Delmore Schwartz was born December 8, 1913, in Brooklyn to Romanian immigrant parents. Their marriage however failed and this affected him all his life.
Inspite of his unhappy and unsettled childhood though he was was a gifted and intellectual young student. He enrolled early at Columbia University, and also studied at the University of Wisconsin, eventually receiving his bachelor's degree in 1935 in philosophy from New York University.
In 1936 he won the Bowdoin Prize in the Humanities for his essay Poetry as Imitation. In 1937 his short story In Dreams Begin Responsibilities was published in Partisan Review a left wing magazine.The following year his first book-length work, also titled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities was published and received much praise.
He never finished his advanced degree in philosophy at Harvard, but was hired as the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer, and later given an Assistant Professorship.
In 1947 Schwartz ended his twelve-year association with Harvard and returned to New York City. His book of short stories The World is a Wedding was published the following year. Time compared Schwartz to Stendhal and Anton Chekhov. By this same time his work was widely anthologized. He was publishing critical essays on other important literary figures and cultural topics, and was the poetry editor at Partisan Review, and later also at New Republic.
He took on a number of teaching positions at Bennington College, Kenyon College, Princeton University, the writer's colony Yaddo, and at Syracuse University.
In 1960 Schwartz became the youngest poet ever to win the Bollingen Prize. His friend Saul Bellow wrote a semi-fictional memoir about Schwartz called Humboldt's Gift, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
In the summer of 1966 Schwartz checked into the Times Squares hotel, to focus on his writing. He worked continuously but on July 11 he had a heart attack in the lobby of the hotel.
One of the earliest well-known tributes to Schwartz came from Schwartz's friend, fellow poet Robert Lowell, who published the poem "To Delmore Schwartz" in 1959 (while Schwartz was still alive) in the book Life Studies. In it Lowell reminisces about the time that the two poets lived together in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1946, writing that they were "underseas fellows, nobly mad,/ we talked away our friends."
One year following Schwartz's death, in 1967, his former student at Syracuse University, the rock musician Lou Reed, dedicated his song "European Son" to Schwartz (although the lyrics themselves made no direct reference to Schwartz).
Then, in 1968, Schwartz's friend and peer, fellow poet, John Berryman, dedicated his book His Toy, His Dream, His Rest "to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz," including 12 elegiac poems about Schwartz in the book. In "Dream Song #149," Berryman wrote of Schwartz,
In the brightness of his promise,
unstained, I saw him thro' the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro' all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.
The most ambitious literary tribute to Schwartz came in 1975 when Saul Bellow, a one-time protege of Schwartz's, published his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Humboldt's Gift which was based on his relationship with Schwartz. Although the character of Von Humboldt Fleischer is Bellow's portrait of Schwartz during Schwartz's declining years, the book is actually a testament to Schwartz's lasting artistic influence on Bellow.
Lou Reed's 1982 album The Blue Mask included his second Schwartz homage with the song "My House". This song is much more of a tribute to Schwartz than the above-mentioned "European Son" in that the lyrics of "My House" are about Reed's relationship with Schwartz. In the song, Reed writes that Schwartz "was the first great man that I ever met".
Scott Spencer uses the final six lines of Schwartz's poem “I Am a Book I Neither Wrote nor Read” as an epigraph for his National Book Award nominated novel, Endless Love. The words "endless love" are the final two words of that poem.
In the film Star Trek Generations, the villain Tolian Soran quotes Schwartz's poem “Calmly We Walk Through This April Day”, telling Picard, “Time is the fire in which we burn.”
In 1996, Donald Margulies wrote the play Collected Stories, in which the aging writer and teacher Ruth Steiner (a fictional character) recounts a great affair that she had in her youth with Delmore Schwartz in Greenwich Village (during the period of time when Schwartz was in declining health from alcoholism and mental illness) to her young student, Lisa. Lisa then controversially uses the affair revelation as the basis for a successful novel. The play was produced twice off-Broadway and once on Broadway.