The Other (American) Side of Failure: A Few Words on Delmore Schwartz

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Delmore Schwartz’s fiction and poetry – which has its fair share of schlemiels and schlemiel moments – has been of great interest to Schlemiel Theory.  His schlemiels offer a nuanced reading of this character which differs in many ways from its European cousins.  Indeed, what I find in Schwartz’s schlemiel is an American variety of this character which, unlike many of its counterparts, has a more explicit struggle with failure and success.

Schlemiel Theory was recently cited by Zachary Braiterman’s Jewish Philosophy Place in a blogpost on Delmore Schwartz.  It is entitled “Delmore Schwartz (Monstrous Children & Dreary Children).”   Braiterman notes that I, “better than most,” understand that Schwartz’s characters “are schlemiel figures.  Oddballs and failures, they don’t belong to the world.”   Braiterman adds, however, that what “so many of Schwartz’s admirers trend to neglect is his characters are mean, and if they are not mean to themselves, then they are hapless, surrounded by bitter people who are mean to each other.”

What I find so compelling about Braiterman’s claim is the fact that he brings a much neglected element to schlemiel theory: anger.   To be sure, the schlemiels we see in classical Yiddish or Jewish American literature such as Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin III, I.L. Peretz’s Bontshe Shvayg, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, or I.B. Singer’s Gimpel don’t seem to have any aspect of meanness.  They are all kind, yet worldless characters.  Do we see something fundamentally different with Schwartz’s characters?  After all, they are, as Braiterman argues, “mean.”

Braiterman argues that the reason why they are so mean has to do with the fact that there is a gap between their “ambitious self-regard” and their “actual mediocre talents” :

Schwartz’s characters are not just mean because of the depression and “not just because of the native Protestant anti-Semitism, but because these people, the characters who fill Schwartz’s short stories, really are impossible people, human beings whose ambitious self-regard streaks light years beyond their actual mediocre talents.

They are “impossible people” because their hopes don’t match with reality.  To be sure, the bifurcation between reality and the dreams of this or that character is a major part of what makes a schlemiel a schlemiel (say Aleichem’s Motl or Sofer’s Benjamin III).  They are luftmensches (they “live on air”).  But they are not mean.

Schwartz’s characters are.

I think something else is at work and that is the American experience.  Failure in America, for educated people like Schwartz and later Bernard Malamud, is much different from failure in Eastern Europe.  And this is something that Schwartz and Malamud understand better than a writer like I.B. Singer (who Irving Howe and the Partisan Review also published).   To be sure, the meanness that leaks through Schwartz’s schlemiels has to do with failure, American style.

What makes Schwartz (of Malamud) such great writers is the fact that they are able to translate the experience of high American hopes and great American failures into various schlemiel characters.  And, yes, there is something mean about this because, in the end, failure in America is mean.  Schwartz, to be sure, had a hard time balancing out hope and skepticism in the face of his failures.  He couldn’t do what Aleichem did. But is that a fault?

The worldlessness of his characters, his schlemiels, brings out a different use of the character.  It brings out the darker side of the schlemiel, the side that Yiddish writers didn’t want to see.  This may have to do with the fact that they saw it too much.  Schwartz’s America is different.  It isn’t the Pale of Settelment. And unlike his brothers in Eastern Europe, he had many more opportunities.  For this reason, his experience of failure was fundamentally different.

In mid to early 20th century America, a different schlemiel was called for.  Hence the schlemiels we see coming out of Bellow and Malamud all grapple with hope and failure.  However, Moses Herzog or Henry Levin don’t experience failure in the same intense way as Schwartz’s schlemiels.  Nonetheless, one will notice that failure is always haunting them in ways that are different from the missed encounters we see with failure in the novels or stories of the Yiddish writers.   While many schlemiels are blind to it, these characters (and their authors) are not.

Jewish American writers are not just on the “other side of the pond,” they are also on the “other side of failure.”  I thank Zachary Braiterman (and his Jewish Philosophy Place) for reminding me that Schwartz’s bitterness was, in many ways, a thread that finds its way through so many American schlemiels.

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