Saul Bellow creates a fictionalized version of American author Delmore Schwartz in his novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975). Readers interested in better understanding the context of Bellow’s masterpiece and the character of Von Humboldt Fleisher would do well to read Schwartz’s short stories. New Directions republished his short stories in 1978 under the title of his best known story. Schwartz examines the life of New York intellectuals in the Great Depression. Many of the stories contain thinly disguised avatars for the author. The White Horse Inn (photo) was a key hangout and still exists.
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Written in 1937, this short story appeared in an early issue of the Partisan Review, and is his best known piece, divided into 6 brief sections. It is based on his intense dissatisfaction with his own personal life, due to the failure of his parent's marriage. It opens in June, 1909, in Brooklyn, where his father is courting his mother “Rose” (p. 2), her actual name. They visit Coney Island, ride the merry-go-round, and eat at a restaurant where his father proposes, lifted up by the waltz that is being played (p. 8). They then go sit in front of a photographer and ultimately have their fortune told. Schwartz uses a clever technical innovation, he tells the story as if he is in a movie theater, the unborn son, watching newsreels unfold of his parent’s courting. At the conclusion of each section, there is an interruption in the “dream screen”, whether it be a break in the film, or the narrator’s multiple departures from the theater as a result of uncontrollable grief. In effect, the film ends in his conception.
When his father proposes in the restaurant, he shouts out “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children, whose characters are monstrous” (p. 6). He tries to shut his eyes, but the film is unreeling in the theater of his mind. In the photo session, the photographer has trouble staging a photo that is “right” (p. 7), of course, the narrator knows there is no right in this pairing. In the final fortune-telling scene, an usher drags him out of the theater, telling him “Don’t you know that you can’t do whatever you want to do ?” (p. 8). The usher’s statement is given a central place in the story as if to say “how presumptuous yet inevitable that we should want to unwind the reel of our lives” (p. viii). The narrator awakes on his 21st birthday, his fortune has been foretold. It has been an anxiety dream, befitting of his well known insomnia. To have wished his parents not to marry is to have wished his own extinction.
America ! America ! The narrator now takes the name Shenandoah Fish in this second story about telling a story. He is an author, unable to write, who listens to his mother’s story about their neighbors, the Baumanns. He feels his loss of fluency as “a loss, or a lapse of identity” (p. 11). He feels that no one knows him, “I do not see myself. I do not know myself. I cannot look at myself truly” (p. 33). “He was not sure at any given moment whether the cruelty of the story was in his own mind or in his mother’s tongue” (p. 16). Because of his vocation as an author, Shenandoah “reflected upon his separation from these people, and he felt that In every sense he was removed from them by thousands of miles, or by a generation, or by the Atlantic Ocean. What he cared about, only a few other human beings, separated from each other too, also cared about” (p. 19). Yet he begins to doubt himself, “he began to feel that he was wrong to suppose that the separation, the contempt, and the gulf had nothing to do with his work” (p. 20). Ultimately, he realizes his own lassitude and indolence are equal to the Baumanns’.
The expression “The World is a Wedding” is based on the marriage of God and Nature. Jacob is reminded of Peter Breughel’s famous painting The Peasant Wedding (see image). Jacob points out the details of the painting, expounding on how it is a reflection of life.
The expression in vino veritas appears in this story (p. 77), well before Martin Amis pens it in Experience (see 10/24/10 post). Best lines: “I am not a failure because I never wanted to be a success” (p. 84) and “The best pleasure of all is to give pleasure to another being” (p. 89).
New Year’s Eve. This short story is horribly dated (1938), since the intrigue is based upon the caricatures of the New York intellectual cliques, especially the Partisan Review crowd, who are sardonically painted as very frail. These include the author (Shenandoah Fish); Gertrude Buckman, Schwartz’s 1st wife and PR book reviewer (Wilhelmina Gold); Dwight McDonald, PR editor (Grant Landis); William C. Barrett, Schwartz’s close friend, editor PR, wrote philosophical texts for non-experts (Nicholas O’Neil); F.W. DuPee, PR editor (Oliver Jones); and Lionel Abel, critic (Leon Berg). The death/rebirth issue is a regular feature of Schwartz’ stories and is revisiting at the opening “This secular holiday is full of pain because it is both an ending and a beginning” (p. 94). It is to be the year of the Munich pact (permitting Nazi Germany annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland), a foreboding of the next world war, inevitable and hopeless. Delia, Oliver’s wife, laments that she did not marry the man who courted her before Oliver, because of certain idiosyncrasies. She considers “…why should anyone have to pay for another human being’s childhood” (p. 106), meaning that we all carry baggage from our childhood that gets foisted on our adult relations. Best line – “[Sex] is different with everyone” (p. 107).
The Commencement Day Address. Dr. Isaac Duspenser seeks to épater les bourgeois, with pessimistic sentiments and a machine gun. A student calls out from the audience challenging his intellectual exhibitionism, yet he replies “Must I, too, pay for your childhood” (p. 121), an epigram that we saw in the previous story. Best line – “I see all History as a lovesick boy fumbling his sex in the darkness” (p. 120).