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Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz (December 8, 1913 – July 11, 1966) was an American poet and short story writer.

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Though Schwartz is best known as a poet, this collection of what Phillips, his literary executor, calls bagatelles"short pieces in a light style"reveals him to be a master of the humorous personal essay as well. In these 19 amusing pieces, most of which were only recently discovered among his papers at Yale, Schwartz considers such matters as the American passion for automobile ownership, the real meaning of existentialism, the telephone as a mixed blessing, and the fear of having one's picture taken. His delightful character sketches of subjects as diverse as the "manic-depressive" Hamlet, Marilyn Monroe, and his 12-year-old brother-in-law, Claude, are as entertaining and frequently instructive as anything by Thurber.

– Library Journal

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The Ego Is Always At the Wheel

On Delmore Schwartz’s The Ego is Always at the Wheel

11/26/14

A century after his birth, and nearly fifty years since he died, alone, in a midtown Manhattan hotel, Delmore Schwartz, briefly considered the great American poet, remains relatively unknown. Hailed by the likes of Nabokov, Eliot, Bellow and Trilling, Schwartz remains relatively absent from the Elysian Fields of the Forgotten Author: The syllabus. Not even New Directions’ 2012 reissue of his story collection, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, revived Schwartz. Perhaps admirers were misguided in their attempted revivals. For it’s no longer the stories readers want, but the stories about the creators of stories, the interviews, origin tales, and advice to the novices. But in The Ego is Always at the Wheel—Schwartz’s undeservedly neglected personal essay collection—we find just that. Here he mythologizes, criticizes, sketches, and yarns to create a lucid and neurotic account of the role of the Artist.

Schwartz was a tormented genius. A literary Icarus; as much reputation as writer. That he wrote feels both fundamental and incidental to his biography. He made his name through his writing, but now it’s the torment interests us—posterity loves splitting authors into their work and their torment. But The Ego is a synthesis. It’s an account of Schwartz rendered by Schwartz: a deft construction distinct from the triangulation of journal, biography, and fictional alter egos. This is the public persona. Not the medicated melancholic who cataloged his drinks in his journal. Not the man who stole his wife’s typewriter because his work was more important than hers. Not the pill-popper who lay unclaimed at the morgue for three days. Here is the witty and humorous Delmore who left friends breathless with laughter. The man whose company “meant not only breathing with one’s lungs but with one’s mind.” The man whose death stopped clocks.

The collection’s longest piece, “Memoirs of a Metropolitan Child, Memoirs of a Giants Fan,” is a sort of bildungsroman squeezed into 22 pages. As a young man, Schwartz intended to split his adult as a New York Giants short stop and a poet—that is until he reads The Decline of the West. The book devastates him. “By New Year’s Day the Spenglerian sky . . . made the new year seem as hopeless and bleak as my own present and future.” He feels as if he were “born too late in a world too old.” If the West is in decline, he reasons, why do anything? Why be a poet? For the fame? Schwartz does, after all, publish poems in his high school literary journal—only to learn that nobody reads them. In the essay, Schwartz confronts the insecurity and fatalism of a young poet—the belief that he will never be good enough—as it clashes with the fantasy that poet need only work hard to succeed. Newspaper “reports of boy wonders and child prodigies”depress Schwartz. Talent is linked to genetics: “Was your father a poet? Was your grandfather a poet?” an uncle asks. They weren’t. So how can Delmore become one? The irony is thick. Reading the essay, we know that Schwartz, the son of no poets, became a great a poet. This provides a veneer of comfort (We really can become anything with enough work!) that Schwartz masterfully undercuts when he concludes “Experience has taught me nothing.” If he has learned nothing from experience, what can we learn from reading this essay? The essay isn’t advice for how a writer should be, but merely what happened.

The intersection of literature and personal life found in “Memoirs” reappears throughout the collection, notably in its literary criticism. In, “Hamlet, or There is Something Wrong with Everyone,” Schwartz begins by summarizing the play with the arrogance of a tenth-grader: “Ophelia was very much in love with Hamlet, and when Hamlet went to Germany to study metaphysics and lager beer, she thought about him all the time.” He dismisses a variety of scholarly readings—Hamlet was a woman, he was homosexual, everyone was blasted drunk—and concludes that Hamlet was manic-depressive. “No one knows the real causes of the manic-depressive disease . . . and that is why no one understands Hamlet,” he writes, with an urgency belying personal struggles with bipolar disorder. “You can have this gift or that disease, and no one understands why, no one is responsible . . . and yet no one can stop thinking that someone is to blame.” Like the disappointments of youth in “Memoirs,” Hamlet is used to confront a larger question: Can we, and should we, relate to great literature? Schwartz studies the play in order to understand Hamlet, with whom he has an affinity, but Hamlet cannot be understood. Associating with Hamlet means being misunderstood. It means having a gift and feeling like someone’s to blame. There are dangers, the essay suggests, in relating to art.

Yet his personal life is inextricable from literature. Where Schwartz, in his journals, might find despair in this fact, the author of The Ego plays it for comedy. In one essay, his nine-year-old brother-in-law advises him to give up writing and become a golf caddy—a comparably lucrative option he briefly considers. Asked by a reporter why he became a poet, Schwartz answers, “as an infant in the cradle I had cried loudly and received immediate attention . . . I tried crying out loudly in public and in blank verse, and the results had on the whole been most gratifying.” Attempting to define existentialism, Schwartz evades the facile definition that we are all alone and must die alone, to conclude that existentialism quite simply means “no one else can take a bath for you.” And in “Dostoyevsky and the Bell Telephone Company,” Schwartz teaches The Brothers Karamozov to Bell Telephone executives. Invited out for drinks after class, he surprises his students by accepting. “There seems to be some misunderstanding about those who read books having no time for guzzling,” he writes, “no class of people are more abundantly provided with time for drinking than readers of books.” Amen.

And we find Schwartz at his best when he writes directly about the relation between poet and audience. In “Poetry is Its Own Reward,” he reflects:

Every modern poet would like to be direct, lucid, and immediately intelligible, at least most of the time. In fact, one of the most fantastic misconceptions of modern literature and modern art in general is the widespread delusion that the modern artist does not want and would not like a vast popular audience. . . . The lack of popularity does not arise from any poet’s desire to punish himself of these glorious prizes and delectable rewards. The basic cause is a consciousness of the powers and possibilities of language, a consciousness of which cannot be discarded with any more ease than one can regain one’s innocence.

The desire for fame tormented Schwartz throughout his career—he began his career “passionate
with reveries of glory and power.” But as his notoriety waned, he took greater solace in the act of writing, seeing the work, rather than public attention, as poetry’s primary reward. Was this a rationalization, coming from a writer who so dearly craved adulation? Mastery is, after all, the final refuge for the unread author.

Throughout these essays Schwartz tries to understand, quite simply, how a should writer be in the world. This remains a problem today—recognizable not only in the myriad craft books pawning the trade, but in the brilliant work of Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, or Karl Ove Knausgaard. The ubiquity of writing advice and interviews from authors of varying talents puts writers in contact and conflict with an ideal Author. Writer and Author endanger one another, like a yin and a yang vying for space on the circle. Facing this same problem, Schwartz asks a friend if he would rather write great poems or be a poet? Is it best to be a writer, he asks, or a celebrity? And when, we might ask ourselves now, do we cease being the former and became the latter? Do we even notice?

Although it’s hard to tell what Delmore would say about the state of American letters, with its domesticated fabulists, its MFA industry, and its click-bait existential crises, the essays in The Ego come close providing an answer. The collection is reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses, with its lucid digressiveness, casual tone, and glib pronouncements. And the book shares many qualities with David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, where we see Dave Wallace playing the part of David Foster Wallace. The Ego is Always at the Wheel is a fascinating, funny, and sly self-portrait of an artist due for a renaissance.

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