The ego is always at the wheel 
by Delmore Schwartz.
Carcanet, 146 pp., £6.95, May 1987, 0 85635 702 2
Show More
A Nest of Ninnies 
by John Ashbery and James Schuyler.
Carcanet, 191 pp., £10.95, June 1987, 0 85635 699 9
Show More
Show More

Like Tristram Shandy, Delmore Schwartz so hated his name that he sometimes used to attribute all of his misfortunes to it. It was an obsession he enjoyed feeding: he would invent ridiculous sources for it – a delicatessen, a Pullman railroad car, a Tammany Hall club – while in his stories and poems he would always inflict on his leading character, who was always himself, a name exotic or absurd, half old-time Jewish and half Hollywood – Shenandoah Fish, Hershey Green, Cornelius Schmidt. In his best verse play, Shenandoah, he even features himself looking back on his own naming ceremony twenty-five years earlier. When his mother, Elsie Fish, decides on Shenandoah, he breaks out Macbeth-like:

Now it is done and quickly done. I am undone:
This is the crucial crime ...

Lowell, too, in a sonnet on Schwartz’s unhappy last years, saw his name as an essential part of the problem:

Your dream had humour, then its genius thickened,
you grew thick and helpless, your lines were variants,
unlike and alike, Delmore, – your name, Schwartz,
one vowel bedevilled by seven consonants ...

Schwartz’s sense of his uniqueness had nothing in common with Lowell’s type of lordly self-belief, nor with the obsessive thirst for fame that motivated a poet like John Berryman. His literary career is often compared pityingly with their astute professionalism, as if, authentic poète maudit though he was, he never quite got the marketing right. Certainly he never managed to create out of his sufferings the suspense of a suicide-note released in tantalising instalments that builds up so much of the fascination of their worlds. He lacked their immaculate sense of dramatic timing, the ability to fashion from private neuroses the neat black comic tale. And he had grander visions for poetry as well, wanting it to digest and advance all culture, the works of Marx and Freud, Aristotle and Beethoven. (These four, plus a mysterious unknown fifth who was probably originally Kant, are the ghosts with whom he exchanges thoughts on a production of Coriolanus in his long poem of that name.) Schwartz had absolute faith in the tenets of high Modernism, and, initially anyway, worshipped Eliot and Yeats almost as gods. This was a common dilemma for American poets of that generation: Berryman might be said to have spent the first half of his career freeing himself from his idols, while remaining eager to joke about the process:

I didn’t want my next poem to be exactly like Yeats
or exactly like Auden
since in that case where the hell was I?
but what instead did I want it to sound like?

Schwartz made his mark just before the Second World War when Modernism was at its most popular, and it was in this tradition that Allen Tate saw his first book, In dreams begin responsibilities, when it came out in 1938, hailing it as ‘beyond any doubt the first real innovation we’ve had since Eliot and Pound’. This book established Schwartz as the nearest thing American poetry has had to an infant prodigy, although it didn’t happen spontaneously. Schwartz manoeuvred endlessly behind the lines in the months preceding the publication date of 12 December (four days after his 25th birthday), amassing for full-page promotional ads approving quotes from Tate, Stevens, MacNeice, R.P. Blackmur, Ransom, Philip Rahv, Auden, Mark Van Doren, Philip Wheelwright and Dudley Fitts. The ‘American Auden’ label that was to haunt him later in life as the most damning evidence of his unfulfilled promise was in fact part of the New Directions blurb, though it meant that Auden’s own advance copy had to be politicly sent without its jacket.

It is unfortunate, really, that Schwartz has filtered into the general public’s consciousness more because of the outstanding copy his life has proved for other writers than because of his own work. Saul Bellow’s superb roman à clef, Humboldt’s Gift (1975), was modelled loosely on his relations with Schwartz in the late Forties and early Fifties, and – his first book after winning the Nobel Prize – was a colossal seller. By now, most of those who knew him best have had their say. There are essays from many of the old Partisan crowd, Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, William Barrett, Philip Rahv; a compassionate reminiscence from Harry Levin, who was much abused by Schwartz when they were neighbours in Cambridge in 1940; there are Lowell’s elegies and Berryman’s Dreamsongs, and even an awkward commemoration on his The Blue Mask album (1982) from Lou Reed, a student of Schwartz’s at Syracuse in the early Sixties. And James Atlas’s sensitive biography, published in 1977, provides an exhilarating mass of circumstantial evidence about Schwartz’s day-to-day existence.

But the best introduction to his achievement remains his extraordinary first book. He really was onto something, though it’s difficult even now to say exactly what:

In the naked bed, in Plato’s cave.
Reflected headlights slowly slid the wall,
Carpenters hammered under the shaded window,
Wind troubled the window curtains all night long,
A fleet of trucks strained uphill, grinding,
Their freights covered, as usual.
The ceiling lightened again, the slanting diagram
Slid slowly forth.
                Hearing the milkman’s chop.
His striving up the stair, the bottle’s chink,
I rose from bed, lit a cigarette.
And walked to the window ...

It is perhaps the earnestness of this that is its most appealing feature, its implicit faith in poetry. It teems with echoes of Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Baudelaire, but, as in much of Eliot’s own earlier work, the poem’s intentness acts as a kind of crucible for each of the borrowings, making them seem like urgent data needing to be processed and understood by anyone with a serious interest in remaining alive in the modern world. Schwartz is describing his recurring insomnia, but the lines are at once rigorously impersonal and absolutely self-confident. The poem’s subject is anxiety, guilt, doubt, but the poetry itself is authoritative and precise. Schwartz admired the way the early Auden could evoke atmospheres of imminent crisis with a jokey, fluent detachment, and in his excellent essay ‘The Two Audens’ (1938) he pictured Auden plugging into England’s ‘collective unconscious ... delivering its obsessions to the page’. These lines certainly covet that ability.

Pretty well all of Schwartz’s best work is overwritten, almost violently so. His short story ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’, for instance, which first made his name, heading the opening issue of the newly revived Partisan Review in 1937 in front of contributions from Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and even Picasso, has an intensity that seems both unique to Schwartz and bound up with its own moment of composition. There is nothing in it from which one might learn how to compose short stories, or how to achieve certain effects. Schwartz was 21 when he wrote it, and part of its charm and power certainly derives from its gaucheness, its schoolboy earnestness. Though it aims to be wise in a passionate, Dostoevskian way, it really succeeds through its awkwardness and innocence. The domestic situation which ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’ describes – the incompatibility of his mother and father from the very moment of their engagement – was Schwartz’s major theme. Especially touching is the way the story seems to be driven by a kind of misplaced confidence in the omnipotence of art: the ‘divine vibrations’ Nabokov admired in it perhaps derive from the firmness of this trust. But as Schwartz went on, exploring his family’s miseries over and over, in verse plays, lyrics, more stories, across the two hundred numbing pages of Genesis: Book 1, he never found himself quite able to discover within his life’s vicissitudes the Wordsworthian coherence he so desired. As a child, he suffered a great deal from his parents’ unhappy marriage, and was often treated as a pawn in their wranglings. His father was rarely at home, and had endless affairs. In addition, there were all the cultural dilemmas of first-generation Jewish immigrants to be endured. His personal history, Schwartz felt, which had complicated his character to the point of neurosis, would surely receive some sort of ultimate justification and annealment in the perfection of his art – a common thought since Edmund Wilson, but one that few successful artists can ever have taken as seriously as Schwartz did. Passionate for absolutes, he expanded it into the full-blooded conception of the poet as Christ-like hero in the capitalist wilderness, involved in a continual act of unacknowledged self-sacrifice for the common good. He described how the modern poet ‘must dedicate himself to poetry, although no one else seems likely to read what he writes; and he must be indestructible as a poet until he is destroyed as a human being’ – a comment that might be funny if it weren’t so sincere.

The irony was that Schwartz was quite incapable of exploiting his sufferings to artistic effect. His artistic friends have proved much better at these sufferings. His gifts were lyrical, not narrative or dramatic. None of the fictional personae he invented for himself really connects his life to his work, as happens in Lowell or Berryman. Essentially Schwartz was, like Dylan Thomas, a dazzling phrasemaker. His first lines were usually his best, and these often became the poems’ titles: ‘Dogs are Shakespearean, Children are strangers’, ‘In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave’, ‘The Beautiful American Word, Sure’. Phrases like these, and sometimes whole poems, are exciting for no single clear reason, although probably most important is the way they seem to subdue the needs of the individual sensibility in favour of an awareness of the possibilities of language for its own sake. Disparate and vatic, they aim vaguely at some private, or perhaps universal, angst: but most of the poems’ pleasures remain contingent on the strange convolutions of imagery and syntax in individual lines or phrases.

Given the unstable nature of his talent, Schwartz’s assault on the long poem was doomed from the start. But by the time he began Genesis he had read Freud – according to William Barrett, this was the central disaster of his life – and the Family Romance seemed the answer to all his problems, the obvious, indeed the only possible plot. His earlier work is, to use his own phrase for Auden, full of ‘the residue of undigested meaning’, but Schwartz’s middle poems and stories tend more towards tedious psychologyising. Genesis is a family history; by detailing the exploits of grandparents, uncles, cousins, aunts, Schwartz seems to have hoped to establish once and for all his identity and the sources of his genius: while the story of their emigration is interesting enough, however, the touchingly absurd poetry and Biblical prose in which it is told never ignite. Schwartz’s reputation suffered for it on all fronts. His publisher James Laughlin was unenthusiastic, Auden advised him not to publish, and, when it did come out in 1943, it received, at best, tepidly polite reviews.

Schwartz never abandoned poetry. In fact, over the next twenty years he wrote reams of it, much of it still unpublished – Yale’s manuscript library has twenty or so large boxes of his papers, including hundreds of pages of the typescript for Genesis: Book II. And much of it makes eerie reading. As his life fell apart, and the exhaustive doses of Nembutal, Seconal and alcohol with which he combated his insomnia took their toll, and as his fits of paranoia and mania became more frequent, his poetry grew eccentrically chirpy and spontaneous:

‘I am cherry alive.’ the little girl sang,
‘Each morning I am something new ...’

Schwartz’s literary executor, Robert Philips, thinks this is one of Schwartz’s permanent contributions to 20th-century American poetry, but I don’t think he can be serious. There are occasional strikes, such as ‘Mr Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon’, and he never lost his gift for good titles (‘Dusk shows us what we are and hardly mean’), but most of his later poems are too loosely put together to conceal their baffled inner emptiness. Conceived as the unchecked effusions of a naive lyricism, they too often end up sounding like bad imitations of early Roethke. Dwight Macdonald acutely spoke of Schwartz’s ‘invincible innocence’. In his later life he grew both violently suspicious – it was Schwartz who coined the aphorism ‘Even paranoiacs have real enemies’ – and litigious, and slapped trumped-up writs on all his old friends: but his poetry from these years seems to yearn ever more nostalgically for the sweet and pristine.

His critical faculties, on the other hand, never really deserted him. Schwartz wrote a great quantity of good criticism during his life, mainly essays and reviews. Books on Eliot and Fitzgerald were advertised, but never appeared. His critical prose tends towards the orotund – Eliot’s criticism is the overwhelming model – but it can also be shrewd and personal. Schwartz studied the literary stockmarket like a broker, monitoring reputations as they dropped a point, gained a point, and this gives his assessments of his contemporaries – he never wrote on earlier authors – a certain relish. ‘Pound is not as learned as he seems to be,’ he cautions, before predicting the Cantos’ ‘immense usefulness for future writing’. His high seriousness rarely unbent, even when he became film-reviewer for The New Republic in the mid-Fifties. His joke-free cultural analyses of Mary Pickford and Marilyn Monroe are perceptive.

Schwartz did feel, however, that he had a lighter vein to cultivate. The ego is always at the wheel (another brilliant title) is a selection of bagatelles he wrote mainly in the late Forties and early Fifties; about half were previously published in magazines and Schwartz’s Vaudeville for a Princess collection (1950), which inventively interspersed poetry and prose, while half were found among his papers. The previously unpublished essays are especially baffling. It’s hard to imagine anyone, let alone Schwartz, sitting down to write these limp trifles except on commission.

He was an explosive conversationalist and a great raconteur, but his attempts in these pieces at the middlebrow columnist’s garrulous humour, as perfected by Thurber, Ring Lardner (one of Schwartz’s heroes) or S.J. Perelman, are quite disastrous. The required tone of wide-eyed pedantry was simply alien to him. Most of the pieces in question convey a grimmer comedy – that of the self-conscious intellectual reaching for a populist style in order to escape for a while from his obsessions. Many are facetious descriptions of literary classics, without punch or point. Hamlet can only be understood ‘if we suppose that everyone is roaring drunk from the beginning to the end of the play.’ The only thing we can know for certain about Don Giovanni is that he ‘was a Lesbian, that is to say, someone who likes to sleep with girls’. The definition of Existentialism is that ‘no one else can take a bath for you.’

Others are personal reminiscences in which Schwartz dramatises himself as a picaresque innocent. ‘The ego is always at the wheel’ describes the cars in his life, from a 1929 Royal Coupé in 1929 to a 1936 Buick in 1949, and how the dealers rooked him on each trade-in. In another, he is hired by Ma Bell to lecture her junior executives on The Brothers Karamazov, in the hope of reducing ‘patterns of over-conformity’ among the staff. Schwartz is unable to appear natural or at case in these pieces, and it is hard to believe that each one underwent numerous revisions. Even the best, a description of adolescent gloom following a precocious immersion in Spengler’s The Decline of the West and a violent dip in the fortunes of the Giants, has a dispiriting vagueness to it. Though the Giants buy the formidable batter Rogers Hornsby in the close season, they still miss out on the Pennant race the following year. Schwartz concludes: ‘It is now years since I first became aware that the reality of the future was very likely to be very different than any present image or expectation: Yet this awareness, recognition, or knowledge are likely to be astonishing and unpredictable in many ways so essentially the same as they were so long ago that I must make an admission which may be a confession: Experience has taught me nothing.’ The publication of these curiosities now can only re-affirm the drift of this self-analysis, and deepen our awareness of the extraordinary misunderstandings that accompanied Schwartz’s enormous original talent.

Schwartz never completed a full-length novel, though he was always interested in the form, and wrote dozens of outlines for plots. Probably his best critical essay is ‘The Duchess’s Red Shoes’, with which he entered the popular Fifties controversy initiated by Lionel Trilling on Society and the American Novel. Trilling felt that American fiction was impoverished by its indifference to social manners. John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies, first published in America in 1969, is an American novel of manners of sorts, though probably not the one the austere Trilling had in mind. It was written piecemeal by the two poets over a number of years – in alternate sentences, apparently – and aims less for sincerity and authenticity than for the glorious peaks of High Camp.

The ‘ninnies’ are upper-middle-class Americans, denizens of New York suburbia, who float around the new and old worlds exquisitely immune to interest in anything but their own, frequently domestic concerns:

‘It’s hard to believe it wasn’t built to look that way,’ Alice said, turning her back on the Forum. ‘Listen, Marshall, I want you to write to them about that furnace. I refuse to spend another winter like the last one.’

So begins the chapter set in Rome. The two writers share an infectious enthusiasm for goofy cliché, remote movie-stars, period furniture (what exactly is a Duncan Phyfe sewing-table?), and esoteric cuisine; and for ferocious rain and snow storms. Probably the most entrancing element is the gusto with which they hit off B-movie dialogue of the ‘Aw, can it, sis,’ or ‘Feet, do your stuff’ variety, at the same time weaving in ever more bewilderingly arcane allusions, from Elbert Hubbard to Raphael Mengs, from Manzoni to the late Barney Oldfield.

The addictive mannerisms of A Nest of Ninnies (the title is lifted from a Jacobean jest book by Robert Armin, published in 1608) derive from mainly English sources – Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett (both high scorers in Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp” ’), Henry Green (on whom Ashbery wrote his MA thesis), and perhaps also the Mapp and Lucia series of E.F. Benson, whose comedy operates through a similar cherishing equanimity. Roussel’s plays also lurk somewhere in the background, especially to the sequence in which four of the ninnies track down a Hiram Powers sculpture to a chalet de nécessité on the Cour Lamartine (after the poet) in Annemasse, southern France; and the model of the Transportation Building of the Columbia Exposition in Chicago, made out of toothbrush handles steamed and sliced, could have no other inspiration. It could perhaps be claimed, in support of Trilling’s view, that the only previous American novelist to have attempted anything like the opacities of A Nest of Ninnies – though on a very different level of intensity – is Jane Bowles.

A Nest of Ninnies sustains itself by a quite amazing inventiveness. Although it reduces all externals, all conceptions of character, to a vast private joke, within these self-imposed limits the novel manages to create, out of its own irrepressible clutter, a gathering sense of time passing. This is especially pronounced in the novel’s last chapters, which see the opening of Alice and Giorgio’s Italian restaurant. Initially they have problems with a liquor licence – the mayor’s brother-in-law owns half the local English pub, the Sir Toby Belch, and resents the competition. Fortunately, in the midst of a colossal snowstorm, a freak fire starts, and while sparing most of the Walt Whitman shopping plaza, burns to the ground Kelton’s roller rink, its cinema – but Abel Greeley manages to save the whole Kay Francis cycle – and of course the Sir Toby Belch as well. The final chapter describes a typical night at the Trentino restaurant, but the authors introduce new characters and impossible allusions with such gay abandon that the narrative seems to disintegrate, and to lose what pretence of its own coherence it ever had, like a river growing steadily broader and then being lost in the sea. At last the party breaks up, and the novel ends.

Ashbery wrote the final sentence: ‘So it was that the cliff dwellers, after bidding their country cousins good night, moved off toward the parking area, while the latter bent their steps toward the partially rebuilt shopping plaza in the teeth of the freshening foehn.’ Foehn? In an interview Ashbery once explained how he liked the idea of a reader finishing the book, but not knowing the meaning of the final word, so having to open another book to look it up. (A foehn is in fact a warm wind that blows in Bavaria and produces a fog.) It’s a favourite Ashbery pattern. The familiar and unknown somehow collapse into each other to create a new mystery, expanding in silence, never to be explained. His great poem ‘A Wave’ ends with a similar force:

Stay in touch. So they have it, all the time. But all was strange.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences