Delbanco on the art of old age
by Keith Taylor
Nicholas Delbanco has been in Ann Arbor for almost thirty years now, first brought in as director during the early days of the U-M MFA program in creative writing, now universally recognized as one of the top three such programs in the country. It's a job that takes a particular combination of skills--part diplomat, part bureaucrat, part fundraiser, part publicist, part teacher, and most important, part artist. Despite all his other duties, Delbanco has taken himself to his writing desk each morning, and the result has been impressive. In the list of publications at the beginning of his latest book--Lastingness: The Art of Old Age--there are eighteen novels, six books of nonfiction, and another nine edited volumes. It is a list that would take any writer a few decades to compile.
And those decades provide the case and the motivation for this book. Delbanco admits it early on: "This book is about the tribal elders in the world of art. What interests me is lastingness: how it may be attained. For obvious reasons, this has become a personal matter; I published my first novel in 1966 and very much hope to continue." Much of the book comprises thumbnail studies of artists in different media and genres who have accomplished major work after the age of sixty. Some are studied in depth, some merely mentioned--Eubie Blake, Sophocles, Hardy, Monet, Haydn, Matisse, Henry Moore, Pablo Casals, Yeats, Picasso (with the recognition that he is likely sui generis), Georgia O'Keeffe, Tolstoy, and the list goes on.
Although Delbanco recognizes that reasons vary for the late success of some artists--good genes and good luck contribute--he finds patterns in the lives and careers of his subjects. First of all, they seem to have been able to retain a fresh curiosity, an "unabated desire, unflagging expressive ambition; old age slowed and changed but did not staunch their need to look, listen, or write." In addition, these great elders all seem to have been unwilling
to repeat themselves, to replay their past successes: "What [the old creative artist] may lose in brilliance he gains in objectivity; what she relinquishes in prowess she gains in grasp and reach. It's adaptive energy that is entailed in 'lastingness,' not mere sheer repetition." An aging baby boomer who hopes for the possibility of another twenty-five or even thirty years of continued work--oh, someone like myself, for instance--can find something of more than interest in this book; he or she can find a significant straw that we can cling to.
Nicholas Delbanco reads from and discusses Lastingness: The Art of Old Age at Nicola's Books on February 8.
[Originally published in February, 2011.]