Nicholas Delbanco's Blog
February 7, 2015
THE YEARS: A Novel by Nicholas Delbanco is published by Little A.
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Men of letters
BY NICHOLAS DELBANCO
January 20, 2015.
Letters of note
In late 2014 the University of Michigan Press published Dear Wizard: The Letters of Nicholas Delbanco and Jon Manchip White. The publication coincided with Delbanco’s retirement from U-M, where he served as director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, as well as the Hopwood Awards Program in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts.
At nearly 750 pages, the book is s a full-sized facsimile reproduction of the bulk of correspondence between two writers — one that terminated only with the latter’s death in 2013.
As Delbanco explains of Dear Wizard: “This enterprise was planned and prepared for while both authors lived; it grieves its editor sorely that but one of us has seen it to fruition. The book was a labor of love for me, as well as a ramble down Memory Lane.”
Delbanco arrived at U-M in 1985; he is the author of nearly 30 books of fiction and nonfiction. Manchip White was a distinguished Welsh-American writer who published more than 30 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He also penned scripts for film and television.
In the following essay, Delbanco reflects on the joy he and Manchip White derived during 35 years of unique, whimsical, and old-fashioned correspondence, which chronicles the deep affection and mutual respect that defined their friendship.
Words with friends
The habitual exchange of letters is a custom now nearly extinct. There was a time when letter writing served as the necessary discourse for men and women not within earshot or in a shared room.
That time has gone.
The telegram and telephone, a cellphone or email, text message or Skype, the various new forms of telecommunication — Facebook, Twitter, and the rest — have each in turn displaced and finally replaced the habit of correspondence; few practice it today. Those who read collections of letters hereafter will read about the fast-receding past.
My own past recedes; so did that of Jon Manchip White. I have begun my eighth decade; he reached the end of his ninth. This collection spans the period 1978 to 2013. Our “habitual exchange of letters” therefore lasted not merely for years and decades but centuries, millennia. We shared rooms and cities but only seldom spent uninterrupted time in each other’s company, with no need to write. I could have wished it otherwise — have wished, I mean, to live more near and see with greater regularity a man I both loved and revered. What we have here instead is the record of a friendship attested to by correspondence and enacted largely in the epistolary mode.
These last two words suggest a kind of formality, an archaic-sounding language-set. It’s fair to say that some of what the book contains will seem, to some, arcane. We two were “men of letters,” and it’s not a phrase that either disavowed. For the years encompassed here, we stayed busily at work. Though much of the volume deals with matters personal and familial, a central theme throughout is the professional life. Between us we published more than 60 books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction; we edited and introduced an additional 15.
I spent the bulk of my academic career at Bennington College and the University of Michigan, from which I’ve just retired as the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English. Manchip White served as the Lindsay Young Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. We founded writing programs, paid visits to each other’s sponsoring institutions, taught together in summer creative writing workshops and academic courses of study in Vermont and London.
We dedicated texts to each other and solicited each other’s editorial advice. Further, we collaborated on a project, “Hotel de Dream” — first as a novel, then as a screenplay — which was at length abandoned. Almost every letter discusses at least in passing the hopes and fears and challenges attendant on a creative or research-based project: the lifelong work of words.
At an early point in the correspondence, we stumbled on the notion of “borrowed finery,” and began to write on letterheads from points far-flung or obscure. Born in England, I came to the United States when young; White, born in Wales, arrived in America in middle age. Both of us traveled a good deal. These letterheads also should speak for themselves, but it became a point of honor to address each other on stationery from hotels and institutions and places — a Cuban jail, the White House — attesting to worlds elsewhere. (One of my titles is Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France, and White wrote several travel books, as well as The Journeying Boy: Scenes from a Welsh Childhood.)
This joke soon enlarged into a contest, a kind of jockeying for position, and often the letters begin with the assertion that X has bested Y by mailing, say, a letter from those who flew across the Burma Hump or broke ice in Antarctica. There are claims of at-least momentary affiliation with or residence in the Supreme Court of Ohio and the Council on Foreign Relations, a school in rural China, the Inn at Foggy Bottom, the Pudong Shangri-La, Vienna’s Hotel Sacher, and Swakopmond in Namibia (“Where the Skeleton Coast Comes to Life”).
The envelope, please
Often the envelopes “doubled” the score, so that a letter from Jordan would be sealed inside an envelope from Brazil. To correspondents spending hours at their desks, such evidence of travel seemed both a release and relief. Most of this stationery was acquired by the authors as a result of actual visits; some sheets were provided by voyaging friends in the service of our competition, and set aside for use.
We placed an annual bet on who would score more “points” for eccentricity or exotica and kept our own, admittedly biased, running tally of results. We reveled in the back-and-forth, the stationery gathered or collected by those referred to as “agents.” Particularly daring forays were made on each other’s home turf — so that, for instance, I purloined stationery from the Reform Club in London while there on a visit with White; in turn he snatched sheets from the Michigan League and Ann Arbor Campus Inn.
At the end of each year a bottle of 16-year-old Lagavulin whiskey was the prize, with the proviso that the bottle then be shared. To the pair of us, this seemed like a game worth playing; to a readership it may seem self-indulgent but, to quote an unrepentant Gloucester speaking of his bastard son, “there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.”
Had I 50 more such letterheads, I would deploy them here.
January 20, 2015
January 5, 2015
A Writing Professor’s Contribution: So Many Words, So Little Debt
U. of Michigan
By Peter Monaghan
As he retired as a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor last month, Nicholas Delbanco was recognized not just as a novelist, nonfiction writer, and teacher, but also as the author of an innovative idea that set a high bar for creative-writing graduate programs everywhere: Ensure that all students can attend free.
After he arrived in Ann Arbor, in 1985, to head the graduate writing program there, Mr. Delbanco remembers, “I said to the people who hired me that there was nothing wrong with the program that $5-million wouldn’t fix.”
Michigan had long had a tradition of strong undergraduate creative-writing programming. In the 1920s, Robert Frost was a poet in residencethere; from 1985 through 2014, Mr. Delbanco held a professorship in his name.
But the graduate program, which had just gotten started in 1983, had to establish its own reputation. For 17 years Mr. Delbanco built it, then stepped down from its directorship in 2002 only to teach there for another 12 years. He also directed, from 1987 until last month, the Hopwood Program, a University of Michigan-based awards and support program for career and student writers.
Michigan’s creative-writing program has by now far surpassed the $5-million goal Mr. Delbanco set. “So our students are able to come for nothing, which was the dream with which I began,” he says.
Between 2001 and 2013, the M.F.A. program received more than $60-million from the Zell Family Foundation, in Chicago, whose executive director, Helen Zell, is a 1964 Michigan graduate in English. Those funds allow the program, now known as the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, to provide more than $1-million a year in tuition waivers, stipends, health insurance, and postgraduate fellowships. Twenty-two students are admitted to the program annually.
Among the many salutes to Mr. Delbanco in the past decade or so is Ms. Zell’s request that a visiting professorship she endowed be named for him.Fiction Writers Review, a literary review led by a Michigan faculty member, devoted a week in December to hailing the longtime English professor’s “influential career as both a writer and a teacher.”
Mr. Delbanco was born in 1942 to German-Jewish immigrants in London and came as a child with his family to the United States. He attended Harvard and Columbia Universities, completing a master’s degree at the latter just after publishing in 1966, his first novel, The Martlet’s Tale.
He accepted an offer to teach at Bennington College—”insanely enough, to replace Bernard Malamud, who was taking leave”—and found during his 18 years there an artistic community that helped shape a credo of literary apprenticeship that he still holds: “It’s inappropriate at best and criminal at worst to expect people to go deeply in debt to follow this particular passion.” In contrast to the experience of, say, law, business, and medical graduates, “if you go to an M.F.A. program, certainly a writing program, the odds on your being able to repay $100,000 in debt are very slim.”
The prospect of large debts keeps away a diverse range of young writers, among them some of the most talented, he says. His full-ride remedy has raised the stakes for the best writing programs. Many do not have the funds to pay students’ full costs, so they offer work-study packages of varying worth or pitch “low-residency programs” to aspiring writers with paying jobs.
Mr. Delbanco believes that more programs could find benefactors by professing that universities have developed the programs not as money makers but to fulfill the “high charge” of cultural advancement.
He recommends countering any skepticism about the value of writing programs by noting that professional musicians or dancers would hardly take the stage without intense training. Similarly, aspiring writers may benefit from following a medieval-guild-like model: Apprentice to the trade, “and after six or seven years of sweeping the floor or mixing the paint,” receive journeyman papers and “ideally become a master craftsman.”
Mr. Delbanco’s own variant of that path was a self-imposed regimen of persistent early-morning writing that in January will result in his 29th volume, The Years, a novel. His writing has encompassed essays, short stories, and a 2008 fictionalized account of a most unlikely genius, inventor, and spy, The Count of Concord, born Benjamin Thompson in Massachusetts in 1753.
He has written about artists who died young—The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts (2013)—as well asLastingness: The Art of Old Age (2011) about the relatively few who maintained their craft past the age of 70 even though, as he says, “there’s no intrinsic reason why an artist couldn’t grow with age.”
And that is what he intends to demonstrate in his own retirement.
‘The Years’ by Nicholas Delbanco
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By Priscilla GilmanGLOBE CORRESPONDENT JANUARY 14, 2015
In 2006, Nicholas Delbanco published “Spring and Fall,’’ a novel about two 60-somethings who rekindle their college romance after meeting on a cruise ship. Eight years later, Delbanco has added a second half to the story and published both as a new, longer novel, “The Years.’’ With this expansion, a book about the tremulous joy of second chances, loss redeemed, and later-in-life blossoming becomes a bleak meditation on the fragility of happiness, an unmasking of romantic illusion, and a terrifying reminder of inexorable mortality.
Book 1 of “The Years’’ (a tightened version of the earlier novel) begins in 2004 aboard the MS Diana, as it sets sail from Rome. Lawrence, a 64-year-old architect and professor recovering from minor heart surgery, has flown from Detroit to take a trip on the advice of his doctor. Lawrence dreams of “heedless health and early love” but wakes to muse ruefully on his aging body and the fact that his students see him as “an old man being idiotic.” Then, while gazing at pictures of prostitutes in the Luparium (a loaded set-up if there ever was one), he unexpectedly meets up with his college love, Hermia.
Book 1 proceeds to alternate between the present-day rekindled romance and a chronicle of the 42 years since their love affair at Harvard. Their earlier ardent courtship was almost hyperbolically romantic, replete with paintings, poems, and plays. There’s “no single reason that they broke apart.” In the years that follow, both struggle through unsatisfying lives: marrying and divorcing unstable or unappealing people, not achieving the career success they’d wanted (Lawrence) or having no career at all (Hermia), becoming estranged from their children.
The tentative arc of Lawrence and Hermia’s revived romance, the alternately thrilling and terrifying prospect of beginning again, is beautifully presented. At first, they “avoided . . . the difficult subjects, the disappointment and trouble,” then slowly open up to each other about their trials and tragedies, including Hermia’s deep sadness about her daughter, Patricia, who’d run away more than 10 years earlier.
Book 1 ends with Patricia returning and Hermia asking Lawrence to stay at her house on Cape Cod; Book 2 describes what happens after he decides to stay. Lawrence and Hermia settle into a comfortable routine of gardening, walks, and nightly bottles of wine. He proposes and they marry. Superstitious Hermia, however, frets that “their luck . . . [is] too good to continue.”
Number of pages:
Thus begins the Jobian withdrawal of fortune. Hermia’s mother’s dementia worsens and she dies; an angry drug-dealing neighbor threatens the bucolic serenity of their Cape Cod paradise; Patricia frets that she’s inherited her father’s madness and that despite her marriage to a rich man she’ll never be happy. Lawrence’s health problems return. As Hermia loses places, and names, and where it was she meant to travel, Delbanco’s novel becomes a pitiless investigation of the art of losing.
At one point, Hermia thinks of the conventional “stories of courtship”: “old friends would meet and marry and their love, long dormant, bloom.” But then there is the real moral: “ ‘happily ever after’. . . was not the way true stories ended.’’ Delbanco seems to have been uncomfortable leaving a tale that was less than “true” in this sense; his decision to add a second part seems intended to restore a rigorous realism, to emphasize that “what happen[s] . . . in the last of life [is] rapid and annihilating.” We may know happiness, and even restored happiness, but it will inevitably drain away from us.
Delbanco pushes it a bit too far, however, as Hermia and Lawrence’s declines would be more believably universal were they a decade or more older (they seem much frailer than most 60-somethings or even 70-somethings). But in dispelling gauzy romanticism and exposing the vulnerability of later-in-life love, he succeeds in giving us a frightening evocation of aging.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’
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December 22, 2014
The Letters of Nicholas Delbanco and Jon Manchip White
Edited by Nicholas DelbancoDear Wizard is a carefully selected, highly crafted gathering of letters from over three decades of correspondence between authors Nicholas Delbanco and Jon Manchip White. This correspondence, in part a contest to outdo one another with exotic and outlandish letterhead, ranges in tone from carefree to grave and covers topics as diverse as the art and practice of writing, the state of the writer’s profession, and age, illness, love, and loss.
“In a hectic world of terse emails and gnomic texts, this bumper collection of actual letters—a paper archive, that vanished art-form—is a marvel. It is marvelous in other ways too, a detailed account of thirty-five years in the lives of two highly literate and hard-working men, reflecting on their projects, their plans, their dreams, their travel, their writing, their reading—and on family, too. The glow of friendship that illuminates the letters makes them both a pleasure and an enlightenment.”
— Paul Theroux, author of The Mosquito Coast, The Great Railway Bazaar, Saint Jackand dozens of other books of fiction and nonfiction
“The letters of two writers as prolific and serious and entertaining and able as White and Delbanco make this book extremely valuable for aesthetic, biographical, and cultural reasons. Writers and students of literature should find it quite seriously instructive, in the way that the letters between James Wright and Leslie Marmon Silko have been, or the recently published correspondence between novelist James Salter and young writer Robert Phelps.”
— Alan Cheuse, book reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered and author of To Catch the Lightning, Song of Slaves in the Desert, and several other novels and short story collections
“This collection will doubtless be fascinating to writers, but these strike me as more than ‘mere’ literary lives. They’re twentieth century lives as experienced by individuals who engaged thoroughly and deeply with their times. I’d warrant they’ll reward any reader who shared some of those times and enjoys the company of a pair of adventurous storytellers.”
— Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl and Equal Love: Stories
Nicholas Delbanco is The Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. He has published twenty-eight books of fiction and nonfiction. He directs the Hopwood Awards Program at the University of Michigan; he has served as Chair of the Fiction Panel for the National Book Awards, has served on the jury of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and has received such awards as the J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and, twice, a National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship.
Jon Manchip White (1924-2013) was a distinguished Welsh-American writer who has published over thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry over a long writing career. His works of fiction include novels, collections of short stories, and many scripts for film and television. His nonfiction books include history, biography, archaeology, anthropology, travel, and personal essays.
Advanced Review – Uncorrected Proof
Issue: January 1, 2015
Delbanco, Nicholas (Author)
Jan 2015. 418 p. New Harvest/Little A, paperback, $14.95. (9781477827321).
First love, last love, and, in between, marriages, children, careers, estrangements, reconciliations, divorces, death: the stuff of life. The affair Hermia and Lawrence began when they were Boston college students in the early 1960s ended badly owing to Lawrence’s callous infidelity. Forty years later, the pair are unexpectedly reunited on a Mediterranean cruise, where Lawrence is recovering from heart surgery and Hermia is coping with her teenage daughter’s rebellious rejection. As they catch up on the painful events each has experienced separately, they reflect on the circumstances that initially drove them apart, and while they find renewed joy in each other’s company, will it be enough to sustain them to create a long delayed life together? Delbanco navigates the tenderness of mature love as passionately as he reveals the ardor of first infatuation. With intelligence and insight, he has created that rarest of all love stories, a romance for the aged, whose best years are not necessarily the ones that lie behind them.
— Carol Haggas
December 21, 2014
Nicholas Delbanco: A Literary Life
Through April 6
7th Floor, Hatcher Graduate Library
Drawn from the papers of teacher and author Nicholas Delbanco, Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature and Director of the Avery and Jule Hopwood Awards Program at U-M, this exhibit spans decades and continents and illustrates the extensive range of Delbanco’s life and work. Open Mon-Fri,10am-5pm.
Upcoming appearances: Rancho Mirage Writers Festival, January 21-24
San Miguel Writers’ Conference, San Miguel, Mexico, February 11-15
University of Michigan, Harlan Hatcher Library, April 1
Indiana University, April 2
December 9, 2014
Here’s an excerpt from Andrea Barrett’s appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco, published in The American Scholar:
The best writing advice I ever got was extremely simple, initially devastating but actually incredibly kind, liberating, and utterly transformative. It came at Bread Loaf, the first writers’ conference I attended, where I went as a contributor the summer before I turned 30. After workshopping my story, Nicholas Delbanco—a brilliant teacher, as well as a wonderful writer—asked me if I’d written anything else and, when I confessed to having with me the manuscript of a novel I’d been writing and revising for almost six years, offered to read it.
Only much later, teaching at conferences myself, did I fully appreciate what an unusual and generous gesture that was: who asks for extra reading when immersed in a sea of student manuscripts? Nick read my grubby pages, promptly met with me to discuss them, and gently let me know that the novel on which I’d spent so long was rubbish. I had to teach for years to grasp the unusual generosity of that, too: how hard it is to give a tough opinion!
The news came deftly padded with reassurance about my probable ability to write, the not-bad story I had written, the things I’d learned writing all those drafts, which would surely help me with what I wrote next, but the kernel of his advice was simple: Throw it out, and move on. Take all you learned writing that and make something new. Afterwards I cried, I fussed, I crashed around—and then I did what he said. What a huge relief to shed those mauled and tortured pages! And how quickly, freed from them, did I begin to write again. First a stab at one new novel, which I discarded almost gaily after nine months’ work, realizing it too was wrong; and then another, which would become my first published novel, Lucid Stars.
Read the full article: “Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over” by Andrea Barrett
Here’s Nina Buckless, writing in appreciation of Nicholas Delbanco’s short story “Departure”:
If, as Aristotle says, “Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies,” then it is through the love of philia, a fondness or an appreciation, that I can write of the love that I have for Nicholas Delbanco’s short story “Departure,” published in Five Points.
The triple-headed goddess Hecate was once highly revered by ancient Athenians. In his writings, Hesiod mentions that Zeus himself honored Hecate above all things mortal and immortal. Not even the stars could outshine her. Triple-bodied, Hecate was known as the guardian of crossroads, as well as associated with ghosts, the dead, and blessings upon family. Often depicted in art as a statuesque female holding three flaming torches, the goddess is one in being. Much like Hecate herself, “Departure” is triple-bodied, structured in this case as a triptych—a portrait of three distant siblings (Joanna, Claire, and David) on the day of discovering the news that their mother has died.
Also like Hecate, each sibling carries their own flame, their own light—torches, ignited and fueled by their mother, Alice, whose light has, at last, expired. In the story, Delbanco creates a portrait of a family via triangulation, with Alice at its center. Each section moves through the interior landscapes and the quotidian experiences of these characters as the day carries them up to the news of this passing and, at times, circles back before they know she is gone.
The story carries something deeper, too: familial secrets, isolation, and loneliness. It confronts how individuals are inevitably shaped by their intergenerational and personal histories, and asks important questions about the meaning of family, namely: How well do we know one another? How do dark secrets–and death–reshape a family across generations? And how might hidden knowledge brings dead memories to life? In the process, “Departure” leaves a reader with a haunted feeling, its insights suggesting that at times invisible forces can, in fact, connect family members–despite great distances and perhaps even against their wishes.
But beyond structure and suspense, a good story must speak intimately to its reader, and it must do so through a voice with its own breath. And in this case, through the voices of these three characters, we are offered a portrait in fragments, which collectively captures a family separated by the American landscape but held together by its matriarch.
Read the full article: Stories We Love: “Departure” by Nicholas Delbanco