowledge and strong family loyalty, among other solidly Jewish and traditional American values. Perhaps most important is the very emphasis on responsibility as the goal of the American dream rather than whatever else was floating around in the minds of the young man and woman on their critical date. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” makes no false images and bows to no foreign gods. Its self-exploratory voice paved the way for younger writers—Isaac Rosenfeld and Saul Bellow, who read and loved the story when it appeared, and after them, Philip Roth. The kind of anguished interior monologue that comedians like Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen would later spin for laughs, Delmore spun into American Jewish highbrow fiction. His voice was the voice of the eternal Jewish son who never becomes a Jewish father.

Alas, the story’s sense of doom was realized in Delmore’s life. After an impressive career as poet, writer, and critic, he spun out of control in a way that Saul Bellow captures in his novel Humboldt’s Gift, which is an elegy for Delmore and a meditation on his legacy. While describing the last days of Delmore’s fictional embodiment, Von Humboldt Fleisher, Bellow’s narrator breaks off to say:

I cannot accept the view of death taken by most of us, and taken by me during most of my life—on esthetic grounds therefore I am obliged to deny that so extraordinary a thing as a human soul can be wiped out forever. No, the dead are about us, shut out by our metaphysical denial of them. As we lie nightly in our hemispheres asleep by the billions, our dead approach us. Our ideas should be their nourishment. We are their grainfields. But we are barren and we starve them. Don’t kid yourself, though, we are watched by the dead, watched on this earth, which is our school of freedom.

Bellow took the death of Delmore very hard and so, too, did that founding group of New York Jewish intellectuals for whom he had been the golden boy. They were all individualists, but they recognized that this youngster was more so. They were still oriented toward the future while he saw the black waves beating against their shore.

While his peers cut their teeth on Trotsky, he was able to identify with the doomed children of the tsar, who “Played with a bouncing ball / In the May morning, in the Czar’s garden, . . . / While I ate a baked potato / Six thousand miles apart, / In Brooklyn, in 1916, / Aged two, irrational.” It is astonishing to think that he should have expressed a kinship between the Jewish family that saved itself by coming to America and the family of the great oppressor from whom they fled until we realize that the destiny of those soon-to-be-executed children most closely approximated how he felt about his threatened self. That poem—every bit as astounding as this signature story—connects the bouncing ball to the “wheeling, whirling world” in which the innocent are overtaken. There too, as in this story, the son is overtaken by the terror of destiny.


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