Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Alfred Kazin on Delmore Schwartz

I’ve written here before about the exalted place Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” holds in my pantheon of literary excellence. While browsing in the university bookstore at lunchtime today, I picked up a copy of Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings on the strength of the short essay it contains on Schwartz. Here’s what Kazin wrote about my favourite short story:

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was straight, beautiful, haunting. It was a little masterpiece that used up a man’s whole life before he had lived it. It was the greatest fable I was ever to read of “our experience.” It was the one work of Delmore Schwartz’s life that had the power of a dream and it remains with me as if I had dreamed it myself.

In invoking “our experience,” Kazin is referring back to his description of the story as “the classic story of the Jewish son unable to escape the history represented by his family.” I don’t share that experience, but nevertheless Kazin perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the story in writing: “it remains with me as if I had dreamed it myself.” If you haven’t yet read Schwartz’s story, I urge you to do so.

I’d heard of Alfred Kazin before of course, but I think that this essay is the first bit of his work that I’ve read. Given our accord on the jewel of Schwartz’s oeuvre, I anticipate finding much of interest as I read my way through the rest of this collection of Kazin’s critical writings.


litlove said...

Kate, I've read that phrase so recently, 'in dreams begin responsibilities' and I cannot remember whose quote it is. Can you remind me?

Kate S. said...


I thought that it was a line from a Yeats poem, but I just did a little digging and found that it didn't originate with him. Yeats used it as an epigraph to one of his books and attributed it simply as "an old Irish proverb." The phrase has cropped up in a number of places in recent years though, including a U2 song. I'm guessing that both Schwartz and U2 got it from Yeats.

Kate S. said...

My internet research turned up an answer that wasn't quite right. (I should know better; I'd never let my students get away with such shoddy research!) While browsing in the library tonight I happened upon Yeats' Collected Poems. The phrase was indeed used as an epigraph to Yeats' 1914 book Responsibilities but he attributed it as coming from an "Old Play," not as an old Irish proverb.

litlove said...

Thank you, Kate!