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Downhill All the Way

ISSUE:  Spring 1986
The Letters of Delmore Schwartz, Edited by Robert Phillips. Ontario Review Press.$24.94. Randall Jarrell’s Letters. Edited by Mary Jarrell. Houghton Mifflin.$29.95.

Delmore Schwartz (1913—66) and Randall Jarrell (1914—65) represent two main currents of contemporary American literature. One was Jewish, centered around New York, and was associated with the Partisan Review; the other was Protestant, Southern, and published in the Kenyon Review. Both poets showed great promise, were critics and literary editors (Schwartz at the New Republic, Jarrell at the Nation), and taught seminars at Indiana and Princeton. Both were close friends of Lowell and Berryman and competed with them in experiencing mental breakdowns and revealing their inner chaos in their poems. Both suffered sterility, “comeback fatigue,” depression, and early death.

Schwartz, who wrote only a few good stories and some perceptive though harsh criticism (“To Have and Have Not is a stupid and foolish book, a disgrace to a good writer, a book which should never have been printed”), was ruined by ecstatic praise that he never deserved. The weight of this volume of letters and of the forthcoming Journals and Notes, 1939—1959 (edited by his second, divorced wife) seems too great for his limited achievement. Though Schwartz tried to express “serious and exact perception and judgement,” his poetry is soft, sentimental, and self-pitying. Some lines from one of his better works, “First Morning of the Second World,” have an adverbial insistence and awkward internal rhyme that might have characterized the verse of a flower child of the sixties:

Suddenly and certainly I saw how surely the measure and
  treasure   of pleasure is being as being with, belonging Figured and touched in the experience of voices in chorus.

As Hugh Kenner observed with devastating accuracy in a review of Vaudeville for a Princess (1950): “The unbelievable badness of these poems is irrelevant to any criteria of technique. . . . [They reveal] sheer incompetence (though there was a Delmore Schwartz in earlier phases who was not spectacularly incompetent)”.

Schwartz is interesting, therefore, not for his art but for his life and friendships. He exemplifies the golden boy and young culture hero of the liberal intellectuals, wrecked by himself and by mental illness; the talented and successful poet who moves through drink, drugs, and psychiatry to paranoid behavior, psychotic episodes, and a couple of bouts in Bellevue. Like a skull on a monk’s table, Schwartz warned the tottering survivors of what was in store for them. His tragic career inspired greater works than any he every wrote: Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, Lowell’s poem in Life Studies, and 13 of Berryman’s “Dream Songs”:

I remember his electrical insight as the young man,
his wit & passion, gift, the whole young man
alive with surplus love. . . .
He had no children,
nobody to stand by in the awful years
of the failure of his administration
He was tortured, beyond what a man might be.

The annotations of this edition of Schwartz’ letters are accurate and unobtrusive. But there are at least eight typographical errors and some confusion about whether Schwartz taught a term at UCLA or USC; “Georges Duhamel” is misspelled, and the index (which has no entry for Schwartz) is poor. Phillips assumes the reader has a detailed recollection of James Atlas’ biography and fails to provide a biographical context. Schwartz jumps from NYU to the Partisan Review, gets married and divorced (he told his first wife that during their ten years together they “made no life for each other, nor any happiness”), stops writing and breaks down, with little explanation of why all this is happening.

His early letters are formal, serious, and philosophical— almost little lectures. His late ones approach sycophancy: an undignified though sometimes necessary angling for lectures, jobs, grants, reviews, advances, loans—and praise. He firmly believed: “If you don’t have a dog, you must do your own barking.” He cultivated all the right people, and his correspondents include the most distinguished contemporary poets and critics: Stevens, Pound, Williams, Tate, Aiken, Auden, Berryman, Lowell, and Jarrell.

Schwartz specialized in flattery mixed with contempt. He told Blackmur (a notably poor stylist): “my sense of language is increased every time I read anything you write”; told Dwight Macdonald that he is “ten times better than Lincoln Steffens and Orwell put together”; told Ransom: “I heard the most impressive accounts of your lecture from Randall.” To Tate, Schwartz confided: “there is no one else in America or anywhere else, not even Eliot, from whom a kind word could mean so much to me,” and repeated this formula to Meyer Schapiro: “I can’t think of anyone—except perhaps the Eliot of 1925—whose pleasure would mean so much to me.”

This self-serving flattery is combined with criticism of his more talented contemporaries. “East Coca Cola” (Eliot’s “East Coker”) was disgraceful; Aiken was “a second-rater”; MacLeish was “persistently third-rate”; Hart Crane was “paralyzed on the love of apostrophe, apocalypse, and apotheosis”; Jarrell’s “toad-chill” poems “substitute wisecracks for perceptions”; Ivor Winters was stupid and so was Orwell. During the war, Schwartz revealed another unpleasant aspect of his character, becoming irritated when he had to teach an extra class at Harvard to stay out of the draft.

Schwartz peaked early and declined fast. His hopes mingled with despair, his mania with depression, soon after his inexcusably careless translation of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en

Enfer was savaged by the critics in 1939. He took injections for a profound endocrine imbalance; he became devious when scared, experienced slow degradation combined with “the alienation which only a Jew can suffer,” and strived for the fractured lucidity of a late Shakespearean fool. The rest is silence.

Jarrell contrasted his own disinterestness and cultural awareness to Schwartz’ metropolitan provinciality: “Delmore carries such a petty, personally involved, New Yorkish atmosphere around with him it’s almost unpleasant for me to see him. He thinks that Schiller and St. Paul were just two Partisan Review editors.” And he had a low opinion of Schwartz’ work: “Genesis is just AWFUL. . . . [The prose] is flat, abstract, and completely dull. . . . That a person of his taste and intelligence should write the stories he does—half the sentences would serve as textbook models of banal and ingenuous vulgarity—is extraordinary.”

Born in Nashville, Jarrell was educated at Vanderbilt and Kenyon, began his poetic career under Ransom, Tate, and Warren, and remained faithful to the principles of his mentors. He spent the war years at Army bases in Texas, Illinois, and Arizona. Washed out of pilot training after going into a spin on a test flight, he became a ground instructor in a model airplane that simulated flying conditions. The atmosphere of pervasive pettiness in the Army made him feel like an orphan in a Dickens novel, and he escaped during leaves to the library at the University of Illinois. In 1943 he shrewdly observed: “I believe nationalism, so far from dying out as people once believed, is going to reach heights it’s only in isolated cases attained before.”

Jarrell, known for his independent, honest, scrupulous and merciless criticism, increased his power and prestige when he became literary editor of the Nation during 1946—47. He wanted to be more constructive and less entertaining in his reviews, but could not restrain himself when confronted with inferior verse. He conceded that Aiken had “a sort of gaseous merit” and felt that MacLeish’s J.B. was “really as vulgar, exaggerated, and completely awful as the worst things in the mass media.”

Jarrell, a lively and enthusiastic teacher, was for brief periods on the faculties of Kenyon, Texas, Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, Indiana, and Illinois. But he was too frank and too intelligent to get a permanent position at a first-rate university. From 1947 to 1965 he taught at the Women’s College in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the average girl talked “as if she were an imbecile with an ambition to be an idiot.” Though he lectured at the Salzburg Seminars in 1948, was Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress during 1956—58, and won the National Book Award for The Woman at the Washington Zoo in 1961, he justly felt he had not won his share of the major prizes, honors, and awards.

Jarrell’s letters are curiously guarded and impersonal. They are not especially brilliant or witty (he must have worked hard to achieve these effects in his criticism) and contain some tedious rhapsodizing about his cats. But they have acute analyses of poems by Lowell and Adrienne Rich as well as interesting explanations of the genesis of his academic satire, Pictures From an Institution, and of the obscure allusions in his own poetry. “A Well-to-Do Invalid,” for example, was meant to be a satiric comment on Lowell’s marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick.

Jarrell read psychology, ethnology, folk literature, economics, symbolic logic, modern epistemology, and theology as well as literature. He was also passionately interested in music, opera, ballet, German, tennis, football, and sports cars. He admitted that he was egoistic, caustic, selfish, and guilt-ridden: “I am rather cold to and bored by a great many [people]. . . I do get cross and make little automatic critical remarks. . . . I like the feeling of being taken care of, of having decisions made for me, of being saved bother. . . . It’s pathetically easy for me to feel dissatisfied with myself and generally guilty.”

Jarrell was an extremely intelligent writer, a brilliant novelist, and the best poetry critic of his time. He wrote pioneering essays on Whitman, Frost, Williams, Auden, and Lowell; after 40 years, his judgments still seem unerringly accurate. But his various publishers did not value his books or try to keep him, and magazine editors crudely cut his work. It would have been fascinating to read his uncompleted projects: a translation of Gogol’s The Inspector General, an essay on the psychoanalytical roots of Eliot’s work, a poem on Picasso. Yet Jarrell had less poetic talent than his peers and lacked Lowell’s rhetoric, Berryman’s originality, and Roethke’s lyricism. Though he had interesting ideas, he wrote limp, prosaic, and unmemorable lines. He was too often fanciful and fey; too precious, dreamy, and whimsical. His melancholy frequently merged with self-pity.

Jarrell is too important a writer to be entrusted to the amateurish and subjective editing of his widow. Mrs. Jarrell provides a shameless display of egoism and self-praise by including 70 love letters (about one-fifth of the book). Written during his year at Princeton (1951—52) and shortly before their marriage, they repetitively celebrate her virtues: “If you were any better I’d die of bliss. . . . Compared to you Florence Nightingale was a perfect bitch.”

The text of the letters is not accurately transcribed. In one letter I have checked (381—2), two underlined words are not indicated, a capitalized word is printed in lower case and “Book” appears in the plural. In another letter (140—1), “I was pleased and flattered with the Poetry Chronicle invitation” is printed as “I was pleased and flattered by your invitation to write the Poetry Chronicle”; “I might get given a job at a college near Philadelphia” appears as “I might get a job near Philadelphia.” Other words are carelessly omitted and the punctuation of one sentence is changed.

Books and articles mentioned by Jarrell on pages 46, 119, 347, and 513 are not identified. The name of the Russian who provided the literal version for Jarrell’s translation of The Three Sisters and the nature of Michael Di Capua’s argument with Macmillan are not explained. The allusions to Twain (42), Yeats (180), Southey (296), Ecclesiastes (377), and Pascal (481) are not noted. Some comments (95, 256) merely repeat what Jarrell has stated in his letters. Kenneth Burke is first mentioned on page 53 but is not identified until page 358. Eliot is pointlessly described as an “international literary figure” (379). And there are a few minor errors. Harry Levin did not have “all the academic credentials” (36); he lacked a doctorate. Alfred Knopf was not “monumental” (390) but small and dapper.

Mrs. Jarrell’s exculpatory edition tries to preempt a biography without answering the essential questions about his life: his background, parents, and unhappy childhood; his love for Amy Breyer, Elizabeth Eisler, and perhaps other women; his lack of children, divorce from his first wife, behavior as a stepfather; the problems of his second marriage; his physical illness, mania, depression, breakdown, suicide attempt, and death. It is significant that this volume was not brought out by his last editor and friend or by any of his previous publishers.

Jarrell’s breakdown was foreshadowed by the manic-depressive episodes of Robert Lowell. Jarrell, who had been trained in psychology, became terrified when confronted by Lowell’s mania during his friend’s visit to Greensboro in 1954. He lost all Freudian insight and clinical objectivity, and “found it distasteful to be even minimally involved in this crisis.” When Jarrell’s own breakdown—partly precipitated by the kind of cruel review that he himself had so often written—took place in 1965, “that fiery particle” was, as Byron said of Keats, “snuffed out by an article.” Lowell, the maddest and most destructive of all the poets, outlived his rivals and wrote elegies on all of them. In April 1965, after hearing of Jarrell’s illness, Lowell recalled in a compassionate letter his own experiences with madness:

what looks as though it were simply you, and therefore would never pass, does turn out to be not you and will pass. Please let me tell you how much I admire you and your work and thank you for the many times when you have given me the strength to continue. Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Courage, old friend.

Six months later Jarrell, like his beloved Proust and Rilke, was dead at age 51. Dressed entirely in black and walking at night along a four-lane highway, he lunged into the path of a car and committed suicide. As John Berryman said in an Ohio Review interview (and Lowell confirmed in his elegy on Jarrell): “Randall—it’s not admitted, but apparently he did kill himself.”


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