The narrator of Nicholas Delbanco’s big new historical novel, The Count of Concord, tells us near the end of it “that Franklin Roosevelt said the three most interesting men, the three most impressive minds in our country’s history were Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and my ancestor Ben Thompson.” Like most people when first confronted with that sentence, I would have nodded my head a bit dully at the first two and drawn a complete blank on the third. Indeed, until I checked the acknowledgments at the end of the novel, I thought Thompson might be Delbanco’s invention entirely. Even after I saw the references to Thompson’s Collected Works and to the “definitive study” of him, part of me suspected that the novelist might have made up everything.
After all, in more than twenty books, Delbanco has proven himself not only a stylist of the first order but often a master of invention. When he has found the perfect combination of style and subject (as he did in the autobiographical-seeming novel What Remains), the books crackle with the texture of the lived-world. In The Count of Concord Delbanco is able to adapt his style to his eighteenth-century subject so easily that we become convinced of the invention.
It turns out that Benjamin Thompson was very real. Born in 1753 in Massachusetts, he married a rich widow when he was still a very young man. He had already proved himself a restless intelligence, entering into correspondence with friends about scientific issues, but he made one big mistake: he chose loyalty to the king during the American Revolution. He provided information to the British army (yes, he was a spy) and had to flee his homeland, abandoning his wife and daughter. He prospered in Europe, first gaining knighthood in England and then becoming a count of the Holy Roman Empire in Bavaria, where he designed and built the famous English Garden in Munich, besides conducting important studies on the nature of heat and light. He developed soups to feed the poor, and redesigned fireplaces to make them less smoky and more efficient. If he had stayed in America, we would all know him. The fictional descendant who composes this fictional biography (actually written by Delbanco) tells us we don’t know him “because he picked the losing side, because his sympathies were Tory and history gets written by the stay-at-homes.”
Delbanco, who tells us in a note that he worked on this novel for a couple of decades, has found in Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, a perfect metaphor for the restless American intelligence. The book first feels like a picaresque novel of the late eighteenth century, but something more is happening here. The few moments when Delbanco steps away from Thompson to the aging woman, Thompson’s descendant living in the twenty-first century who is writing the story of her forebear, permit him to add his reflections on history and storytelling, thoughts the count himself might have valued: “The tyrant, time, is undermined then overthrown by memory: a year may be forgotten while an afternoon endures. Nor should we measure by the clock the likelihood of lastingness; a minute can well matter more than does a week.”
Nicholas Delbanco reads from The Count of Concord at the U-M’s Rackham Amphitheater on Thursday, October 30.