Thursday, December 8, 2011

Delmore Schwartz (December 8, 1913)

From the indispensable Tablet Magazine:
"Schwartz ... became a central figure in the emerging group of New York intellectuals who would come into their own in the 1940s, but his writing was palpably different from theirs. Most of them were Jewish, but they showed little interest in their Jewishness, except for their urge to leave it behind. Marxist theory and the appeal of Western culture helped make them universalists, quickening their flight from their immigrant beginnings. Their facility with ideas typically made them critics rather than poets or novelists. Personal writing held little appeal for them, at least until they began to look back years later. During the Depression it seemed an indulgence, even an embarrassment. It could only drag them back to the poverty and, as they saw it, the cultural poverty of their family backgrounds.

"For Delmore Schwartz, what lay behind him was everything. His family history, and especially his Jewishness, was the medium that would help him fathom the enigma of who he was. His most ambitious work was a failed book-length autobiographical poem called Genesis. No writer believed less in the Emersonian vision of personal freedom, with its faith in the individual’s power of self-making. In one of his short plays, titled Shenandoah, Schwartz derided the notion that “a man/ Creates his life ex nihilo.” Instead, he took up Freud’s exploration of the family romance, which fed his own bleak sense that family was destiny. He never tired of musing on the cultural contradictions of his own name and the burden it placed on him. In Shenandoah, the mock-tragic verse play, his 25-year-old alter ego, Shenandoah Fish, is transported back to the scene of his own bris, the moment when he, at eight days old, received his impossible name. He blames his parents for their eagerness to gain a foothold in the gentile world while at the same time being tone deaf to its language and culture. The incongruous name came to stand for his divided being, at once comically native and ethnic."

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