More than the halfhearted Atlas biography, better even than the recent selection of Schwartz letters, this is the furthest...


PORTRAIT OF DELMORE: Journals and Notes of Delmore Schwartz: 1939-1959

More than the halfhearted Atlas biography, better even than the recent selection of Schwartz letters, this is the furthest penetration into Schwartz yet, the remarkable heart of a personal and also midcentury American cultural misery nearly myth-like in its rigor. Only Bellow in Humboldt's Gift had had us see Schwartz and his implications this microscopically. Through two wives--Gertrude and Elizabeth (the editor of these journals); through more than a couple of university positions (Harvard--where Harry Levin seemed to Schwartz his ordained nemesis--Princeton, Syracuse at the end); through countless free-lance jobs--reviews, prefaces, editing tasks--and through a hundred friends, Schwartz could only too well see himself slipping from grasp. Alcohol, insomnia, and manic-depression steadily washed him away: the most poignant things here are the occasional inventories of poems and prose pieces, things that Schwartz had managed to write, publish, start, or even read that year. There's a terrified portrait of sloth plus ambition that, in notebook form especially, can remind one of Baudelaire. Sexual or marital happiness was very brief, squall-like--this is not Edmund Wilson. And in the end, he'd become a self-admitted crackpot, a crank you would cross the street to avoid. But without doubt these are a poet's notebooks. The beginnings of well-known Schwartz poems spawn here, most of the time very, very impressively. Even the word-gaming, so large a part of a poet's necessary inattention, is inspired. And here too are the anxious but very exact recordings of a man extremely concerned about what people are saying (or not saying) about him and about others (""Lionel Abel: Lionel Trilling does not exist. He exists too much.' "") as well as the wicked glibness he himself was legendary for (""Phillip has his good qualities, but he never lets them stand in his way""). The final notebooks are as grim and depressing as the last years themselves--but that it's a good poet's madness you never forget. Fascinating and baleful--no reader of modern American poetry will want to forego it.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1986


Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1986