‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz

I only knew Delmore Schwartz from the mention on the Velvet Underground’s ‘European Son’, a tribute from his student Lou Reed. 

I like stories that try and tell a whole life within a few pages, and this seems a good example. The narrator is in a movie theatre, but the film playing is the one that we are all a part of: that of our own life. He is watching as his mother and father meet, on the day that his father will ask his mother to marry him. In his “dream” cinema he constantly interrupts the film with interpolations, as he wishes he could stop or change the narrative. His father, 29, is becoming successful, and now needs a wife, his mother, younger, is a frail woman, wanting to escape her family into marriage. They are, as the narrator knows, particularly ill-suited. In the “film” their day out at Coney Island is in some ways a disaster, yet both achieve their aim. 

It feels such a layered story, but also detailed in its telling of time and place, the formal inventiveness of the dream cinema acting as a counterpoint to the realistic descriptions of this crucial day for the characters, early in the century. 

The post-script to this is that Schwartz was the brilliant young man who was finished by thirty, became an alcoholic and never wrote the great work he had promised. Yet this story, at the very start of his career, still startles. 

First published in The Partisan Review, 1937. Collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, New Directions, 1938

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