Delmore Schwartz’s Genesis and ‘international consciousness’
In a poem of 1954, ‘America, America!’, Delmore Schwartz declares himself to be ‘by self-appointment the laureate of the Atlantic / —of the peoples’ hearts, crossing it / to new America’ (Schwartz, Last 4). Born in Brooklyn on December 8th 1913 to Jewish immigrant parents, Schwartz was preoccupied with the international – and particularly the transatlantic – nature of American identity throughout his life. He considered New York City, which Oswald Spengler had termed a ‘world-city’, to be ‘Europe’s last capital’ (Schwartz, Genesis 5) and in his writing the mass immigration at the end of the nineteenth century often becomes paradigmatic of other instances of upheaval or displacement. Central to his collection of short stories, The World Is A Wedding, are the experiences of immigrant sons as they strive to become assimilated into their new country’s ways at the same time as they grow increasingly alienated from their parents’ Old World values. Questions of exile, self-identity, and making one’s way in the modern metropolis dominate Schwartz’s poetry too; and it is in Genesis: Book One, his unfinished and critically-neglected magnum opus of 1943, that Schwartz most insistently probes ‘the idea of America which shone all over Europe’ (17). Genesis also represents his most searching exploration of what he termed ‘international consciousness’: namely, the individual’s awareness of how his personal development is contingent upon an international community and far-reaching historical events.
Since his death in 1966, Schwartz’s works have suffered a critical neglect which they do not deserve. In the late 1930s he was widely regarded as the most promising American poet of his generation and in the early 1940s he exerted considerable cultural authority as an editor of Partisan Review. In 1960, even though the acclaim for his writing had generally diminished, he became the youngest poet ever to win the prestigious Bollingen Prize, but he has now become all but forgotten, his reputation surpassed by contemporaries such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Genesis, which combines qualities of both his prose stories and his lyric verse, is perhaps the least read of all Schwartz’s works and yet it is at the very centre of his oeuvre, crucial to a persuasive reassessment. William Logan’s summary dismissal – ‘who, except at gunpoint would reread Delmore Schwartz’s autobiographical epic, Genesis, Book One (Book One!)’ (Logan 55) – is indicative of the modern reader’s apathy to a poem that Schwartz himself was convinced would ‘obsess the nation’ (Schwartz and Laughlin 89). ‘[I] fear that it is so good’, he raved to his publisher, James Laughlin, ‘that no one will believe that I, mere I, am author, but rather a team of inspired poets’ (147). Granted, such swaggering is hardly attractive, and it has to be set against Schwartz’s at times equally pervasive reservations about the poem: he wondered to R. P. Blackmur, for example, whether he might be ‘publishing a blunder 261 pages long’ (Letters 124). However, despite the generally lukewarm reception of Genesis, both on publication and since, Schwartz was justified in thinking it radical, sophisticated and ambitious beyond the scope of any typical individual writer. One of the poem’s chief considerations is the position of the individual, the ‘mere I’, within a whole society of other ambitious ‘mere Is’, and this in itself makes Schwartz’s lofty claims more palatable.
Genesis is the story of Hershey Green, an insomniac, who ‘is not remarkable / In the great city [of New York], circa 1930’ (3) and is thus a broadly representative figure. Too old to be told a bedtime story to put him to sleep, the adolescent protagonist instead narrates his family history to an audience of ghosts who keep him awake, insisting that they ‘won’t go home till morning’ (6). Hershey describes his parents’ and grandparents’ immigration and his own New York childhood in what Schwartz described as ‘Biblical prose’, whilst the ghosts comment on each episode – like a Greek chorus – in blank verse. At times of heightened emotion, such as when he protests about having to recount past details that are painful to him, Hershey too speaks in verse, and, towards the end of the book, the ghosts comment on how he is beginning to sound more and more like they do. The unidentified ghosts fulfil an important role in the poem: they draw out the universal aspects of Hershey’s story, much as the identified ghosts of Aristotle, Marx and Freud in Schwartz’s earlier ‘Coriolanus and His Mother’ probe the wider significance of the rise and fall of that poem’s hero. The interpretation is as important as the story itself. Nonetheless, the use of ghost-commentators appears to have troubled many readers, Laughlin included. Schwartz took pains to justify it: ‘Dante wrote the best poem ever written by using the dead as voices’ (Schwartz and Laughlin 159), he argued. Perhaps more pertinently, however, he also pointed out that such a device was necessary in a poem intended to reflect the full range of modern international experience:
this story-succeeded-by-commentary is one of the profoundest most deeply-rooted and most accepted experiences in modern life: The newspaper story-editorial, the play-and-review-of-the-play, the travel film with voice as commentator are all primordial examples of what is going to be an inevitable literary form (inevitable because the life we live forces it upon us) (159).
In the modern world, he insists – the world presented in the poem – it is inadequate to interpret any experience from a single point of view. Being dead and having largely escaped their own personalities, the ghosts can offer a sufficiently detached and, at times, ironic exegesis of Hershey’s story, recognising its universality and adopting Freudian, Marxist and other perspectives to guide him towards greater self-knowledge. It might be contested that such a form has not, in fact, become ‘inevitable’; but it is the case that art in general became increasingly self-referential in the twentieth century, with individual works, like Genesis, tending to place a greater emphasis on the act of interpretation from within. The form may not have developed quite as Schwartz anticipated, but the impulse – towards meta-narrative and reflection – did.
The most important function of the ghosts, according to Schwartz, is that they can trace and understand the remote causes of action which are hidden from the young man himself. And these causes – historical, social, cultural, and psychological – are the “divinities” of our day, acting upon our free will as fatefully as ever did the gods of the ancient world (ibid. 191). These ‘divinities’ are several, but those most frequently identified in the poem are Europe, America, Israel, ‘Capitalismus’, ‘Sexhood’, the First World War, the family ‘divinity’ and the school ‘divinity’. Whilst Schwartz acknowledges that choices do occur in individual lives, Genesis, like many of his earlier lyric poems, registers an anxiety that these choices are limited by uncontrollable circumstances. Hershey, like all individuals, has no influence over his nationality, gender, class, or even, ultimately, personality; the ghosts recognize that it is only as a consequence of a series of impulsive decisions (and various other factors) made long before his conception that Hershey ends up being born to sparring Jewish parents in early twentieth-century America. He can do little more than negotiate how best to live with what he inherits. R. P. Blackmur, in the review Schwartz solicited, describes Genesis as ‘a story of what is sublimated’, pointing out that
what the chorus of presences say would avail nothing without the story, just as the story would have no direction and no final meaning without the activating powers of the chorus… The immediate significance of the story absorbs… [but] the final significance transpires exactly in what the presences of the dead bring from the story into voice (Blackmur 469).
Such a reading invites us to see the ghosts as psychoanalysts of a kind, pointing out to Hershey truths about himself of which he was only partially conscious and helping him to become more aware of his relation to the world at large – that is to say, more internationally conscious. Such a reading also emphasises the ghosts’ importance in pointing to the aspects of Hershey’s story that are common to all. Schwartz wrote in his introductory ‘Note To The Reader’ that it would be ‘an obvious stupidity and misuse to take any sentence [of the poem] as the truth about any particular human being’; he hoped, instead, that there would be in his work ‘some truth about all human beings’ (Genesis ix) – in effect, that it would be seen as a life study, a study of life in general and not just of an individual life. It is the instinct of the ghosts always to see the lives of Hershey and his family in terms of life in general. For example, when discussing Jack Green, Hershey’s father, they note how ‘clear and typical’ his mind is (124). Later, they remark ‘what themes return! What deities’ (140), and go on to comment on how small human souls seem ‘seen from [their] point of view’ (167).
This is not to suggest that the ghosts are wholly impartial, however. Occasional personality traits from their former lives are revealed, as in the case of one who frequently reminisces about his lifetime love of wine. The ghosts are not teachers either. ‘We mock with irony and sympathy, / Discuss, explain, listen and give our minds—’ (6), they exclaim: whilst they do help Hershey to become more aware of his position in the world, they do not at all purport to offer him practical advice and they are largely there to be entertained at his expense. Lacking any physical presence, they instead ‘come like comic strips, speaking balloons’ (7): their relation to Hershey’s narrative is like that of the thought and speech bubbles in a cartoon that help to clarify a story whose main action is told through pictures. Later in the poem, one of them recalls that observing Life for the first time from the perspective of the dead was like reading a comic strip. At first, he says, the scenes seemed simplistic, until it became clear that the people observed were each, in their way, Everyman, just like Jiggs in the popular Bringing Up Father cartoons (134). The ghosts also, at times, resemble an audience talking over a film or theatrical production. They admire the ‘long range effects’ (14) in Hershey’s narration of his grandfather’s failed attempt to escape from Czar Nicholas I’s army, and later tell Hershey that they have witnessed many lives like his: ‘We are the children / Who stay all afternoon to see the pictures / How many times! and with the same emotions!’ (118). They cannot be persuaded to leave their celestial cinema. Universalizing though the ghosts’ interjections are, it is also the case that many of Hershey’s childhood experiences – though coloured by individual detail – are themselves broadly representative. Most readers, regardless of ethnicity, country of domicile, or culture are likely to have experienced something similar to Hershey’s sense of betrayal at having his ‘bogus nipple’ taken away from him, his sense of injustice at unfair punishment, or his shame at wetting himself in class. Schwartz is able to grant these commonplace occurrences significance by making them emblematic of historical events (or by suggesting that historical events are emblematic of them). When Hershey recalls being sent out of the kindergarten classroom for kicking a boy who had kicked him first, for example, he declares, ‘Exiled, humiliated, persecuted, Coriolanus, Joseph, and Caesar, the child resumes history, each enacts all that has been’ (101). Whilst the reference to Joseph in particular, cast out of Canaan, evokes the displacement that occurred for Hershey’s parents and that is re-enacted in microcosm here, the references to Coriolanus and Caesar as well make clear that the experience of exile is not an exclusively Jewish one. Indeed, as Benjamin Schreier has argued, it is just as limiting to read Schwartz solely through a Jewish (or Jewish-American) critical lens as it is to read his work solely in terms of his own biography. Whilst each of these are angles that merit some consideration, taken alone each is limiting, undermining Schwartz’s agency as a writer and attributing to mere social causes the craft, perception and originality of a writer much too multi-faceted to be pigeon-holed. There is a telling moment in Genesis when Hershey tells one of the ghosts that his interpretation is ‘right in essence, if not in detail’ (27). This captures the contrasting perspectives of the protagonist – who is still emotionally involved in the story he tells and for whom exact accuracy matters – and the audience – who are content to seek out each episode’s general implications. It should not be supposed, however, that Hershey himself lacks the self-awareness to recognize the commonality of his experiences. He is quite capable of setting his story in a wider context, even if it is then over to the ghosts to do most of the analysis. It is Hershey, and not the ghosts, for example, who identifies himself with Joseph and Coriolanus, and who later sees his mother as a version of both Clytemnestra and Medea – although this idea might first have been suggested to him by the ghosts’ repeated proclamation that every son reprises the role of Orestes (148). It is not simply the case, then, that Hershey is concerned with the personal whilst the ghosts dwell on the international; nor is it the case – as Adam Kirsch, the one present-day champion of the poem, has too straightforwardly suggested – that the personal is broadly represented for Schwartz by Freud and the international by Marx (Kirsch 203). Narrator and chorus alike consider both personal and international experience; in fact, personal experience is a part of international experience, and it is an implicit claim of the poem that the two are not separable. A clear example from Genesis of how the personal and the international are intertwined can be seen in the role played by Bismarck and Disraeli in determining the fate of Noah Green, Hershey’s paternal grandfather. Green’s first attempt at forging a new life – by divorcing his wife and running away from Czar Nicholas I’s army – is thwarted when his wife learns he is to remarry and follows him; events that could not have occurred had the Congress of Berlin not annulled Russia’s victory in the Russo-Turkish war, causing Green’s comrades, who witnessed his flight, to return home earlier than expected and tell his wife everything. Had the two history-influencing world leaders not intervened – encouraged by Queen Victoria herself, as one of the ghosts points out – Green’s initial flight would much more probably have been successful, and Hershey, consequently, would never have been born. This is just one instance of how his existence is contingent upon both social factors and the actions of particular individuals across the world many years in the past. The episode illustrates how some individuals can and do exert an influence on the course of history themselves, even if the nature of that influence is largely conditioned by social factors. In the course of writing Genesis, Schwartz outlined his aims to his friend Robert Hivnor:
My main problem right along has been to get the kind of structure which would make reasonable and articulate and symmetrical the kind of international consciousness which keeps growing bigger all the time in the world – in such strange plants as the radio and the newspaper – and which is the only point of view from which I can see my subject (Schwartz, Letters 101).
Schwartz never offered his own definition of ‘international consciousness’, but it is essentially an awareness of one’s position in the whole world, in relation to others, in relation to both temporally and physically distant events, and in relation to one’s surroundings. For Schwartz, Eliot was the exemplary international poet. In a 1945 essay entitled ‘T. S. Eliot as the International Hero’, Schwartz argues that ‘Eliot’s work is important in relation to the fact that experience has become international’, adding,
we are able to understand the character of our lives only when we are aware of all history, of the philosophy of history, of primitive peoples, and the Russian Revolution, of ancient Egypt and the unconscious mind (123).
A few inferences can be drawn from this. One is that even though such holistic awareness is literally impossible any advance in self-knowledge is valuable, even if it ultimately falls short of total knowledge. Another is that whilst such international forces have always existed, they have become much more widely felt in an era of travel, media, increased psychological insight and the kinds of technological advance (like the radio) that make time and distance seem to contract. ‘The reader of T. S. Eliot’, Schwartz notes, ‘by turning the dials of his radio can hear the capitals of the world, London, Vienna, Athens, Alexandria, Jerusalem’ (ibid. 120). Much earlier readers, interested though they may also have been in events in these cities, could not have had such direct or immediate access to them. Transnational critics such as Wai Chee Dimock and Colleen Glenney Boggs have illustrated the international perspectives of earlier American writers, most notably Whitman and Melville: the international perspective is not, itself, something new. What is new, however, is the extent to which such internationality is accentuated by new media and technology and the extent to which it directly informs the lives of everyone, not just those who consciously seek it out. As Schwartz later put it, ‘no one at this late date can fail to be aware of the extent to which the fate of the individual is inseparable from what is happening in the whole world’ (‘Vocation of the Poet’ 20).
Eliot had himself famously written of ‘the historical sense’, which ‘involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’ and which
compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order (‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ 14).
Schwartz – who also admired the historical and international perspectives of Joyce and, to a lesser extent, Pound – endorsed this view entirely. Although he defies in Genesis Eliot’s equally renowned insistence on the ‘extinction of personality’ in poetry, Schwartz’s poem, by making its protagonist a representative figure, nonetheless seeks to extend and to develop Eliot’s ‘historical sense’.
One question that needs to be asked, given the all-influencing quality of ‘international consciousness’, is why the particular episodes narrated in Genesis are prioritised over others that might just as well have been chosen. Whilst it is logical for the story to begin with Hershey’s grandparents, since they are the first generation of his family to emigrate, we are left in little doubt that this story could have begun infinitely far back. Had he known enough of the detail, for example, Hershey might have described Noah Green’s early life as intricately as he narrates his own. The ghosts also make much of how Hershey’s story is ‘endless’ and this makes the fact that the poem is unfinished less problematic than it might otherwise have been. The perspective of ‘international consciousness’ increasingly destabilizes the notions of beginning and ending in any case: when one is concerned with the way in which ‘all history is relevant to any moment in history’ (‘Ezra Pound and History’ 116), these become chiefly arbitrary and artificial. This point is emphasised by the fact that Genesis, contrary to the expectations raised by its title, begins so conspicuously in medias res (with an ellipsis, in mid-conversation) before the story proper gets underway: ‘“…. Me next to sleep, all that is left of Eden,”’ (3). Whilst the reference to Eden here does evoke the Biblical account of man’s origins – and, consequently, one of the many beginnings of Western civilization – the context serves only to show how diminished any paradisal ideal has become. Sleep, a state of inertia and numbness, is a poor substitute and even this is denied Hershey. The idea of being ‘next’ to sleep suggests sequence, but as far as Eden is concerned, this is impossible: once Adam and Eve were dismissed there was no question of them, or anyone else, ever returning. There are five pages of preface before Hershey begins his narrative, and although his ‘This is the beginning’ (8) does bring to mind the timeless ‘In the beginning’ of the Biblical Genesis and of St John’s Gospel, we are aware that another point might equally have been chosen. This is no doubt another of the reasons Schwartz presents Genesis, for the most part, as a representative story. The title alerts us to the fact that the poem has a mythic quality supposedly applicable to all people at all times just as clearly as it suggests that the story is one of beginnings. The poem is primarily representative of early twentieth-century immigrant experience but also of all experiences of cultural change, and the episodes which come to have most significance are the ones in which the individual is made aware of his position in the world. This would seem to be the determining factor in how they are chosen. For example, one episode to which Hershey gives particular attention is that in which, after the death of Noah Newman, his maternal grandfather, Leah Newman returns to Europe to visit her family and is given a French bond for her daughter, Eva, by her brother, Benjamin. Eva sells this bond so that she can afford an operation which enables her to become pregnant, even though she doubts that having a child would relieve the unhappiness of her marriage. Narrating this episode, Hershey’s ‘international consciousness’ is more acute than that of some of the ghosts: ‘The prosperity of Eastern European capitalism sent the French bond west’, he explains. ‘It went through Paris, the capital of Western culture, / And entered her marriage and entered her womb’ (65). One of the ghosts criticises Hershey for making so much of ‘a minor nut’, with another adding ‘Surely he might have been born otherwise / And what has that to do with what he is?’ (ibid). Hershey himself sees it as critical, however, another example of the chance occurrences without which he could not have been born and which shape his understanding of himself. Some of the ghosts agree. They observe that it has taken not one, but two Atlantic crossings to make his birth possible: ‘Twice, twice! over Atlantic rides and raves / His thisness tiptoes on Might-Not-Have-Been!’ (66). Individual existence is precarious.
The poem’s representative quality is further suggested by the characters’ names. They are types every bit as much as they are individuated characters, perhaps even more so: their personalities are inferred through quickly-sketched actions and are not developed to the extent that one would expect in a novel for example. Names always carry significance for Schwartz and it is no coincidence that Hershey’s mother is called Eva, evoking the Bible’s first mother, or that both grandfathers share the name of the original Biblical traveller, a name which, to one of the ghosts, ‘suggests so much a boat on desperate seas’ (70). Their surnames help to define their identities too. Noah Newman, after a dispute with his brother-in-law boss, takes off for America to become a new man. Noah Green’s surname carries similar associations of newness; green is the colour of spring and there are various puns on the name throughout the poem. When his sons, more successfully re-enacting their father’s original attempt to take his life into his own hands, run away to America and begin to make money, the family eventually follows them. However, whilst the Biblical Noah’s old world was destroyed entirely, Hershey Green’s ancestors cannot quite leave theirs behind: they ‘bring Europe with them, more or less, / The greatest thing in North America!’ (33). That their adaptation to the new country’s culture is imperfect is nowhere more evident than in Hershey’s parents greenly naming him after a quintessentially American chocolate brand as no true Americans ever would. It is this disjunction between first name and surname, common to other Schwartz protagonists such as Shenandoah Fish and Cornelius Schmidt as well as to Schwartz himself, that draws attention to what Irving S. Saposnik has termed the ‘hyphenated and marginal Jewish-American self’ (Saposnik 151). An earlier poem, ‘The Ballad Of The Children of the Czar’, in which Schwartz claimed could be seen the beginnings of his exploration of ‘international consciousness’, also relates, albeit quite differently, how a grandfather ‘left for America / To become a king himself’ (Summer Knowledge 4). In Genesis, men like Jack Green bring with them from Europe ‘[t]he peasant’s sense that land was the most important thing and the owner of land / A king!’ (78). This is a commonplace metaphor, but it is worth being literal for a moment. The immigrant’s notion of kingship is likely to betray his European heritage in a nation that doesn’t have a king and that originally defined itself against the very concept of monarchy. Furthermore, it should be remembered that, for all his prestige, a king is necessarily a great deal removed from the rest of society; and that, in any given nation, there can only ever be one at a time. The dream of becoming a king oneself therefore excludes others: it is not a dream of communal success. Schwartz’s Hershey straightforwardly explains the reality: ‘All of these people prospered as a class, although some were failures for the irreducible reasons of persons’ (78). We recall that although Hershey’s ancestors made their decisions to leave for America individually and impulsively, ‘troops’ (78) of other immigrants also made much the same decisions at around the same time. Whatever hope there may be of a collective American Dream being fulfilled, there is no such possibility of millions of individual and competing dreams also all coming true. At such times, despite the fact that Schwartz was a modern and essentially secular writer, his anxious questioning of how far the modern divinities (‘historical, social, cultural and psychological’) determine one’s fate suggests an almost Puritanical obsession with the question of predestination. Ever aware that a sense of the international heightens rather than diminishes a sense of one’s own individuality, Schwartz insistently wonders who the chosen ones might be in a modern, international and increasingly secular society. And, he invites us to wonder, what examples might be drawn by the general population from the individual whose life is perceived to be representative? Stephen Hahn has written of ‘the paradox that the modern self participates most in the collective life of the time through its isolation’ (see Schreier 512). Whether or not it was Schwartz’s Jewish heritage, his chosen profession as a writer, or simply his singular temperament that enhanced his sensitivity to this paradox, there should be no doubt that he did articulate it masterfully – and that he did so every bit as convincingly in Genesis as in his more acclaimed short stories. He was able to render immediate and engaging a concept as potentially unwieldy as that of ‘international consciousness’, concerning the intricate interrelationships between the individual, his past, his society, and his geography in a way that anticipates many of the debates current in the field of American Studies today – Dimock’s concept of ‘Deep Time’, for example, is not dissimilar to Schwartz’s ‘international consciousness’, and Schwartz’s writing ought to be especially illuminating for the student of Transatlanticism. It is through considering the individual in the context of all the multifarious factors that make him who he is that Schwartz most accentuates the individual’s isolation and the burden of his heritage within an international society.
Blackmur, R. P. “Commentary By Ghosts.” The Kenyon Review 5.3 (1943): 467-471.
Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Essays. 3rd ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1951.
Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
Logan, William. “On Reviewing Hart Crane.” Poetry 193.1(2008): 53-59.
Saposnik, Irving. “Delmore Schwartz’s America.” Studies In Short Fiction 19.2 (1982): 151-155.
Schreier, Benjamin. “Jew Historicism: Delmore Schwartz and Overdetermination.” Prooftexts 27.3 (2007): 500-530.
Schwartz, Delmore. Genesis: Book One. New York: New Directions, 1943.
---, Last and Lost Poems. Ed. Robert Phillips. 2nd ed. New York: New Directions, 1989.
---, Letters of Delmore Schwartz. Ed. Robert Phillips. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review Press, 1984.
---, Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge. New York: New Directions, 1959.
---, “Ezra Pound and History”. Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz. Ed. Donald A. Dike and David H. Zucker. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970. 113-19.
---, “The Vocation of The Poet in the Modern World.” Selected Essays. 14-23.
---, “T. S. Eliot as the International Hero.” Selected Essays. 120-28.
Schwartz, Delmore, and Laughlin, James. Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin: Selected Letters. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.