Delbanco, Andrew 1952–
Delbanco, Andrew 1952–
PERSONAL: Born February 20, 1952. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1973, A.M., 1976, Ph.D., 1980.
CAREER: Educator and writer. Columbia University, New York, NY, faculty member, 1985–, Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities, 1995–, director of undergraduate studies in English. Also served as trustee of the National Humanities Center and the Library of America and as vice president of the PEN American Center.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Humanities Center, and New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers; recipient of American Council of Learned Societies; Guggenheim Foundation grant; National Endow-ment for the Humanities grant; Lionel Trilling award; named "America's Best Social Critic," Time, 2001; New York State Scholar of the Year, New York Council for the Humanities, 2003; fellow of the New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers.
(Editor, with Alan Heimert) The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1985.
The Puritan Ordeal, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1989.
(Editor, with Teresa Toulouse) The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1990.
(Editor) The Portable Abraham Lincoln, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.
The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.
(Editor) Writing New England: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Present, Belknap Press of Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), 2001.
Melville: His World and Work, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
(Editor) Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Gérard Dubois, Sterling (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to New York Review of Books, New Republic, New York Times, New Yorker, Commonweal, and Partisan Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Andrew Delbanco is a specialist in the field of classic American literature whose early research focused on Puritan New England. Delbanco has published many studies, including works on the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing, the literary history of the American concept of evil, why classic works of American literature are still important, and the evolving role of hope in American culture. He has also edited collections of writings by Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
One of Delbanco's first books was the intellectual biography William Ellery Channing: An Essay on the Liberal Spirit in America, which offers a series of essays on American minister William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), who broke from the Congregational church to lead the emerging Unitarian movement in Boston. Channing also became a strong supporter of the abolition movement. However, he is no longer a well-known figure in American literary history, having been eclipsed by a predecessor, the Puritan theologist Jonathan Edwards and a successor, the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Delbanco reintroduces Channing as an important link between these influential thinkers.
Critics agreed that Delbanco provides an adept analysis of Channing's writings and convincing evidence of his literary importance. A contributor to the Virginia Quarterly Review called the book "an especially lucid and well-written biographical essay," in which Delbanco's readings are "sympathetic, not indulgent." A Choice contributor noted that "it is an exceedingly complex and sophisticated interpretation of the man and his work." In the New England Quarterly, Joel Myerson commented that William Ellery Channing is "particularly strong in tracing the development of Channing's intellectual growth and in placing his actions within the context of those of his contemporaries."
In a lengthy analysis of the religious and political context of Channing's career, Larzer Ziff responded to the book in the Times Literary Supplement, saying: "Since Channing's reputation today rests largely on a handful of religious pieces, Delbanco's discussion of his all but forgotten literary output is most illuminating." Ziff explained that Delbanco does not use these better-known writings as proof of Channing's merit nor does he try to rate him as an equal to Edwards. Rather, Ziff noted, "Channing's reputation is to be restored … by showing that at one crucial point in his career he behaved in a manner that can be related to the Edwards tradition. For Delbanco, this occurred when Channing sacrificed material comfort and hazarded his reputation by siding with the anti-slavery faction in the 1830s." Regarding Channing's relation to the emerging school of transcendentalism, the reviewer wrote: "Delbanco characterizes excellently the eighteenth-century restraint with which Channing refused to advance into the transcendental merging of soul and nature in the oversoul." Ziff concluded that Delbanco's observations on Channing's beliefs are "subtle, clear, and exciting. [Delbanco] is a shrewd observer and a deft dissector."
The Puritan Ordeal is Delbanco's study of Puritan influence on American literature. The primary assertion of The Puritan Ordeal is that, contrary to the popular myth of a triumphant Puritan colonization in America, these immigrants faced an ordeal in which their hope of escaping commercialized life in England and creating a more pious, united community in the new world was disappointed. Instead, the demands of creating order in the wilderness resulted in a religion focused on sin rather than grace. Delbanco's sources include documents from the first generation of Puritan settlers in New England, including theology, sermons, and autobiography. He also finds a Puritan legacy in the works of American writers—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Saul Bellow—that derives not from the Puritan obsession with sin, but rather the earlier emphasis on the individual ability to find grace.
According to a New Yorker contributor, Delbanco shows "an ideal combination of sensibility and judgment" in The Puritan Ordeal. Other reviewers also commended the author's work. In Modern Language Review, Lawrence Buell called the book an "extensively-researched, invigoratingly provocative reinterpretation of the Puritan mind in transition from old world to new." Buell credited Delbanco with a "humanistic gift for illuminating seventeenth-century materials in the light of modern psychological, social, and literary theory while respecting their historical particularity." A contributor to the Economist noted: "Delbanco shows convincingly" that the Puritan experience was "truly seen as an 'ordeal,' marked by tensions already present in the old world and intensified in the new."
Puritan writings are also the starting point for Delbanco's The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil. In this work, he reviews how American texts have treated the idea of evil, concluding the fact that present-day writers largely ignore the concept. Moreover, he asserts that this trend hurts our ability to fight evil. Delbanco follows the concept through American history, beginning with a discussion of Puritan theology in which evil exists in every individual. In another section of the book he casts politics as a new unifying force, with the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln central to creating a new perception of slavery as the devil's work. Finally, Delbanco suggests that the most horrendous crimes of the twentieth century have been received by a nation that has lost a common belief in evil, having developed a "culture of irony."
Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Wendy Doniger described The Death of Satan as "a stunning and moving ethical interpretation of the history and concept of evil in American private and public life from the first settlers to the present." New Republic reviewer Frank Kermode noted that Delbanco "grapples with an enormous subject," concluding that although the "book will not change the world … it can give us a better idea of what we have made of it—a mess indeed, if the return of Satan is needed to straighten it out." Other reviewers took issue with some of Delbanco's pronouncements. Christopher Caldwell wrote in Commentary, "For Delbanco, evil is often merely synonymous with racism, a conveniently elastic rubric under which he lumps any manifestation of American national feeling he happens to dislike." Caldwell added: "This suggests a larger problem, namely an inability to tell the difference between morality and one's own ideology." However, Newsweek writer Kenneth Woodward suggested that "Delbanco is not arguing for a return to a literal belief in Satan." Instead, noted Woodward, the author "demand[s] a cultural conversation about evil," in an effort to "broaden the revival of moral concern in contemporary political discourse." Commonweal contributor Robert Worth felt that the author does not show why we need a metaphor of evil, "aside from a vague intimation that those who fail to understand evil will surely fall into it. His survey of American literature is eloquent, but his broader moral argument is fraught with confusion." Worth challenged the idea that Americans no longer believe in evil: "This narrative expresses a complaint popular among liberals about their own secular and cosmopolitan culture. Delbanco tells it well, but as a scholar he ought to be more sensitive to the ways in which our sense of evil has diversified, not disappeared." By contrast, Doniger found that Delbanco names "irony, relativism and demagogy" as contemporary manifestations of evil, along with "a failure of the imagination." Calling the text "brilliant, passionate, erudite and beautifully written," Doniger acknowledged "this profound, and profoundly disturbing, book leaves us with no easy answers."
Delbanco wrote a series of book reviews on American classics for the New Republic that were later collected in Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now. This work identifies and analyzes works by American authors that demonstrate how, as the author notes, "individual human beings can break free of the structures of thought onto which they are born." Among the writers Delbanco discusses are Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Zora Neale Hurston. According to the author, all found new ways of using the American language while treating important social and political issues.
In a review of Required Reading for Educational Leadership, Art Steller commended Delbanco's "penetrating analysis of style and prosody" and expressed his own eagerness to begin reading American classics, which he now perceives as a serious void in his reading experience. Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., wrote in Library Journal that the book is made up of "elegant and feisty readings," but he regretted that the collection does not form "a unified argument." This view was repeated by a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who described the individual pieces as smart and inventive, but concluded, "Whether [they] add up to an argument that the language of American classic literature explodes the structures of thought into which we are born is not clear." In a review for the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Rosen found the essays to be "effortlessly erudite and smoothly readable."
The book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope is derived from three lectures on American civilization that Delbanco delivered at Harvard in 1998. A thematic cousin to The Death of Satan, it reviews American literary history for a narrative that shifts between hope and melancholy. Delbanco is again nostalgic for a literature that bolsters the nation; in this instance, he sees contemporary American culture lacking a unifying and "transcendent" narrative of hope, despite economic prosperity. The author identifies three stages in narrative history: "God," "Nation," and "Self," the headings for the book's chapters. He shows how Puritan texts, although they are better remembered for sermonizing on sin and hell fire, show an unconditional belief in transcendence gained by loving God. Delbanco suggests that at the time of the U.S. Civil War, the nation replaced God as a unifying source of hope, following the lead of President Lincoln. By the 1960s, however, the focus on self had eclipsed a unified vision of equal rights for all Americans. This left the author looking for a new source of hope, perhaps something different from either of the earlier phases. Delbanco judged that without a common goal to create a larger good, Americans will fall into despair.
Critical response to The Real American Dream included Sandra Collins's comments in Library Journal, in which she noted that "this represents as fine a synthesis as can be found on hope and the longing for something more in the collective American soul." Booklist contributor Ray Olson decided that "Although ultimately an exercise in intellectual funk, Delbanco's lecture-based essay is engaging and very timely." A Publishers Weekly contributor called Delbanco "a close and passionate reader" and predicted that his readings of American literature would "succeed in prodding readers to think deeply about how the idea of the nation intersects—or doesn't—with their deepest desires and hopes."
The subjects of Delbanco's editorial work are closely linked to his writing. He edited The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology with Alan Heimert. In Journal of Church and State, John L. Bullion suggested that the collection of "abbreviated" Puritan texts was suited to undergraduate student readers since "they would not help specialists in the field understand either Puritan reactions to specific episodes and problems, or more generally, the Puritan mind (or minds) as a whole." Delbanco worked with Teresa Toulouse on the second volume of the four-volume series The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Susan L. Roberson reviewed the second volume in Southern Humanities Review, where she wrote that the sermons "demonstrate a progressive optimism about the state of man and begin in tentative ways to develop the themes and metaphors that mark [Emerson's] more mature thought." She described how the editors had "presented the sermons in an annotated, clear-text format with full textual notes in the back matter, thereby providing readers with texts which are accessible without much editorial intrusion and interpretation."
Delbanco's great interest in the writings of Abraham Lincoln is evidenced by The Portable Abraham Lincoln, a collection of speeches, letters, notes, and personal memos. While there are many other Lincoln collections, Delbanco's compilation was welcomed by several critics. In a review for Kliatt, Daniel J. Levinson admired the book's "sensible chronological categories" and the short overviews that Delbanco offered before each sec-tion. Randall M. Miller commented in Library Journal that Delbanco helps readers "appreciate how the prairie lawyer became the poet of American democracy." World Monitor reviewer Benjamin Demott called it a "superb" grouping in which Lincoln's "extraordinarily comprehensive and intense moral vision" can be seen.
As editor of Writing New England: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Present, Delbanco presents writings from a variety of New England authors, from Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne to lesser known authors from the past, such as William Apess, whose eulogy for King Philip from 1836 is included. "This is an excellent gathering of letters, poems, stories, essays and excerpts from novels and histories,"wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Karen E.S. Lempert, writing in the Library Journal, noted that the collection "gives a deeper understanding of the flavor of New England writing."
In Melville: His World and Work, the author recounts the famed author's life and delves into the genius of his fiction. Delbanco places Melville's writing within the context of his times, changing fortunes, and difficult family life. In addition, he discusses Melville's significance in modern literature and relates his themes to modern historical times, comparing, for example, George Bush's efforts to capture the terrorist Osama bin Laden to Captain Ahab's pursuit of the white whale in Moby Dick, which to Ahab represents a tangible evil to attack. Referring to the book as a "masterful biography," in Booklist, Bryce Christensen also called it "a valuable cross-disciplinary work." Diane C. Donovan, writing in MBR Bookwatch, commented that the biography "will enhance any reader's understanding of Melville's works." Michael Gorra wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the author "writes throughout with grace and wit, his lucid contextual readings synthesize a generation of scholarship." Library Journal contributor Ron Ratliff commented: "Delbanco's stunningly readable and fresh look at Melville's genius will keep readers riveted."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Delbanco, Andrew, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
American Prospect, March 13, 2000, Michael King, review of The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, p. 53.
Antioch Review, winter, 2001, John Kennedy, review of The Real American Dream, p. 119.
Biography, spring, 2006, Karl Miller, review of Melville: His World and Work, p. 403.
Booklist, September 1, 1999, Ray Olson, review of The Real American Dream, p. 64; September 1, 2005, Bryce Christensen, review of Melville, p. 41.
Boston Globe, September 18, 2005, Glenn C. Altschuler, review of Melville.
Choice, July-August, 1981, review of William Ellery Channing: An Essay on the Liberal Spirit in America, p. 1601.
Commentary, February, 1996, Christopher Caldwell, review of The Death of Satan, p. 60.
Commonweal, November 17, 1995, Robert Worth, review of The Death of Satan, p. 26.
Economist, June 17, 1989, review of The Puritan Ordeal, p. 107.
Educational Leadership, May, 1998, Art Steller, review of Required Reading, p. 92.
Guardian (London, England), November 5, 2005, Jay Parini, review of Melville.
Houston Chronicle, October 7, 2005, Jim Barloon, review of Melville.
Journal of Church and State, winter, 1987, John L. Bullion, review of The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, p. 154.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2005, review of Melville, p. 716.
Kliatt, May, 1993, Daniel J. Levinson, review of The Portable Abraham Lincoln, p. 22.
Library Journal, February, 1992, Randall M. Miller, review of The Portable Abraham Lincoln, p. 110; September 1, 1997, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., review of Required Reading, p. 181; September 15, 1999, Sandra Collins, review of The Real American Dream, p. 94; August, 2001, Karen E.S. Lempert, review of Writing New England: An Anthology From the Puritans to the Present, p. 109; August 1, 2005, Ron Ratliff, review of Melville, p. 84.
London Independent, January 15, 2006, Tom Rosenthal, review of Melville.
MBR Bookwatch, January, 2006, Diane C. Donovan, review of Melville.
Modern Language Review, October, 1991, Lawrence Buell, review of The Puritan Ordeal, pp. 976-977.
Nation, December 5, 2005, Vivian Gornick, review of Melville.
New England Quarterly, December, 1982, Joel Myerson, review of William Ellery Channing, pp. 618-619.
New Republic, January 29, 1996, Frank Kermode, review of The Death of Satan, p. 37.
New Yorker, April 10, 1989, review of The Puritan Ordeal, p. 125.
New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995, Wendy Doniger, "Giving the Devil His Due," p. 45; September 14, 1997, Jonathan Rosen, "Declarations of Independence," p. 9; November 7, 1999, Richard Rorty, "I Hear America Sighing," p. 16; September 25, 2005, Michael Gorra, review of Melville.
Newsweek, November 13, 1995, Kenneth Woodward, "Do We Need Satan?," p. 62.
Publishers Weekly, June 30, 1997, review of Required Reading, p. 59; August 2, 1999, review of The Real American Dream, p. 64; July 30, 2001, review of Writing New England, p. 74; July 18, 2005, review of Melville, p. 199.
Reference & Research Book News, February, 2006, review of Melville.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 2, 2005, Dan Cryer, review of Melville.
Southern Humanities Review, winter, 1993, Susan L. Roberson, review of The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume II, pp. 77-79.
Times Literary Supplement, November 27, 1981, Larzer Ziff, "Culture before Calvinism," pp. 1383-1384.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1981, review of William Ellery Channing, p. 126.
Washington Post, September 25, 2005, Michael Dirda, review of Melville, p. BW15.
World Monitor, June, 1992, Benjamin Demott, review of The Portable Abraham Lincoln, pp. 60-62.
CNN.comhttp://www.cnn.com/ (October 5, 2006), John Cloud, "Civic Booster," profile of author.
Columbia University, Department of English Web site, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/english/ (October 5, 2006), faculty profile of author.
Columbia University Web site, http://www.columbia.edu/ (October 5, 2006), James Devitt, "Time Names Andrew Delbanco 'America's Best Social Critic."
Morning News, http://www.themorningnews.org/ (February 22, 2006), Robert Birnbaum, "Birnbaum v. Andrew Delbanco," interview with author.