Nicholas Delbanco 1942-
(Full name Nicholas Franklin Delbanco) English-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, critic, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Delbanco's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 13.
Delbanco is best known for his works of fiction, most notably the Sherbrookes Trilogy, which traces five generations of a prominent New England family. His many novels include the experimental work In the Middle Distance (1971), a part-fictional, part-autobiographical narrative, In the Name of Mercy (1995), a murder mystery focused on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, and What Remains (2000), the story of a German-Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany to settle in England and the United States. Delbanco's short stories, like his novels, address themes of aging, masculinity, intergenerational family dynamics, the craft of writing, and tensions between the past and the present. His style is characterized by poetic language, multiple character perspectives, and narratives that jump back and forth between distinct time periods. Delbanco's several works of nonfiction range across a variety of subjects, including travel writing, literary biography, and music history.
Delbanco was born on August 27, 1942, in London, England, the son of German Jews who had left Germany before World War II to escape Nazi persecution. When Delbanco was six years old, the family immigrated to the United States, where they settled in Larchmont, New York. Delbanco graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1963 with a major in literature. In 1966 he completed a master's degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Delbanco was twenty-four when his first novel, The Martlet's Tale (1966), was published. In 1970 he married Elena Greenhouse, with whom he has two children. Delbanco has held posts at several colleges and universities throughout the United States. He taught creative writing and English literature in the department of language and literature at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, from 1966 to 1984. From 1984 to 1985 he taught as a professor of English at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1985 Delbanco was hired as a professor of English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he serves as the head of the graduate program in creative writing as well as the Hopwood Awards program. Delbanco was also a staff member at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference from 1984 to 1994. He has received numerous awards and accolades, including the National Endowment for the Arts creative writing award in 1973 and 1982, the PEN syndicated fiction award in 1983, 1985, and 1989, and the Michigan Council for the Arts award in 1986.
Some of Delbanco's earliest novels are modern stories based on biblical and classical texts. The Martlet's Tale is a reimagining of the biblical tale of the prodigal son, set in modern Greece. Fathering (1973) is a modern retelling of the Theban trilogy—Sophocles's series of plays about Oedipus and Antigone. In the Middle Distance is an experimental novel combining fiction and autobiography in a self-conscious, multi-layered narrative voice. In the Middle Distance alternates between first-person narration in the form of a journal kept by the protagonist—a fictional author by the name of Nicholas Delbanco—and third-person narration which describes the life of the Delbanco character. The novel intentionally blurs the distinctions between the real-life author Nicholas Delbanco and the fictional character who shares the same name. The plot concerns the writer's attempts to remodel his farmhouse in upstate New York while engaging in self-analysis and struggling with his creative process. Delbanco's Sherbrookes Trilogy—Possession (1977), Sherbrookes (1978), and Stillness (1980)—follows the history and genealogy of the Sherbrookes, a distinguished family from Vermont. The Sherbrookes Trilogy is written in Delbanco's characteristic poetic prose and examines the tensions between the family's past and present. In the Name of Mercy, set in a hospice care facility in Michigan, explores the topical issue of doctor-assisted suicide within the genre of the murder mystery. Old Scores (1997) describes an affair between a professor and a student on a small Vermont college campus that turns out to have a profound impact on the lives of both characters. The narrative of Old Scores moves back and forth between the time of the affair and the present lives of the characters. What Remains follows three generations of a German-Jewish family who fled Hamburg to escape the Holocaust and settled in England and the United States. The story is told from the multiple perspectives of various members of the family.
The short stories in About My Table, and Other Stories (1983) focus on men in their late thirties grappling with the experience of aging who are torn between marital commitments and their own escapist fantasies. The tales in The Writer's Trade, and Other Stories (1990) feature characters who are writers in the process of struggling with their craft and their careers. In the 1980s Delbanco began to publish various works of nonfiction, covering a wide range of topics. Group Portrait (1982) examines a group of famous writers—including Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells—who all lived in the same area of England during the early twentieth century. Delbanco discusses the professional and personal relationships between the writers and the extent of their influence on each other's writing. The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait (1985) is based on Delbanco's travels with this well-known musical trio; one member of group is his wife's father. Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (1989) recounts Delbanco's journey with his wife and two daughters through the region of Provence in southern France. Delbanco contrasts his current perspective of the region with his impressions from his previous journeys to the area. The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life (2000) includes a collection of fiction and essays on the craft of writing. The title piece is Delbanco's fictional reconstruction of an incident in which a suitcase full of original manuscripts by Ernest Hemingway was lost in a train station. In The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein Ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707 (2001) Delbanco traces the history and restoration process of his father-in-law's antique musical instrument, a rare Stradivarius cello crafted in 1707.
Delbanco's first novel, The Martlet's Tale, earned him early recognition as a promising young novelist. Gregory L. Morris has extolled In the Middle Distance for its complex narrative structure, arguing that, “What Delbanco ultimately pursues in this novel is a triple-layered examination of self and the ability to accurately declare the truths of that examination.” The novels of the Sherbrookes Trilogy have remained Delbanco's most celebrated works of fiction. Critics have complimented the poetic prose and deftly drawn characters in the trilogy and have lauded Delbanco's treatment of the family's intergenerational tensions. His novel In the Name of Mercy has received mixed assessments. Some critics have found the fictional narrative compelling and praised Delbanco for his ability to build suspense. Others have found the novel overly topical in addressing the issue of doctor-assisted suicide and observed that the book fails to adequately clarify the arguments on either side of the debate. Reviewers have been generally enthusiastic about What Remains, applauding Delbanco's skill at crafting the alternating perspectives of the novel's variety of characters. Neil Gordon has admired Delbanco's characterizations in What Remains, remarking that, “In a prose as evocative and clear as any being written in America today, Delbanco draws us into the very thought processes of his characters, showing us the past through their eyes and with the thick reality of their emotions.” Critical response to Delbanco's short story collections has been largely positive, with commentators praising Delbanco's craftsmanship and ability to evoke strong emotion through well-chosen details. Richard Eder has observed that the stories in About My Table are “written with breathtaking technique and an uncanny ability to bring a penetrating emotion up out of a gesture, a pause or a random thought.” Response to Delbanco's various works of nonfiction, however, has been largely mixed. Reviewers of Group Portrait have faulted Delbanco for failing to provide the reader with new insight or information on the authors included in the study. Despite these criticisms, the work has been commended for expressing a strong sense of affection for its subjects. Additionally, several critics have found Delbanco's accounts of his travels in The Beaux Arts Trio and Running in Place to be tedious and overwritten, offering little in the way of original observations on his subject. On the other hand, The Countess of Stanlein Restored has garnered an enthusiastic response by some reviewers, with Amanda Heller describing the book as “a little gem, a trove of fact, lore, and sensual description evoking two enduring and intertwined traditions—the art of the musician and the art of the luthier.”