“He Was Removed from Them by a Thousand Miles” – Alienation as a Characteristic in Delmore Schwartz’s Prose

In his two short stories “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” and “America! America!”, Delmore Schwartz depicts two protagonists born in America to Jewish immigrant parents. These two protagonists and the world as it is seen through their eyes display one of the important characteristics of Schwartz’s prose – alienation. His description of the Jewish experience in America, especially of the children of immigrants, is one of alienation, strangeness and displacement. These grown children do not find themselves in their parents’ home or in the American society – as Shenandoah Fish wants to leave for Paris and the nameless protagonist of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” wants to prevent his parents from getting married and starting a family. This inherent alienation from their parents and from the society also means self-alienation – as Shenandoah questions his own identity and the nameless protagonist can only relate to his family history via an outdated film in his dream. This is, according to Schwartz, the identity problem of the immigrants’ children – they are neither American nor foreign, they are caught in a strange place of rejection of old values and acceptance of no new values. The nameless protagonist of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is an alienated outsider to his intimate family history. He finds himself in the beginning of the story in a movie theater, watching a silent, black-and-white film “in which actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes [… and] the shots are full of dots and rays” (1). He discovers that he is watching his father’s marriage proposal to his mother, but he, nonetheless, remains as an outsider to this history as the rest of the people sitting in the theater. This method is, by definition, alienating – rather than being told to the family in the living room or around a dining table, these intimate moments are publicized on the big screen, many copies of them can be made, and everyone who pays “thirty-five cents to come in” (7) can watch them while eating candy. Their most important recipient, the nameless protagonist has the same status and privileges as the other watchers: He is not allowed to show any emotions or react to whatever happens on the screen though it might determine his life. As he weeps, he is hushed by an angry face and after the later is told that “all of this is only a movie” (5). Later, as he shouts at the screen trying to prevent his mother from agreeing to marry his father, he is warned by an old lady that he might be put out, and then he is thrown out by the usher who explains to him that he cannot act like this. This treatment further alienates the nameless protagonist from his family history. The outdated technique of the movie prevents him from identifying with his parents, and when the screening is stopped due to a mechanical problem, he is “awakened to myself and my unhappiness just as my interest was rising. […] It is difficult to get back to the movie once more and forget myself” (3). This feeling of alienation is fully emphasized when the protagonist finds out that he was dreaming, that this was the realm of the unconsciousness, where one meets his most intimate, yet unknown truths. The protagonist of “America! America!”, Shenandoah Fish, returns to his home as a stranger: His friends had all changed and he is unable to renew his friendships with them, and he is not troubled by the economic situation, and does not bother to find a job or even help his mother with the household works. He is rather a guest in his own life, which leads him to question his identity. As he returns to America, he finds out that “some great change had occurred” (10) to the people he knew, but he, too, was changed and “was unable to do very much with himself, he was unable to write” (10) as he used before. For two months “he slept late each morning, and then he sat for a long time at the breakfast-table, listening to his mother’s talk as she went about her household tasks” (11). Acting as an outsider, a guest in his own house finally and he began to feel “the emotion of a loss or lapse of identity”. Shenandoah is only able to relate and investigate this feeling and his identity via a story about the Baumann family, old friends of the Fish family, that “he was removed from them by thousands of miles, or by a generation” (19). He acts as a film-watcher in regard to the Baumanns’ sad story – two unsuccessful sons who fought with their father, one of them even tried to commit suicide. He is not moved by the hardships of the old family friends. As his mother’s story progresses, Shenandoah recalls events in his life in which the Baumanns took part, yet they remain as strangers. Shenandoah is also alienated to his mother: He refers to her stories as “simple and pleasant” (11), and he only half-listens to her as he also reads the newspaper. He is fully aware that while she means one thing in her story, her words “bloomed in Shenandoah’s mind in forms which would have astonished and angered her” (27). As Mrs. Fish concludes her story about the Baumann family, she states that “some human beings seemed to be ruined by their best qualities” (32), a statement which heavily reflects on her son. For a minute he ponders it, and is able to see himself in the Baumanns’ story, but then he exclaims “no one truly exists in the real world” (33), his definite alienation from his history and home. This alienation which the two protagonists display, both to their family and their society, is a main characteristic of Schwartz’s prose, it is a part of being American child of immigrants. They are neither truly American or foreign, yet they are both at the same time. Works Cited:Schwartz, Delmore. “America! America!” In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories. Ed. James Atlas. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, ?. 1-9Schwartz, Delmore. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories. Ed. James Atlas. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, ?. 10-33