Nicholas Delbanco's family has Italian roots going back 600 years, to Venice, and for many years his parents lived, as refugees from Mussolini's Italy, in London, where he was born and lived for the first few years of his life; he therefore has a winning combination of Italian ebullience and English courtliness. And in his latest novel The Vagabonds (his 16th work of fiction), he has written what he sees as a very consciously American book. "This time, after writing often about elsewhere, I really tried to compass this country."
The novel takes its name from a high-powered group who in the early years of the 20th century wandered the woods and back roads of America on annual trips where they pretended to rough it while enjoying each other's company along with the services of retainers and a splendid chef. They were none other than Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs, and Delbanco came across the details of their escapades when he was asked to curate a show of their artifacts at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn—in the bailiwick of the University of Michigan, where he has taught for 20 years.
The idea of this quadrumvirate and their catered travels was so appealing that, Delbanco admits to PW over a recent lunch, he nearly made them the center of the book. "In the end, I couldn't see it working at any length." Instead, he made of them a kind of deus ex machina for the story he actually devised: an invented member of their entourage impregnates a young woman at one of their stops, and the wealthy Vagabonds, anxious to avoid a scandal, settle upon her a number of shares of what would eventually become General Motors.
In the course of the succeeding century this develops into quite a fortune, and is the surprising legacy inherited by three contemporary Americans on the death of their grandmother, who had kept her strange gift secret all her life. The Vagabonds is the story of how this windfall changed the lives of the three: an apparently settled married woman whose life has suddenly gone awry, a sister who has never come to terms with her life, and a footloose, dilettante brother. "I've always been interested in the idea of inheritance, and the impact it can have on people, 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," Delbanco muses.
The author describes what must seem to many like a charmed publishing career. He went to Harvard where, abjuring the notion of entering the family art business (his father still paints daily at age 95), he sought out some "great writing teachers," and graduated, with a book contract from Atlantic Monthly already in hand, at age 23. He straightaway began teaching at Bennington and has been a pedagogue, largely in creative writing, ever since. Over the years he has compiled a hefty oeuvre of novels and stories—most of them initially at Morrow, where he was a great friend of former editor-in-chief Jim Landis, and left when Landis did, 20 years ago. Then he made the acquaintance of Warner president Larry Kirshbaum, a noted Wolverine loyalist, and since then his fiction has been published there, under the watchful eye of publisher Jamie Raab.
The new novel is in fact dedicated to them. "They've both been wonderfully and attentive to me, though I'm sure my books aren't big on their balance sheet." His other works, essay collections and books on aspects of the writing life (most notably The Lost Suitcase, a book of suppositions about celebrated literary situations that springs from the disappearance of a bag containing irreplaceable Hemingway manuscripts) appear either from Columbia University Press or small literary presses.
Delbanco is a prime mover at the writers' program at the University of Michigan, whose alumnae are probably second only to Iowa's in their publication record—and it's a far smaller school, with 40 students compared to Iowa's 140, "and we have 30 applicants for every place." Does he think creative writing schools impose a kind of sameness of approach on their graduates? "On balance I'd say we do less harm than good."
In fact, his daughter Francesca is a Michigan MFA graduate—though Delbanco didn't teach her himself—and recently published a first novel, Ask Me Anything, at Norton; another daughter, Andrea, works at Time. To round out a distinguished family circle, Delbanco's father-in-law is Bernard Greenhouse, cellist for 40 years of the celebrated Beaux Arts Trio, and one of the author's smaller books was a study of his distinguished cello and its history.
One of the risks of his kind of prolific output, Delbanco agrees, is that of repetition. "So I keep trying new things, as in The Vagabonds, trying to discover how the past influences and changes the present, and experimenting with the narrative voice, trying to create a different one for 1916 and 2003. I hope I've been successful but if people don't think so I won't complain. I've always disliked the prima donna aspects of the profession; I just feel grateful to those who've paid attention."