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Delmore Schwartz's letters make emphatically clear what James Atlas' biography was too timid to bring into sharp focus: that Schwartz's creative talent burned very briefly, then disintegrated into two decades' worth of literary career-mongering, with primary attention to the brokering of academic sinecures. The last purely literary (though sophomoric) letters here are written while Schwartz is still an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. (""Sense is disordered by the keen pleasure, apartness--for art is such, the hurting turn, is good to touch; is great, not mean."" Very soon thereafter, an ardent campaign to make certain key allies (R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate) begins. Later, these early ties will be broken off, strategically, when other alliances (the Dwight Macdonald/Partisan Review circle) become more attractive. And, while the letters here are drenched in bare-fanged rivalry and eager bad-mouthing, Schwartz can still write hypocritically: ""In fact, nothing has shocked me so much in this past year during which I moved from among the academic to among the literary than the ineluctable cynicism of the literary."" (He goes on, moreover, professing to Allen Tare ""a belief in the existence of God and the possibility of human nobility, rather than the sense that all acts spring from a competitive motive."") The final letters, from the Sixties, are, of course, the saddest, with paranoia in full bloom: stories of summonses being served; pleas for money; a barrage of stories and poems to editors at The New Yorker in hopes of quick cash. But, while these grim letters do have some of the shabby poignancy that Saul Bellow dramatized in Humboldt's Gift, the overwhelming evidence here is not of a neglected talent gone to sad seed, but of an ambitious hustler. And, if there's little inherent literary-historical interest in Schwartz's correspondence, this volume does suggest that much recent writing on the 1940s N.Y. intellectual scene has been excessively celebratory and deferential.

Pub Date: Dec. 12th, 1984
Publisher: Ontario Review--dist. by Persea