Delmore Schwartz’s American Jewish Modernism

June 28, 2019 | Ruth R. Wisse
About the author: Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013, paperback 2015).

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.

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