A Q&A with Nicholas Delbanco
Author photograph by Rob Hess
To make an attempt to summarize Nicholas Delbanco’s work in a few sentences poses a difficult challenge. Arguably one of America’s most underappreciated major writers, Delbanco is the author of nineteen novels, two collections of short fiction, nine book length works of non-fiction and nine other miscellaneous titles that include Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work (co-edited with Alan Cheuse) and Literature, Craft & Voice (also with Alan Cheuse).
Delbanco is perhaps best known for his Sherbrookes trilogy (Possession (1977), Sherbrookes (1978), and Stillness (1980)), which was recently collected into a single volume by Dalkey Archive Press. The Sherbrookes novels are about a Southwestern Vermont family in a town very much like our own North Bennington, and would appear to focus on the inherent madness that exists inside every genealogical unit. However, I believe it’s fair to say that the trilogy deals with this particular strain of insanity on a very magnified level.
Besides being an acclaimed writer, Delbanco is also a teacher. Having taught at such impressive institutions as Trinity, Williams, Skidmore, Columbia, The University of Iowa, and finally at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Nicholas Delbanco is the Emeritus Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature, he’s also a veteran of Bennington’s literature faculty, having taught here from 1966-1984. We conducted this Q&A with Delbanco over email.
Literary Bennington: You’ve taught at a number of different colleges and universities. How was Bennington different when you were on the faculty?
Nicholas Delbanco: I taught at Bennington for nineteen years and loved and love the place. The Bennington I arrived in, in 1966, was a school that supported artists and where creative work prospered. We—by which I mean not only the writers but painters and sculptors and dancers and musicians—were primus inter pares in terms of honored endeavor. Though the other places where I’ve taught each have much to commend them, I continue to think of this small school as a large locus for art. Whether it remains that way in present actuality I of course can’t say…
LB: Jonathan Lethem, Jill Eisenstadt, Bret Easton Ellis, David Lipsky, and Donna Tartt were all students at the end of your time at Bennington. How do you feel about their work and the fact that they took the summer writing workshops that you founded? How many of these writers did you teach yourself?
ND: Jill, Bret and David were all students in my prose fiction workshop; I knew the other two glancingly but not to teach. They had and have great talent, all, and I’m very proud of the fact that they were part of our shared enterprise. But I think it neither wise nor useful to attempt a ranking of their gifts.
LB: I’m aware that you taught alongside Alan Cheuse, Bernard Malamud, John Gardner and Stephen Sandy. Do you have any favorite memories about the literature faculty at the time that you’d like to share?
ND: This is, I’m afraid, a question I must duck. There are too many of them to include in a brief written response; it’s, after all, the ore of twenty years you ask me here to mine. I loved and admired my colleagues and, at the request of the families of Bernard Malamud and John Gardner, have edited their work. It falls upon me now, alas, to do the same as Alan Cheuse’s literary executor; he died this last summer. To offer “favorite memories” would be to write a book.
From left to right: Arturo Vivante, Sandy, Linda Pastan, Peter Pastan, Maxine Kumin, Nicholas Delbanco, Ben Belitt. From 1983.
LB: The novels in the Sherbrookes trilogy were inspired, in part, by the Park-McCullough House in North Bennington and are very deliberately set in southwestern Vermont. What was it about the town and the region that you were trying to capture?
ND: Forgive me if I quote from the afterword to the reissued and single-volume, Sherbrookes; it seems worth repeating and foolish to rephrase:
“At the age of twenty-four, I moved to southwestern Vermont. There, teaching at Bennington College, I fell under the spell of the landscape and dreamed a deep-rooted dream. Instead of change, I came to value constancy; instead of geographical variety, I wanted to write about those who stayed put. Staring up at the Green Mountains, I grew vegetables and a beard, learned to ski and rototill, and began to think myself, if not a native, at least sufficiently immersed in it to focus on New England. I still can remember, and clearly, the day I decided to try.”
“It was 1975…My wife and I were living in a farmhouse on the grounds of the Park-McCullough house, a large and imposing Victorian structure in the village of North Bennington. I walked the trails and meadows daily and knew the property well. At a certain point on one of those walks—a fork in the road in a wood, as it happens, with a gate overlooking a pasture—I understood this was the place I had come to call home, not Greece or France or London or New York or Timbuktu. I can remember telling myself there was no point pretending otherwise; I was an American writer and needed to set a book here. Before all else, therefore, I knew my novel’s location; it came prior to the story line or characters or any conflict between them. And since I knew the owner of the Park-McCullough mansion, I asked his permission to use the locale. He gave it.”
And thereafter came a very lengthy tale…
LB: Were the sidewalks of North Bennington really paved in marble?
ND: Indeed, they were. They gleamed at night and were elegant as well as cheap; marble was abundant then and mined in local quarries. A few local folk, however, appear to have slipped on wet marble slabs in the winter, and the town fathers took advantage of this newfangled thing called concrete—as well, no doubt, of some sort of subsidy for road improvement—and levered the marble all up…
LB: What was it like having John Updike as your professor?
ND: Splendid. His was one of the most penetrating intelligences I’ve had the good luck to encounter, and—though he wasn’t a natural teacher (by which I mean he preferred to make his living as a writer from his desk in Ipswich) I was very lucky to have his gimlet-eyed attention and, later on, support. The first lines I wrote for Updike were the first of my first book.
LB: Can you tell us about your friendship with James Baldwin? What are his qualities as a writer that you most admire?
ND: I seem to be referencing old books but don’t like to repeat myself. I wrote about our friendship at some length in Running In Place: Scenes from the South of France, a memoir (and again in an essay called “The Dead,” in a collection titled Anywhere Out of the World). We were neighbors in the South of France, and I never tired of his articulate eloquent presence, his razor-sharp sense of justice and injustice, his keen and noticing eye.
LB: Tell me about Arturo Vivante. I understand that you brought him to Bennington?
ND: I did indeed. Like almost any reader of the period (the 1960’s and 1970’s), I’d read and admired his short stories in The New Yorker, and when I discovered that we were neighbors on Cape Cod, in the small town of Wellfleet, it proved a simple thing to ask Arturo if he’d care to join our faculty. He did, for several years, and we were lucky to have him: a gentle and generous man.
LB: I couldn’t help but notice that you coined the term “literary incest.” How is this different from literary influence?
ND: I didn’t in fact coin that term; it was used by a reviewer in Newsweek—Peter Prescott, if memory serves. My novel, Possession, came out in 1976; that year John Gardner also published his novel October Light and wrote about my characters, “Judah Sherbrooke and his bare-nekkid wife” as part of local lore. It was exciting for me; my wife and I made a kind of cameo appearance in his novel, and I’d been written about before, but never did I have a creature of my imagination figure in that of another author’s. So I returned the compliment in the second of the Sherbrookes trilogy, and wrote about James Page and his difficult sister and how he shot out their TV. The critic noticed this and, when reviewing my book for Newsweek, complained about the way the two of us were in a kind of creative bed together. I took it not as insult but praise.
LB: What is your next book? Is it fiction or non-fiction?
ND: For the last years and even decades I’ve tended to alternate between bouts—or seizures—of fiction and non-fiction. And since my last published book was a collection of letters (Dear Wizard: The Letters of Nicholas Delbanco and Jon Manchip White), and two books before that were about the artistic process in old age and youth, (Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, and The Art of Youth) it felt like time again to resume the fictive mode. So I’m at work on a novel and keeping fingers crossed.