by Delmore Schwartz and Craig Morgan TeicherPaperback
Reviewing a new volume of selected works by the American poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), Adam Kirschnotes his preoccupation with Jewish sons and their fathers (a preoccupation shared, according to Kirsch, by the contemporary writer Adam Ehrlich Sachs). He writes:
When [his friend and admirer John] Berryman says [in a poem] that Schwartz wrote about “harms and the child,” he is punning on the opening words of the Aeneid, “Of arms and a man I sing.” But it is also a fair summary of Schwartz’s great theme, which is the great theme of early American Jewish literature: the weight of the past, the way the traumas and dysfunctions of the parents are transmitted to the children. For Schwartz, who was an acolyte of both Marx and Freud, this burden was at the same time historical—a product of the long Jewish past, and the recent disruptive emigration to America—and psychological—a product of the guilt and resentment the child feels toward his mother and father.
The two lenses are superimposed in one of Schwartz’s best poems, “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar,” in which he compared himself at two years old, in 1916, with the Romanov princes, who can’t imagine that soon they will be executed. Both the world-historical princes and the insignificant Brooklyn Jewish boy, Schwartz suggests, are doomed by the same forces. . . .
Jewishness, for Schwartz as for more famous contemporaries like Bernard Malamud, is a kind of intensification of the human condition, a way of experiencing more acutely the themes of modern life—alienation, guilt, loneliness, moral striving. Schwartz’s “resignation” from the cult of [the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi] Ezra Pound—who was, at that time, the idol of all young avant-garde intellectuals—was part of his insistence that English literature had to make room for Jewishness as a subject and a voice. In this sense, Schwartz was a trailblazer for the golden age of American Jewish literature in the 1950s and 1960s—a promised land that, like Moses, he was not permitted to enter.