Delmore Schwartz and Jean Stafford


Reference: Hilton Als discusses Jean Stafford and her story “Children Are Bored on Sunday” with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and a reading of the story by Eliza Foss. Spoilers for the story below. Eliza Foss does an outstanding job reading the story with just the right amount nuance.

In the short story, Children are never bored on Sundays, by Jean Stafford the main character named Emma was raised on a farm feels that she isn’t adequate to talk to people who she considers to be intellectuals. She is recovering from a long illness which actually turned out to be a car accident. Her husband damaged her face in a car accident from which he walked away unscathed. His name was Robert Lowell. I also read that later he rebroke her nose by hitting her and they divorced each other. I am only mentioning this because I feel it’s important that we understand exactly what type of illness or infirmity she is recovering from because of the story it isn’t clear what is wrong with her.

Another writer who disparaged her decision was Delmore Schwartz, a drinking buddy, a confidant, and possibly her lover—or so Lowell and several of his friends believed. (Lowell, for his part, hastened the end of his marriage to Stafford by openly having an affair with Gertrude Buckman, Schwartz’s ex-wife.) -The New Yorker

Jean Stafford who plays a character named Emma in the story is inside the Metropolitan Art Museum in Manhattan on Sunday afternoon. She doesn’t expect she’ll run into any people that she knows. Daily she tries to walk for exercise so she can sleep well at night but eventually she always makes her way down to a bar and gets very drunk. In fact she’s so much of an alcoholic that she barely eats at all and is almost anorexic. I also read that when she died she became very thin and anorexic on this all could have been from the abuse of alcohol or perhaps she had other psychological problems.

As Emma looks at the paintings she starts to think about and then she decides perhaps that because his appearance is disheveled that he has also been in ill health.  She wonders if they could bond over their mutual afflictions which she calls ill health but are in fact probably symptoms of using alcohol and drugs. As she’s looking at the paintings she decides that she really does want to go out and have a drink with him after the museum is about to close.  It’s interesting to note that she appears to see the actual Salvador Dali inside the museum which I suppose was not impossible. I wondered if she was only referring to one of the portraits of Salvador Dali in the museum or it was the actual Salvador Dali? That would certainly be a surreal experience for her because Salvador Dali is considered the father of Surrealism. She thinks that Salvador Dali is merely famous and that is why she recognizes him but she isn’t interested in him and she doesn’t try to talk to him. Emma wants to talk to Eisenberg but she’s afraid if she does that she will be rejected because of her lack of knowledge about what she considers to be intellectual topics such as Ezra Pound.  It is not really so much Eisenberg she is refrained will reject her but his friends who are very snobby she feels will mock them if they were to go on a date or to be seen together holding hands. She recalls that the last time she saw Eisenberg at a party she flirted with him for a full 7 or 8 minutes.

She decides to leave the museum without talking to him at all because she is so embarrassed and as she’s starting to leave the museum he happens to notice her and he takes her hand and immediately her heart melts. She think of her heart as being shaped like a Valentine. She doesn’t feel that she loves him, but she does want to go have a drink with him. When he suggests they go have a drink together at first she plays coy because she doesn’t want to seem to be too easy. But after she feels that he is sincere she tells him that she would absolutely love to go for a drink, but they’ll have to walk down Lexington to go to a bar where they will not run into anybody they know. This is because she wants to get extremely drunk on very strong whiskey. Maybe she’s ashamed of running into some of the people she knows? He seems to be disheveled and ill and she knows that he also has had financial problems, a divorce, and he can’t even afford to continue to see his therapist. She feels that they could sneak away together like children going off to play and then she changes her narrative. Before her change of heart she felt that Eisenberg was an important person and she wasn’t sure what he did for a living. Was he a writer, he composed. music or was he a painter? She had decided that college had ruined her mind because it made her feel inadequate. Before college she thought her mind was fresh and unspoiled and then she could just pretend to be an unsophisticated country girl. Unfortunately college had given her enough education to know that she was lacking in education compared to the other New York intellectuals such as Eisenberg.  Had this story not taken place in the late 40s she would have been able to likely use Wikipedia on her phone and quickly look up the particular artists in the museum and find out information about them and even find out Eisenberg’s profession. The shift in what she’s thinking about is when she allows herself to go have that drink with Eisenberg because she realizes after all they are only children and she just hopes that Eisenberg will not ruin their conversation by discussing things that she doesn’t find interesting and then she lists a number of topics that she hopes that he won’t talk about when they drink together.

The final kicker that made this story really interesting was that she and her husband Robert Lowell allowed Delmore Schwartz (Eisenberg) to stay with them in their New York apartment for a time. I’m not sure what the duration was. Then I began to imagine that Jean Stafford had just run into him somewhere in her apartment and maybe she didn’t know if she wanted to have a drink with him or not or maybe she just wanted to move around the apartment without talking to him.

Delmore Schwartz came to a sad end because of his drinking and drug use. He wasn’t able to capture the glory of his early days as a poet. This short story was also the first fiction story that she got published in The New Yorker.  Delmore Schwartz did not like “Children are never bored on Sundays” when it came out and he actually wrote a tirade against The New Yorker. Although I haven’t been able to find the article he wrote, the gist of it was that The New Yorker forced new writers to write with a level of artificiality in order to be accepted into The New Yorker which made them less fresh and spontaneous.  Delmore Schwartz is reported to have suffered from bipolar disorder which they used to call manic depression but back then they didn’t have psychiatric medication. Although I’m not sure that that would have helped him at all. Some of the commentary about her is particularly harsh as they call her an anti-feminist who wants the man to take the lead. Maybe that’s why she feels that she can’t go up to him and suggest that they have a drink together because that would be too forward. Of course it would have been a terrible blow to her ego if she had asked him instead of he her and he had refused. Because both the characters are Alcoholics they will find solace in having somebody to drink with instead of drinking alone every night.

Jean Stafford found happiness with her third husband A. J. Liebling. Unfortunately they were only married for four years until he died. While she was married to Liebling she stopped writing. I believe this is probably because the alcoholism became too powerful and she was happy so she didn’t feel the need to write. Perhaps some of her writing was caused by her unhappiness and finding fulfillment took away her need to write? A. J. Liebling also wrote extensively for The New Yorker.

Bonus Story “The Echo and the Nemesis” was suggested by Hilton Als as another story that expressed the true Jean Stafford. The story is about two college girls studying in Heidelberg.  Jean Stafford plays the role of Sue who is very shy. Her only friend is Ramona who horrifies her due to her obesity. There is a terrible secret behind Ramona’s weight gain.

Spoilers: When Sue discovers what the secret is she is forced to flee away from her friend who at the same time rejects her. She is so upset that she becomes anorexic and unable to eat for fear of ending up like her fat friend Ramona. On one hand Sue is jealous of Ramona’s self-confidence and outgoing personality, but she is afraid if she gives in to self-indulgence she herself will end up gaining weight. Perhaps some unspoken trauma in Sue’s own life precipitates the odd mental breakdown?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s