Delbanco, Nicholas 1942–
Delbanco, Nicholas 1942–
(Nicholas Franklin Delbanco)
PERSONAL: Born August 27, 1942, in London, England; emigrated to the United States, 1948; son of Kurt (in business) and Barbara (Bernstein) Delbanco; married Elena Greenhouse, September 12, 1970; children: Francesca Barbara, Andrea Katherine. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1963; Columbia University, M.A., 1966.
CAREER: Bennington College, Bennington, VT, member of department of language and literature, 1966–84, writing workshop director, 1977–85; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, professor of English, 1984–85; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, professor of English, 1985–, currently Robert Frost Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature, former director of MFA program in creative writing. Visiting adjunct professor, Columbia University School of Arts, 1979, 1996; visiting lecturer, University of Iowa, 1979; writer-in-residence, Trinity College, 1980; visiting professor, Williams College, 1982. Staff, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, 1984–94; director, Hopwood Awards, University of Michigan, 1988–.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts creative writing award, 1973 and 1982; National Endowment of Composers and Librettists fellowship, 1976; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980; PEN syndicated fiction awards, 1983, 1985, and 1989; Michigan Council of the Arts award, 1986; University of Michigan Rackham fellowship, 1987; faculty recognition award, University of Michigan, 1989; Michigan humanities award, 1997; Woodrow Wilson fellowship; Edward John Noble fellowship; New York State CAPS Award; Vermont Council of the Arts Award. The University of Michigan created the Delbanco Prize in Delbanco's honor.
The Martlet's Tale, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1966.
Grasse, 3/23/66, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1968.
Consider Sappho Burning, Morrow (New York, NY), 1969.
News, Morrow (New York, NY), 1970.
In the Middle Distance, Morrow (New York, NY), 1971.
Fathering, Morrow (New York, NY), 1973.
Small Rain, Morrow (New York, NY), 1975.
Possession (part one of "Sherbrooke" trilogy), Morrow (New York, NY), 1977.
Sherbrookes (part two of "Sherbrooke" trilogy), Morrow (New York, NY), 1978.
Stillness (part three of "Sherbrooke" trilogy), Morrow (New York, NY), 1980.
About My Table, and Other Stories, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
The Writers' Trade, and Other Stories, Morrow (New York, NY), 1990.
In the Name of Mercy, Warner (New York, NY), 1995.
Old Scores, Warner (New York, NY), 1997.
What Remains, Warner (New York, NY), 2000.
The Vagabonds, Warner (New York, NY), 2004.
The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.
Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1989.
The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2000.
The Countess of Stanlein Restored, Verso Press (New York, NY), 2001.
The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation, McGraw-Hill (Boston, MA), 2004.
Anywhere out of the World: Essays on Travel, Writing, and Death, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 2005.
(And author of introduction) John Gardner, Stillness [and] Shadows, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
(And author of introduction) Speaking of Writing: Selected Hopwood Lectures, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1990.
(With Laurence Goldstein) Writers and Their Craft: Short Stories and Essays on the Narrative, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
(And author of introduction) The Writing Life: The Hopwood Lectures, Fifth Series, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2000.
Ann Arbor (W)rites: A Community Memoir, Ann Arbor District Library (Ann Arbor, MI), 2004.
The Twenty-fifth Clock (radio play), broadcast on National Public Radio, 1977.
Wolf (play), produced in Ann Arbor, MI, 1988.
Contributor to On the Vineyard, by Peter Simon, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1980. Contributor of short fiction, essays, articles, and book reviews to periodicals, including American Heritage, Atlantic Monthly, Bennington Review, AWP Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Crazy Horse, Detroit Free Press, Esquire, Five Points, Georgia Review, Harper's, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, New Republic, New York Times Book Review, Paris Review, Salmagundi, Salt Hill, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, Southern California Anthology, Southern Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Texas Quarterly Review, Tikkun, and TriQuarterly. Guest editor, Michigan Quarterly Review, fall, 1986, and winter, 1987; editor, Bennington Review, 1984–85.
ADAPTATIONS: The Martlet's Tale was adapted as a film in 1970.
SIDELIGHTS: Author and educator Nicholas Delbanco "wrestles with the abundance of his gifts as a novelist the way other men wrestle with their deficiencies," wrote John Updike, as quoted in a Dictionary of Literary Biography entry by Alan Cheuse. Recognized especially for poetic, modernistic novels, such as Consider Sappho Burning and Possession, the first novel of his "Sherbrooke" trilogy, Delbanco is nevertheless "one of those consistently highly acclaimed writers who remains relatively unknown to the general public," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Born in London, England, to German Jewish parents who fled to England before World War II began, Delbanco was brought to the United States at the age of six. His initial childhood attraction to writers such as Lewis Carroll and Ogden Nash ignited an interest that eventually led him to study literature at Harvard and Columbia universities. In 1966, with the encouragement of professors Theodore Morrison and Updike, Delbanco published The Martlet's Tale, a novel set in Greece and based on the Prodigal Son fable. His next books, Grasse, 3/23/66 and Consider Sappho Burning, are experimental works that employ poetic imagery influenced by such seminal authors as James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Samuel Beckett.
The author's next three novels after Consider Sappho Burning—News, In the Middle Distance, and Fathering—introduce a public and political dimension characteristic of the era in which they were written. News is "probably the most fully realized and yet most neglected political novel in recent decades," remarked Cheuse. The novel concerns the efforts of several men to improve society and how three of them are destroyed in the process. In the Middle Distance and Fathering also touch on political issues, though the former is primarily "a fictive autobiography," as Delbanco once told CA, and Fathering "[is] a truncated version of the Theban trilogy" (Sophocles' plays about Oedipus and Antigone).
Delbanco is best known for the novels Possession, Sherbrookes, and Stillness, which together comprise his trilogy concerning a New England family. The novels tell of the declining years of an elite Vermont family, the Sherbrookes, who struggle to reconcile past and present. One central character, Maggie, struggles to break free of the memories of her late husband just as she struggled to free herself from him while he lived. Maggie's son Ian is weighed down by his ancestry, but he is able to learn from suicides and madness how to draw strength from his family's tragedies. Chicago Tribune Book World reviewer Ann Grime noted that Delbanco portrays a present in these works that "is extraordinarily bleak … but in Stillness Delbanco brings history to the fore and casts it in heroic light. He lashes out at the present with bits from the past."
After completion of the "Sherbrooke" trilogy, Delbanco began to move away from novels and toward nonfiction and short stories with Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H.G. Wells, The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait, and About My Table, and Other Stories. This last volume contains nine stories linked by a common theme—men making the transition to middle age, not always gracefully—and a New England setting, while The Beaux Arts Trio was inspired by Delbanco's father-in-law, who played cello for the title group.
Delbanco's 1995 novel, In the Name of Mercy, is less characteristic in its theme and construction. Euthanasia, assisted suicide, managed health care, and cost-conscious doctoring figure prominently in this tale of unexplained deaths in a hospice. Treading the line between medical thriller and novel of ideas, In the Name of Mercy uses the late-twentieth-century ethical dilemmas over health care for the terminally ill as a backdrop to a murder mystery. At the same time, as Delbanco told the Chicago Tribune, he had no intentions of writing a clearly moralistic "message novel" or preaching to his readers. "I don't mean this [book] to be an argument against euthanasia," he said. "On balance, I'm for it…. But I don't have a preachment or a single, simple solution. I just want to wave a red flag or two … to raise the [euthanasia] issue, vivify it, and make it as flesh and bloody on the page as I can."
Many reviewers found Delbanco to be successful in his aims, praising not only his plot twists but also his casting of real-life mercy killer and physician Jack Kevorkian in a peripheral role. Washington Post columnist Perri Klass maintained that In the Name of Mercy "exists … in a fascinating border country where true-life medical drama, from-the-headlines controversy and good old-fashioned suspense all stake their claims, and the narrative tensions this creates are as palpable as the tensions of the novel's complex plot." In the New York Times Book Review, Suzanne Berne wrote: "It's hard to imagine a more deliberate mix of commercial and political ingredients…. In his [eleventh] novel, Nicholas Delbanco has cannily chosen to examine the current controversy over mercy killing within a whodunit." Berne concluded that, although "uneven," the work "addresses an issue that is not only on the front pages these days, but also in the lives of so many Americans of all ages."
Delbanco told the Chicago Tribune that he was well aware he was making a foray into genre fiction with In the Name of Mercy, but he added that his book offers a new twist on the standard murder mystery. "If there's anything genuinely original about this novel, it's that I wrote a mystery in which a policeman is not crucial to the plot," he explained. "Most murder mysteries that I'm familiar with tend to have somebody—whether a policeman or a journalist or a private citizen who is suddenly implicated and has to clear his name—you can follow along one step behind and make sense out of the situation…. But I really just presented it as a world of which the reader has to make sense. That strikes me as a relatively original strategy, and also a relatively risky one, because you sometimes wonder where you are and why it matters." According to Klass, the resulting novel works on several levels: "It plays off all the many kinds of fear and terror that mortality inspires, all the varied shadow fears of illness, helplessness, insanity and violence, which continue to hold their potency, even in a medical world where they have supposedly been tamed and controlled."
Delbanco's novel Old Scores begins on the campus of a small college in Vermont, where a professor and student fall in love and begin an affair that impacts the rest of their lives. Delbanco "evokes with great skill the tender beginnings of a romance between the lonely professor and his idealistic student," wrote Patrick Sullivan in his review for the Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented: "It's a measure of his control that this intelligent tale builds to a resonant and passionate depiction of love's poignant complexity."
The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life, published in 2000 and dubbed a "genre-defying collection" by a Publishers Weekly contributor, mingles "nonfiction musings" and fictional pieces. The title novella is a piece of imagined history retelling the true story of how author Ernest Hemingway lost a suitcase containing his writings while on a train. According to Andy Brumer, writing for the New York Times Book Review, the event "supplies the spark Delbanco's imagination needs to transform a relatively straightforward event into a kaleidoscopic canvas of shimmering though finally integrated parts." Also included in the collection are essays on travel writing, historical fiction, literary life, and the art of writing. Nancy R. Ives wrote in the Library Journal: "Delbanco's originality and intensity shine in each" of the works.
"Composed of the measured and moving memories of one particular family, What Remains reads as some-thing of an act of love, a deeply personal act of love," wrote Catherine Lockerbie in her New York Times Book Review piece. What Remains, Delbanco's fifteenth fiction title, is a tri-generational story of a German Jewish family uprooted by World War II. The narrative shifts point of view, exploring the memories of many members of the family, beginning and ending with Benjamin, the middle grandchild. Moving from Hamburg to London to New York and spanning the fifty years from World War II to the end of the twentieth century, the narrative offers more than brief scenes of the lives of the characters. "The exactitude and plenitude of detail in the book have the authenticity of real literary imagination, a world recreated through precisely drawn objects and sensations, a deeply empathetic construction of character and place, informed by nostalgia and love," according to Washington Post Book World reviewer Neil Gordon. Gordon continued: "Delbanco's musical and wise novel … is as fine as will be found anywhere." "If the title is almost a question about love," mused Janet Maslin in her New York Times review, "then this novel is an affecting answer." Detroit Free Press contributor Marta Salij observed that the novel is "that rare thing, a story about refugees that's neither maudlin nor vengeful, but a moving memorial to a way of life that's gone."
Delbanco was inspired to write The Vagabonds when he worked on an exhibit for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. He discovered that Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Thomas Edison enjoyed rambling the country together on extended vacations—complete with a retinue of servants and a chef. At first Delbanco thought he would craft a work based on the famous men, but the finished novel instead confronts a fictitious legacy the inventors left behind and its effect on three modern-day Americans with very modern problems. "I've always been interested in the idea of inheritance, and the impact it can have on people," Delbanco told John F. Baker in Publishers Weekly, "and a big element in the novel is the ineluctable presence of the past. In a sense we all live in the wake of the Vagabonds' heritage: America has been altogether altered by what these men left behind."
In The Vagabonds, a fictitious valet serving in the Ford-Firestone-Edison entourage seduces a small-town girl and makes her pregnant. Wary of scandal, the wealthy inventors buy the woman's silence with a gift of stock that appreciates precipitously as the century wears on. Eventually, the stock becomes an inheritance split between three siblings, all at pivotal stages in their lives. In a Library Journal review, Janet Evans praised Delbanco for having "deep empathy fo his characters and their all-too-human foibles." Booklist contributor Carol Haggas liked the "sumptuous detail and … uncommon insight" revealed by the story. Haggas also deemed the work "a mesmerizing family saga." A Publishers Weekly critic styled the book "a lyrical narrative showing a palpably American faith in reinvention."
In addition to his noteworthy fiction, Delbanco has also produced a substantial number of nonfiction pieces. The Countess of Stanlein Restored, for example, is the story of the restoration of a cello of reputedly heavenly tone. Because the owner of this sublime instrument is Delbanco's father-in-law, Bernard Greenhouse, the author had a ringside seat for the complete drama. A rendering of the cast of characters, plus a nice serving of Stradivarius lore makes for an interesting book, according to reviewers, but one that "bogs down in minutiae," commented Michael J. Agovino in the New York Times Book Review.
A joint editing effort by Delbanco and novelist Alan Cheuse resulted in Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, which collects the late twentiethcentury author's essays, lectures, interviews, and notes, many of which had heretofore been unpublished. The work demonstrates the dedication of Malamud as a writer, teacher, and craftsman with strong links to the Jewish literary tradition. The book is especially relevant for those interested in Malamud's work, as he wrote frankly about the creative process and expressed clear views about the role of the artist in society.
Anywhere out of the World: Essays on Travel, Writing, and Death collects Delbanco's thoughts on a number of subjects, from his friendship with authors who have since died to his travels in France and elsewhere. Library Journal critic Ben Bruton admired the author's "compelling meditations" on such a host of topics. A Kirkus Reviews contributor deemed the title "a delightfully aimless, somewhat rueful collection" in which Delbanco appears to be "always in search of a fresh story."
From a prodigy who achieved notice while still in his twenties, Delbanco has matured into a respected academic, fiction writer, and leader of creative writing programs. In his review of Old Scores for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Robert Buckeye concluded: "We may characterize [Delbanco's] writing at every point … by its acute intelligence; by its compassion …; and, first and last, by its language, precise, exact." For his part, Delbanco told Baker that he has thoroughly enjoyed his career to this point and the notice his work has received. "I've always disliked the prima donna aspects of the [writing] profession," he concluded. "I just feel grateful to those who've paid attention."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 13, 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Booklist, August, 1995, George Needham, review of In the Name of Mercy, p. 1928; August, 1997, Jim O'Laughlin, review of Old Scores, p. 1876; October 1, 2004, Carol Haggas, review of The Vagabonds, p. 307.
Bookwatch, November, 1997, review of Old Scores, p. 9.
Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1995, interview with Nicholas Delbanco, pp. 1, 5.
Chicago Tribune Book World, November 23, 1980, Ann Grime, review of Stillness.
Detroit Free Press, November 17, 2000, Marta Salij, review of What Remains.
Georgia Review, fall, 2000, Jeff Gundy, review of The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life, p. 559.
Journal of American Studies, December, 1997, Edward A. Abramson, review of Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, pp. 460-461.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1997, review of Old Scores, p. 818; September 1, 2004, review of The Vagabonds, p. 822; January 15, 2005, review of Anywhere out of the World: Travel, Writing, and Death, p. 98.
Library Journal, May 1, 1996, Nancy R. Ives, review of Talking Horse, p. 94; July, 1997, Patrick Sullivan, review of Old Scores, p. 123; April 1, 2000, Nancy R. Ives, review of The Lost Suitcase, p. 101; October 1, 2000, David W. Henderson, review of What Remains, p. 146; October 1, 2004, Janet Evans, review of The Vagabonds, p. 66; April 1, 2005, Ben Bruton, review of Anywhere out of the World, p. 94.
Michigan Quarterly Review, summer, 1997, Steven G. Kellman, review of In the Name of Mercy, pp. 520-528.
New Leader, January, 2001, Binnie Kirshenbaum, review of What Remains, p. 30.
New York Review of Books, October 9, 1997, Alfred Kazin, review of Talking Horse, pp. 8-9.
New York Times, December 28, 2000, Janet Maslin, "Loss, Too, Can Be Found in the Details," p. E10.
New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1995, Suzanne Berne, review of In the Name of Mercy, p. 14; August 24, 1997, Jonathan Wilson, review of Old Scores, p. 8; April 9, 2000, Andy Brumer, "Left Luggage," p. 19; December 3, 2000, Catherine Lockerbie, "Anchored in Their Memories," p. 64; October 28, 2001, Michael J. Agovino, review of The Countess of Stanlein Restored, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, July 3, 1995, review of In the Name of Mercy, pp. 48-49; April 8, 1996, review of Talking Horse, p. 49; June 2, 1997, review of Old Scores, p. 49; March 6, 2000, review of The Lost Suitcase, p. 96; September 25, 2000, review of What Remains, p. 85; November 8, 2004, review of The Vagabonds, p. 36; January 10, 2005, John F. Baker, "Nicholas Delbanco: Past as Prologue," p. 35.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1998, Robert Buckeye, review of Old Scores, pp. 250-251.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 14, 1997, Colleen Kelly Warren, "Hero and His Creator Share Love for Wordplay," p. C5.
Sunday Times (London, England), October 7, 2001, Paul Driver, "Touched by the Genius of Stradivari," p. 37.
Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 2001, Michael Foss, "Yours for Twenty Pence," p. 21.
Wall Street Journal, July 11, 1996, Merle Rubin, review of Talking Horse, p. A12.
Washington Post, December 14, 1995, Peri Klass, review of In the Name of Mercy, p. C2.
Washington Post Book World, January 14, 2001, Neil Gordon, "No Direction Home," pp. 3-4.
Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (December 1, 2005), Sonia Chopra, review of What Remains.
Green Man Review, http://www.greenmanreview.com/ (December 1, 2005), Jack Merry, review of The Countess of Stanlein.