The Writer’s Craft: Nicholas Delbanco


There were complaints when the aging William Butler Yeats took poems from his youth and revised them. The complaints were so strenuous that Yeats even wrote a response, in verse:

The friends that have it I do wrong

Whenever I remake a song,


Should know what issue is at stake:

It is myself that I remake.

Yeats isn’t the only writer who’s ever taken early work and changed it. More recently, Peter Matthiessen returned to his Watson trilogy published in the 1990s and republished it in 2008 as a single narrative, “Shadow Country.” (Originally, he said, the story was supposed to be a single manuscript, but his publishers had urged him to break it into three.)

The same is true of Nicholas Delbanco, who published a highly acclaimed trilogy of novels in 1977, ’78 and ’80 centering on the life — saga, really — of a New England clan whose conflicts and celebrations unfold in the shadows of the family manse on its Vermont estate. Dalkey Archive Press last week released a revised edition of the trilogy, brought together between the soft covers of a single book, titled “Sherbrookes.” Don’t misunderstand, however: This book is not simply the three original novels — “Possession,” “Sherbrookes,” “Stillness” — bound together. It isn’t a complete revision of the original story, either. Instead, what Delbanco has done is trim the narrative excesses of his younger self and rediscover thematic echoes that occur when three books fit together snugly into one. In a recent interview, he explained the challenges of revising one’s early work.

Why did you return to the story of Judah Sherbrooke and the rest of the clan? Did the examples of other artists — Matthiessen, for instance — inspire you?

Peter Matthiessen’s long labor did certainly inspire me; even more so, perhaps, the example of Henry James in the 1909 New York Edition of his books. And poets quite often revise their own work — as do, of course, painters and musicians. Indeed, it seems to me the decision to leave well enough alone is merely that — a decision. When the opportunity was offered — via the good officers of Dalkey Archive Press — to reissue my old trilogy, I was glad for the chance to revisit what I wrote so long ago.

How is “Sherbrookes” different from the books of the original trilogy? Another way: What was your younger self like as a writer?

For openers, I cut the passages in Volumes 2 and 3 that served to tell a new reader what happened before. Such recapitulation seemed redundant in one volume. And once I began with red pencil and scissors, I found it hard to cease cutting; the entire text — sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph — could be, it seemed to me, pruned. Why not, I asked myself, improve what needed improving? Why leave a phrase intact when it could be with profit rephrased?

Is there an aesthetic connection between “Sherbrookes” and the discoveries you made in writing your most recent work of nonfiction, “Lastingness”?

I’m now much closer in age to the 76-year-old Judah Sherbrooke, the protagonist of “Possession,” than to the age of the writer who invented him; the volumes of the trilogy came out when I was in my 30s. From my present vantage, it has been astonishing to see how much I knew then, how much I failed to know.

“Lastingness” concerns itself with painters, writers and musicians who maintained — and in some cases advanced — their art past the age of 70. And it seems to me a writer’s work — no matter how varied in style or genre — resembles his or her own other work more than that of any other author. We leave our fingerprints all over every page.

Well, what should the owner of the original three books do? Give them away and just keep this one? Does “Sherbrookes” now replace the original trilogy?

I like to imagine the “collector’s items” stand as testimonial to a certain verbal exuberance and as bookends to the present book. But, yes, this newer version is the one I want people to read. The bulk of what I excised was sheer rhetorical excess; I was too fond of metaphor and the abstract generality — or so I now believe. William Faulkner and Malcolm Lowry were my masters then; these days, I’m more committed to power in reserve.