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Why I Write

Nicholas Delbanco

I have in front of me a black, spring-loaded binder titled ART. A smaller version of the title has been pasted on the spine. The sturdy pebbled folder measures 11 ½ by 9 ½ inches, and the whole is an inch thick. Inside are fifty-two pages (one for each week of the year, though I doubt this was intentional) of yellowing foolscap: typed pages with glued-on illustrative photographs and postcards from the history of painting. Its author signed himself proudly, Nicholas F. Delbanco—in an upward-rising scrawl of black ink—and his title was and is THE STORY OF PAINTING FROM CAVE ART TO MODERN TIMES.

Elsewhere, I called myself “Nicky”; I was eleven years old. The dedication page reads,

I would like to thank my father for his help in supplying material and helping me learn my subject. To my mother for her kind encouragement and faith in my book. To my uncle, an art specialist, for his talks to me and helping assemble my book. To my teacher, Mrs. Landis, for her helping arrange my book. To my elder cousin, for his encouragement. To all these people and many more for their very kind and heartening help.

                                               NICKY DELBANCO

I’m struck by the term “my subject,” the threefold iteration of “my book,” then the earnest thanks for “kind and heartening help.” The author was, it seems, precocious as well as pretentious. His table of contents reads,

1. How Painting Started
2. Art in the Middle Ages
3. The Beginning of the Renaissance
4. The High Renaissance
5. Leonardo Da Vinci
6. Michelangelo and Raphael
7. The Triumph of Light
8. Towards Revolution
9. A New Breed of Artists
10. Painting in our own Time

That page concludes, in emulation of works cited in the volume’s bibliography, “Copyright 1954. First Edition.”

Most of the photographs and postcards would have come from my father’s collection; in his studio he kept a box of small-scale copies of prized pictorial art. Sometimes I traced a figure—a Stone Age bison or head by Jan Van Eyck—in pencil on the page. The typing is careful, precise. I used my mother’s Smith Corona, with its twelve-point type. On the relatively few occasions when I made a spelling mistake—this was before the era of “white-out” or spell-check—I corrected the errors by hand. Once or twice (as in “faze” for “phase”) a spelling error persists. Our author failed to include a “List of Illustrations,” but pasted in forty or more. The glue must have been high quality, for the pictures remain here attached.

The overall effect is studious and serious—almost comically so, in retrospect—and it’s hard not to read with a smile. The writer struck the pose of a dispassionate historian and scholar, describing the work of Gainsborough and Giorgione, of Hals and Hobbema, some fifty named painters in all.

Here’s a representative paragraph from his discussion of cave art.

What were these pictures for? They could have been meant to help the hunter, because some of the pictures have spears sticking into the imaginary animal. Perhaps the caveman threw stones at his masterpiece. There could also have been a spiritual meaning behind the paintings. No one will ever know for sure. A good interpretation however is that the man thought if he killed the image of the animal first, he would have no trouble slaughtering the real thing.

Why, I wonder, did I embark on this project—was it conceived of for school? I have only the most distant memory of “Mrs. Landis,” who was my seventh-grade teacher and perhaps suggested a research assignment; she would no doubt have been nonplussed by what young Nicky produced. Industrious, even indefatigable, our author tracked—as in one of the works cited in his bibliography—“The History of Painting.” Once the school year finished, I turned twelve years old.

I ask myself now if elective affinity—a predisposition to a subject—is instinctual or earned. Who knows why A can sit at a piano and, with no instruction, pick out a tune, whereas B takes years of music lessons and remains thick-fingered and tone-deaf? Who knows why C remembers poetry with no seeming-effort, but D, no matter how serious and scrupulous, forgets? At every dinner table there’s someone who can offer up the middle name of a senator from Iowa and someone else who can’t recall if a politician comes from Indiana or Illinois. We have, each one of us, a skill-set slightly different from our neighbor’s, and there’s not much point in trying to discover the source of the distinction: it’s an apple or an orange, born or bred.

So when I re-read our eleven-year-old, I’m reminded of his love of unearned generality: “Painters began also not only to paint pictures of religious meaning but to make landscapes and human figures. Of course the church tried to rule this down but near the beginning of the 1500’s there were more and more pictures of things around us. This showed a minute pulling away from the stiffness of the church and helped to free men’s minds even more. A very definite trend towards a new life had started!”

I won’t quote him further. Young Nicky did possess impressive information, but his text is chock-a-block with pronouncements of this sort: a pedant in the making with a penchant for the overview, a boy who bit off rather more than he could plausibly chew. It took me longer than it should have to understand that what powered my book were not the paintings reproduced but the language I used to describe them; here lay my true interest as well as, possibly, my gift.

For better or for worse, it’s this perception that has stayed with me through the ensuing years. Each morning when I sit to write, I feel that ancient hunter’s reverent elation when he drew an image on the rock-wall of a cave. “Perhaps the caveman threw stones at his masterpiece.” Then he might emerge to track actual quarry and, every once in a great while, succeed.

Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. The author of some thirty books of fiction and nonfiction, he lives in New York City and Cape Cod.

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