Delmore Schwartz’s American Jewish Modernism

June 28 2019
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

In 1937, Partisan Review—newly reconstituted after its break with the Communist party—published a short story by the poet Delmore Schwartz titled “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which the editors chose to place in front of contributions from Wallace Stevens, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Pablo Picasso. In this eerie and unusual story, the narrator experiences watching his own parents’ courtship on a movie screen. Ruth R. Wisse argues that its publication constituted an American debut of literary modernism, but also a uniquely Jewish kind of literary modernism:

It comes as no surprise that when he wrote this story Delmore was reading Kafka’s The Trial, in which the narrator wakes up on the morning of his thirtieth birthday to find himself under arrest. In Kafka there is no named city, no established time, no patronym or firm identification, and no actual crime or possibility of exoneration. Josef K.’s main problem is deracination, and the resulting insecurity of his status determines his doom: he is killed “like a dog.”

Delmore revises Kafka in the process of adapting him to liberal, transparent America. We are given to know that the father will not become a mature husband and that his son will grow up unhappy. One can see Willy Loman [of Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman] waiting in the wings as the American Jewish father, along with [Philip Roth’s] Alexander Portnoy as the American Jewish son.

The story’s relation to modernism is likewise instructive: . . . it tells a real story in an imagined context, introduces the medium of film into the medium of fiction, arrests and manipulates the normal narrative sequence, and comments on the story while telling it. But Delmore also avoided some of the pitfalls of modernism. He evokes the reality of a Jewish family in Brooklyn, and if he does not emphasize with their Jewishness it is only to the degree that they no longer live by its mores. In giving us an actual family that matters very much to him, he overcomes one of the handicaps of modernist writing that too often fails fully to engage us emotionally. . . . Writing from the depths of his experience, Delmore’s Jewish modernism was specific enough to be recognizable and deeply affecting.

He was, in fact, the first in that Partisan Review coterie to recognize that literary modernism confronted Jews with a special problem. Some of its greatest practitioners were openly anti-Semitic, and the movement’s antipathy to family, community, and nation made it generally antagonistic to the Jewish people. Jews were inherently bourgeois.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish literature, Delmore Schwartz, Literature, Modernism, New York Intellectuals

The IDF’s First Investigation of Its Conduct on October 7 Is Out

For several months, the Israel Defense Forces has been investigating its own actions on and preparedness for October 7, with an eye to understanding its failures. The first of what are expected to be many reports stemming from this investigation was released yesterday, and it showed a series of colossal strategic and tactical errors surrounding the battle at Kibbutz Be’eri, writes Emanuel Fabian. The probe, he reports, was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Mickey Edelstein.

Edelstein and his team—none of whom had any involvement in the events themselves, according to the IDF—spent hundreds of hours investigating the onslaught and battle at Be’eri, reviewing every possible source of information, from residents’ WhatsApp messages to both Israeli and Hamas radio communications, as well as surveillance videos, aerial footage, interviews of survivors and those who fought, plus visits to the scene.

There will be a series of further reports issued this summer.

IDF chief Halevi in a statement issued alongside the probe said that while this was just the first investigation into the onslaught, which does not reflect the entire picture of October 7, it “clearly illustrates the magnitude of the failure and the dimensions of the disaster that befell the residents of the south who protected their families with their bodies for many hours, and the IDF was not there to protect them.” . . .

The IDF hopes to present all battle investigations by the end of August.

The IDF’s probes are strictly limited to its own conduct. For a broader look at what went wrong, Israel will have to wait for a formal state commission of inquiry to be appointed—which happens to be the subject of this month’s featured essay in Mosaic.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, October 7