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In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Delmore Schwartz

" … "The world is a marriage of convenience," said Laura drunkenly, "the world is a shot-gun marriage. The world is a sordid match for money. The world is a misalliance. Every birthday is a funeral and every funeral is a great relief." "

Reviewed by Melissa Lee

How does a child or a community of immigrants, parents seeking new lives for their children, searching for the promise that would heal future generations; how does a son move toward life in another nation? By 1913, the year that Schwartz was born, the Jewish community in New York was beginning to thrive. Its children suffered the burden of having to find new ways to adapt to their changing environment, to get a foothold in the economy, to marry, to provide, to retain their heritage, their religion, and yet embrace American civilization and the New World. 

In Dreams begin Responsibilities takes us on a surging journey through eight accounts of life in America during and after the World Wars. The title story was written when Schwartz was only twenty four and after publication in the new Partisan Review the story sent shockwaves through literary circles as it became regarded as a masterpiece by his peers and contemporaries. The very fact that Schwartz had set out writing in an attempt to create a masterpiece, to work with the passion of a clergyman, or a scientist; to spread the word, to extrapolate the very device from society which was suffocating his generation, his own esteem, sets this collection up as an account of boisterous and monstrous ambition. 

This edition aims to rediscover Schwartz’s unmistakable voice for new generations. I had never heard of either the writer or the book but troubled over each page with a sense of acute dread and longing, with pangs of enormous satisfaction. The prose is neat but edgy. Smart and realist but with Kafka-esque undertones. Each of the main characters embarks on a complex inner study of alienation, grief, disappointment, in a world of stark reality and dreamscapes which quickly elucidate to become nightmares. 

Schwartz often chooses to participate as an omniscient spectator or self-mythologized participant in his own stories. In the story America, America! a tale set during the Depression, a vulnerable and awkward young man, Shenandoah Fish, suffers inertia as an American citizen and sets himself the challenge of becoming a writer. And again and again we see the same character emerge, to different parents, perhaps, but with the same condition. Samuel Hart in The Child is the Meaning of this Life, suffers the tragic loss of his brother whilst incurring the effects of a lifetime of a co-dependent relationship with his mother. 

Freud looms large in the complex psychologies of these trapped and anxious characters. In both In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and later in The Track Meet, we meet two passive and harrowed characters who bear witness to their own worst dreams. The sense of conflict which pervades the text as a whole, comes to an incredible climax in The World is a Wedding, a tale of a group of young would-be intellectuals and friends who meet to discuss art, literature and politics and become dependant, insular and envious, and threaten to destroy either one another or themselves. In each story, Schwartz cleverly builds to an unbearably slow, drawn out and dramatic climax, where a single line can often stop the reader in their tracks and force them to re-deliberate the writer’s intentions. Often, by the end of a page I was left with the silent mental equivalent of choking, of gasping for breath.


Melissa Lee is a Northern UK writer of poetry, drama and fiction, and a member of The Fiction Workhouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Publisher: Souvenir Press

Address: 43 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury London, WC1B 3LU

Publication Date: 2003.

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: Yes (first published in 1937)

Author bio:  Delmore Schwartz (1913- 1966) was a dramatist, poet and fiction writer. An American Jewish immigrant of the 1930’s, Schwartz became highly acclaimed in New York after his first book, In Dreams begin Responsibilities was published in 1937. He died destitute in a New York Hotel in 1966. 

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Saul Bellow "Humboldt’s Gift" 

The Stories of Bernard Malamud 

Anton Chekhov "Selected Stories"

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