The Letters of Schwartz & Laughlin

Robert Phillips, editor  

Delmore Schwartz and James Laughlin: Selected Letters.

Norton, 382 pages, $29.95


In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938), the first collection of poems and stories by Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), brought him acclaim as the most promising poet of his generation; yet Schwartz’s later books failed to satisfy critics, and eventually his ambition and productivity collapsed under the weight of self-disillusionment, anxiety, insomnia, and manic depression. All along, however, Schwartz continued to write letters, many of them hilarious, some of them demented, and not a few of them to his longtime editor James Laughlin, with whose fledgling publishing house, New Directions, he cast his lot when both were in their early twenties and Laughlin a Harvard undergraduate and steel-corporation heir.

This correspondence tells a poignant story not only of a business relationship but of a close friendship in which the Brooklyn-born Schwartz’s emotional dependence upon his editor is as manifest as Laughlin’s devotion to him. If his early missives give us Schwartz the clever, cocky, culture-mad boy genius, teeming with ideas for poems and stories and with tendentious views of the latest highbrow books and essays, his later dispatches are by turns bitter, frantic, and pathetic, packed with literary backbiting, baseball chitchat, money worries, desperate puns, career intrigues, pop-culture references, and the occasional unfounded assertion that Laughlin has defrauded or otherwise betrayed him. Laughlin, for his part, remains a gentleman, taking time out to help Schwartz financially and turning the other cheek to accusations of perfidy.

One is constantly aware of the dramatic differences in their lives: while Schwartz (who, for all his fascination with Europe, never left America) spent most of his adult years pacing the Cambridge-New York- Princeton intellectual corridor, patching together a modest income by teaching composition, writing book reviews, reading manuscripts for New Directions, and serving on the Partisan Review editorial board, Laughlin whiled away his time skiing in Utah and writing to Schwartz from such exotic locales as Tehran and Val d’Isère. If Laughlin seems to have circulated effortlessly among his literary confreres, Schwartz was increasingly tormented by his role as a Jew in the Ivy League and in rural New Jersey (to which he moved with his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Pollet, in 1951). When Laughlin urges him in 1953 to distance himself from his Partisan Review colleagues (“Isn’t it really time,” Laughlin writes, “for the whole PR crowd to disappear?”), Schwartz replies that staying on that magazine’s staff “is a way of keeping in touch with people and having friends, however trying. After all, I do have a hard time knowing people, since I am often utterly lacking in social initiative, depressed, etc. and who else is available?”

Though this volume consists mostly of material by Schwartz that has already appeared in Letters of Delmore Schwartz (1984) —which was, like the present book, expertly edited and annotated by Schwartz’s literary executor, the poet Robert Phillips—the addition of Laughlin’s less sensational replies makes for an engaging and illuminating dialogue. Yet Schwartz gets the first and last word here. The opening item is a 1937 cover letter accompanying, among other things, the story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (which, because Laughlin didn’t snap it up fast enough, ended up making a huge splash as the lead piece in the inaugural issue of the William Phillips-Philip Rahv Partisan Review); and the book closes with a 1963 telegram to Laughlin, from whom Schwartz had by then been estranged for several years: “HOW ABOUT SMOKING A PEACE PIPE WITH ME.” One’s heart goes out to both of them.