Poetry News

James Atlas Reads Delmore Schwartz's Diaries at the New Yorker

By Harriet Staff
Delmore Schwartz

In the New Yorker's Personal History column, James Atlas discusses his experience gathering and devouring Delmore Schwartz's archives. At the age of twenty-five, Atlas secured a contract with Farrar, Straus & Giroux to write the biography of the tormented poetry, fiction, and non-fiction writer. Recounting an early moment in the literary giant's archives at the Beinecke, Atlas writes: "I pulled out a letter from the top of the pile. It was typed on the stationery of Faber & Faber, the English publisher of T. S. Eliot, who had also worked for many years as the firm’s poetry editor. The letter, brief but significant, was from Eliot himself. Acknowledging receipt of an article by Schwartz in the Kenyon Review about Eliot’s journal, Criterion, the great man had written, 'You are certainly a critic, but I want to see more poetry from you.' The letter was dated October 26, 1939. Schwartz would have been twenty-five—exactly the age I was at this moment." Let's pick up with Atlas's tale from there:

As I stared at Eliot’s signature, I was there with the young poet, tearing open the envelope with eager hands, scanning it quickly, then setting it down on his desk and smoothing it out to read again and—or so I imagined—again and again and again. T. S. Eliot!

The brass lights on the table flicked on and off. I put the folder back in the box and shrugged on my puffy winter coat. As I headed out across the dark campus, snowflakes swirling around the lamps’ white orbs, I knew that I would soon be back in that hushed room, spending long days in the company of someone I had never met but would come to know better than anyone else in the world.

Schwartz’s story had stayed with me since I was in high school. I remember the exact date when I first encountered this exotic name: October 9, 1966. My father, a book-mad physician, liked to pick up the New York newspapers’ Sunday editions from the out-of-town newsstand a few blocks from our home in Evanston, Illinois. On that particular Sunday, leafing through the papers in the breakfast nook of our kitchen, I had come across a front-page article in the New York World Journal Tribune Book Week by Alfred Kazin about a poet who had died that summer, at the age of fifty-two, his once-promising career cut short by drugs and alcohol.

Kazin was lavish in his praise of Schwartz, describing him as a figure of “immense intellectual devotion” whose poems “astonished everyone by being impeccably, formally right in the prevailing Eliot tradition—emotional ingenuity tuned to perfect pitch by gravity of manner.” But his long descent into madness had begun early. By the time he was thirty, he was exhibiting signs of erratic behavior, and his last years were a tale of squalor: he drifted from the Twin Elms Hospital, a sanitarium near the campus of Syracuse University, where he had been on the English faculty, to a desolate apartment in Manhattan, and finally to the seedy Times Square fleabag where he died.

Read on at the New Yorker.

Originally Published: August 21st, 2017