‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz

My husband introduced me to this story after picking up a book of collected fiction by Delmore Schwartz on a visit to New York years ago because it had a preface by Lou Reed, who had been Schwartz’s student at Syracuse University. (Reed would later pay tribute to his mentor with the songs ‘European Son’ and ‘My House’.) Written when Schwartz was twenty-one and first published in 1937, ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ is an autobiographical short story about the subject he would continue to return to in his poetry and prose: his parent’s deeply troubled marriage. In this story, the narrator watches the events of the night of his parent’s engagement play out on screen in an old-fashioned movie theatre. His reactions—“Don’t do it!”—as if he is watching a horror film—tell you everything you need to know about the disastrous consequences of that doomed union. Reading it is like watching a car crash in slow motion, and we’re just as powerless as the narrator is to intervene. It makes me think of the lines of another poet, Mary Ruefle: “I think the sirens in The Odyssey sang The Odyssey, for there is nothing more seductive, more terrible, than the story of our own life, the one we do not want to hear and will do anything to listen to.”

First published in thePartisan Review in 1937. Collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories, New Directions, 2012; also in That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories, ed. David Miller, Head of Zeus, 2014

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