‘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

‘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

‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz

Young Adulthood…

I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday…

Delmore Schwartz’s most famous short story (apparently written over a single weekend by the similarly aged Schwartz) is the retelling of a dream the unnamed narrator has on the eve of his twenty-first birthday. In this dream the narrator is seated in a cinema audience, watching an old black and white film of the courtship of his own young, not-yet-married parents. He sees his father arriving at his mother’s family home to take her out on a date, and watches his grandfather (his mother’s father) disapprovingly observe his would-be-son-in-law. The narrator muses that his grandfather is perhaps worried that “my father would not make a good husband for his oldest daughter,” and just at that moment the film breaks down.

It quickly resumes, and the couple depart for their date at Coney Island. And yet the sense lingers that the grandfather, through an unguarded comment or question, could have put a stop to everything right there; but, by holding his peace, has allowed the union to continue, and all that follows. Meanwhile, the twenty-one-year-old result of this union continues to watch his parents on their date, all the time horribly aware of their flaws and insecurities. At one point he even stands up to shout at the screen: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”

It’s Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’ meets the Back to the Future – shot through with a healthy does of Jewish intelligentsia circa 1930s New York.

First published in the first issue of Partisan Review, 1937. Collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, 1938 and in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories 1978