The monotonous sublime. Dan Jacobson on the New York writer who wanted to be "the Lindbergh, Moses, Siegfried, the Odysseus of America" but ended up a defeated drunk

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Delmore Schwartz <em>Souvenir Press, 202pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 081

The year: late 1965. The city: Syracuse, NY. The scene: a large but under-patronised diner or student hang-out just below the campus of Syracuse University. Time of day: mid-afternoon. Decor: cubicles with soft plastic seats; tables with green-glass, chrome-rimmed tops and twisted chrome legs; jukebox controls stuck to the wall of each cubicle. Musical accompaniment (intermittently): the Seekers. Dramatis personae: three or four groups of students, each at some distance from the others. One such group is "mine", consisting of about a half-dozen graduate students whose seminar I have just finished taking. Also, on his own at the far end of the diner, a large man in a heavily rumpled, ash-strewn blue suit.

He has a big head that he lifts at intervals to stare unseeingly across the room. Then the weight of it is too much for him and it sinks down again. His hair is thick, grey, unkempt. His face is grey, too - putty-coloured, lifeless, scored all over with deep lines. A cup of something is on the table in front of him. Cigarette smoke hangs about him. One of the students says to me, "Do you know who that is?" No, I do not. "That's Delmore Schwartz." I look towards him in dismay and astonishment. Delmore Schwartz! I could not believe it. The name had been known to me for many years, in fact since I had been a good deal younger than the students now around me, when I used to look at copies of Partisan Review in the periodicals room of the university I attended in South Africa. Unlike the other stars who appeared in the journal, such as Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv and so on, Schwartz contributed not only essays and stories but poems too. At that time almost any ambitious anthology of contemporary American stories, it seemed, was likely to include "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" (published to much acclaim when Schwartz was 23 years old); and any collection of critical essays would carry pieces by him such as "The Literary Dictatorship of T S Eliot" or "The Duchess's Red Shoes" (about Proust and that nebulous concept, "the novel of manners").

Now there he was, for so long a leading figure in the remote, glamorous, metropolitan world of literary New York; and here was I in Syracuse precisely because I had been asked to take his place for a semester. It had been explained to me that he was ill and that the English department was in urgent need of someone to fill in for him. I had assumed he had left Syracuse for New York City, which was where he belonged. When I mentioned this to the student who had identified him, he said, "Oh, then you should go and talk to him - tell him what you're doing here." For a moment I was tempted. Then I looked again. No, I could not do it. I did not dare to intrude on a solitude so profound, on a man in a state of such misery. No stranger could walk up to him with a smile and an outstretched hand.

So I simply shook my head, and two or three of the students who had their backs to him turned to have a look. Chin on chest, great head down, he did not see them do so. When we left, he was still there - same place, same posture, same silence, different cigarette no doubt. Almost 20 years later, I had the eerie experience of reading Humboldt's Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow, a novel whose eponymous hero was known to be based on Schwartz, and finding in it the following passage:

"I knew that Humboldt would soon die because I had seen him on the street two months before and he had death all over him. He didn't see me. He was grey stout sick dusty, he had bought a pretzel stick and was eating it. His lunch. Concealed by a parked car, I watched. I didn't approach him. I felt it impossible."

Bellow was a close friend of Schwartz's; I had glimpsed him on that one occasion only; but as I read those words I felt an intimacy with both the observed and the observer that I could not have acquired in any other way. By the time of Schwartz's death in 1966, which must have happened about six months after I had seen him, the "school" of New York Jewish writers (Schwartz, Bellow, Malamud, Roth, Trilling and various others) had come to be viewed as, and resented as in itself constituting, a literary dictatorship of a kind, however faction-ridden and full of rivalries it may actually have been. In this development Schwartz had been a pioneer, a golden boy, an exemplar to those who followed him. In exploring his own brooding, first-generation sensibility, he seemed to have opened up for himself and others a modern, urban, Jewish version of the 18th- and 19th-century literary preoccupation with America as both homeland and alien soil.

And now? Does this reissue of his stories, or a rereading of his poems and essays, reveal him to have been a less impressive writer than his bedazzled contemporaries had supposed? Or can one rediscover in them the handsome, vital wunderkind loved and admired by so many gifted people? The answer to both those questions - not surprisingly, perhaps - is yes and no. The poems, by which he set great store, have worn least well: the lines too often move like railway trucks, with a bump and a clank and a sudden jerk, followed by unexplained halts. Much of the fiction is as grey and as abstract as the street scenes it describes - which is not said in tribute to the imitative power of the prose, as the people who appear in the stories are often grey and abstract, too, even indistinguishable from one another, notwithstanding the names and jobs and attitudes they are endowed with. As for the criticism, it generally comes across as well-mannered, quasi-academic in approach, sometimes timid in tone: bizarrely so, one feels, given the author's reputation for manic behaviour and high-pressure, wide-spray talk.

All that on one side. On the other, the critical essays also reveal originality, delicacy, wit and above all a passionate attentiveness to the writers under discussion. (The essay "T S Eliot's Voice and His Voices" says more about the effects distinctive to Eliot's verse than mountains of learned chaff written about him in the 50 years since.) There are several passages in Schwartz's poems where the words startle one another into life instead of lumpishly lying side by side on the page. As for the stories in this reprinted collection, the more expressionist their mode is, the more widely they stray from the canons of naturalism, so the more compelling and affecting they become. (The one exception is the novella The Child is the Meaning of This Life, which in 40 pages manages to work successfully through the unfulfilled lives of three generations of an immigrant family.) In the title story, a man goes to a movie house where he is horrified to see his own parents' courtship on the screen, and then does his unavailing best to stop them going through with it, in a vain attempt to prevent them from bringing him into the world. Another story, more conventional in manner, is enlivened by a studied italicising of the cliches the immigrant protagonists proudly use in speaking to one another, under the fond delusion that in so doing, they are showing their mastery of the English language and hence revealing themselves to be true Americans at last. In a third, a man is taken by a stranger to an athletics meeting where he sees the contestants committing atrocious acts on one another, while the unperturbed stranger reads to him even more atrocious stories from a daily newspaper.

It is impossible to look into Schwartz's diaries and notes in Portrait of Delmore (published in 1986 and edited by his second wife, Elizabeth Pollet) without being reminded of Wordsworth's famous lines: "We poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness". Impossible, too, to go through pages of diary entries with- out feeling that had he not been mad to begin with, he would have been driven so by the quantities of Dexedrine, anti-depressants, sleeping tablets and alcohol that he swallowed.

However, the last words about him - sojourn in Syracuse definitely included - must be left to the savage wit and sadness of his friend Bellow:

"Mania and depression drove him to the loony bin. He was in and out. He became a professor of English in the boondocks. There he was a grand literary figure. Elsewhere, in one of his own words, he was zilch. But then he died and got good notices."

Dan Jacobson's most recent book is Heshel's Kingdom (Penguin)