Andrew Delbanco is Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia. He is at work on a book about the United States in the 1850s.
 (April 2016)

Mysterious, Brilliant Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass
Some years ago, after giving a talk at a college in Louisiana, I was approached at the podium by a middle-aged white man who said, with a genial smile, “Since you mentioned Frederick Douglass, I thought you’d be interested that my family used to own him.” His matter-of-factness was a …

Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality

Members of the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the oldest collegiate a cappella group in the United States, early 1950s
Colleges and universities cannot be expected to solve America’s problems of inequity. They cannot repair broken families, or make up for learning deficits incurred early in childhood, or “level the playing field” for students with inadequate preparation. But they should be expected to try to mitigate these problems rather than worsen them—and one main reason they are failing to do so is their relentlessly rising cost.

The Civil War Convulsion

Winslow Homer: Young Soldier, 1864
“The real war will never get in the books.” This may be the most famous sentence ever written about the Civil War, at least by a writer of literary consequence. But what kind of reality did Walt Whitman have in mind when he made that claim more than 130 years ago? And considering the scores of thousands of Civil War books that have appeared since, how well has the prediction held up?

The New Adventures of Abe

Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, 1846
Anyone who writes about Lincoln has a problem: his story is so well known that it’s all but impossible to tell it with suspense or surprise. In their 2012 movie, Lincoln, Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg solved this problem by focusing on a single episode, the struggle to pass the …

The Two Faces of American Education

To read Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch in sequence is like hearing a too-good-to-be-true sales pitch followed by the report of an auditor who discloses mistakes and outright falsehoods in the accounts of the firm that’s trying to make the sale. Both books are driven by hot indignation.

‘The Central Event of Our Past’: Still Murky

James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte in Montgomery, Alabama, during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, March 1965
Is there a decent way to commemorate war? May and November holidays, parades and monuments, placing wreaths, playing Taps? At Gettysburg, a few months after some 50,000 men and boys had been killed or wounded there, President Lincoln spoke of “our poor power to add or detract” from their heroism.

New Travels with Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Tuxedo, New York, 1907; photograph by Isabel Lyon from ‘Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress,’ a recent exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. The catalog is published by the New York Public Library.

Andrew Martin: It seems like the public perception of Twain remains the guy on the porch, this sort of genteel Southern nostalgia. Andrew Delbanco: That’s a part of him, but to the extent that he puts it out there as his public face, it’s a construction. He was immensely sophisticated about a lot of things, with the possible exception of investment practices, which he wasn’t so good at. I think you can make the case that he was fundamentally a travel writer. I mean, he was children’s writer, he was a young-adult storyteller, he was a social critic, he was a lot of things. But his mode was really just to watch the world go by, and he was a relentless, compulsive traveler. Even if he was living in the same town, he would move constantly: he had multiple addresses in Washington, multiple addresses in New York, and so on and so forth. And then he took many long and arduous trips to Europe and around the world, often under financial pressure to make money by speech-making and by writing travel articles. It’s really in his travel writing that you find him at his most alert.

His Own Best Straight Man

Mark Twain, Tuxedo, New York, 1907; photograph by Isabel Lyon from ‘Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress,’ a recent exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. The catalog is published by the New York Public Library.
He would have loved it. Dead for a hundred years, but climbing the best-seller lists with a memoir whose publication he deferred for a century till everyone mentioned in it, along with anyone who remembered them, would be dead too and in no position to complain. Since he lived (1835–1910) as if a single lifetime could not contain him, it’s entirely apt that he’s back with a posthumous encore.

Mark Twain is sometimes imagined as a shambling fellow with a slow drawl (there are no known recordings of his voice), but in fact, he was incessantly restless, edgy, tight-wired, rarely at rest. In one three-month period while living in Washington, he moved five times.

Tough Love and Revelation: The Films of Frederick Wiseman

Titicut Follies (1967)

The first film by Frederick Wiseman I saw was Titicut Follies (1967). It was the fall of 1969, my freshman year of college, too long ago to trust my memory scene by scene. What I mainly remember is the festive mood in the dining-hall-turned-theater as the lights went down and latecomers ducked under the projector’s cone of bluish light as they made their way to sit with friends across the room. A very cool senior had made introductory remarks to the effect that what we were about to see had been “banned in Boston” (always promising), and I think we half-expected the local police to show up as if we had gathered in Rick’s gambling den in Casablanca (1942). I remember a little snickering during the opening pan across the expressionless faces of the inmates singing “Strike up the Band” while they wave—tentatively, almost spastically—their pompoms. But once the film started, there was only silence in the room, interrupted now and then by a gasp.

Dreams of Better Schools

Eighth-grade students working out algebra problems at Robert Treat Academy, a charter school in Newark, New Jersey, September 16, 2008
When Mike Rose, who teaches in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, made some positive remarks about public schools on a call-in radio show a few years ago, one listener phoned in with disbelief: he said he “didn’t know one seventeen-year-old who could make correct change.” Others followed with …

The Universities in Trouble

Drew Gilpin Faust during her swearing-in as president of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 2007. She is holding College Book I, a compilation of official Harvard records from 1639 to 1795.
Since the financial meltdown began to accelerate last summer, the world has changed utterly for colleges and universities just as it has for everyone who had not been stashing cash under the mattress. Along with failing banks, auto manufacturers, and insurance companies, universities have been making headlines—especially those whose gigantic …

The Right-Wing Christians

Some people think the following two propositions cannot both be true: (1) The founders of the United States believed that churches should be protected and encouraged. (2) The founders of the United States believed that government should not assist or support churches. In fact, there is nothing contradictory about these …

Scandals of Higher Education

On the Tuesday before last Thanksgiving, The Harvard Crimson ran a protest article by a sophomore majoring in economics. His cause was the abolition of classes for the whole of Thanksgiving week. Since few students like to stick around past the weekend before the holiday, he wrote, Harvard ought to …

The Endangered University

Along with freedom, the other sacred word in today’s college is “diversity.” Nearly sixty years ago, the Harvard “Red Book”—the famous faculty report on general education published in 1945 when the end of World War II was in sight but not yet at hand—identified the coming challenge of postwar America …

Colleges: An Endangered Species?

Every middle-class American family with a college-age child knows how it goes: the meetings at which the high school counselor draws up a list of “reaches” and “safeties,” the bills for SAT prep courses (“But, Dad, everyone takes one; if you don’t let me, I’m screwed”), the drafts of the …

In Memoriam

Late in 2001, when a financial backer pulled out his investment, the magazine Lingua Franca became, as Ron Rosenbaum put it in The New York Observer, an “orphan of the academic storm.” For a while, there were hopes that someone would come to its rescue and adopt it, but no …

An Experiment in Darkness

In the winter of 1829, a baby girl was born not far from Hanover, New Hampshire, to a farming couple named Daniel and Harmony Bridgman. The Bridgmans were churchgoing Baptists. Shortly after the girl, Laura, had passed her second birthday, scarlet fever attacked the family. With versatile cruelty, it killed …

Night Vision

A critic who continues to be read twenty-five years after his death is sufficiently rare to be called, in the colloquial sense of the word, a phenomenon. The odds are against it, in part because criticism tends to be entangled in a web of current references that unravels over time, …

Sunday in the Park with Fred

In the 1850s, much of New York City was still a place where one could experience something like country darkness and quiet. Above what is now called “midtown,” stretches of the Hudson and East River shores of Manhattan were thickly wooded, with a few houses built on large tracts of …

The Decline and Fall of Literature

A couple of years ago, in an article explaining how funds for faculty positions are allocated in American universities, the provost of the University of California at Berkeley offered some frank advice to department chairs, whose job partly consists of lobbying for a share of the budget. “On every campus,” …

On Alfred Kazin (1915–1998)

My copy of Alfred Kazin’s masterpiece, On Native Grounds (1942), is an English edition printed in accordance with wartime production standards on cheap paper and bound in boards not much more rigid than matchbook covers. It was bought by my mother in a London bookstall in 1943, the year the …

The Risk of Freedom

When the successful cloning of a Scottish sheep a few months ago raised the specter that human beings might soon be making genetic copies of themselves, a Senate subcommittee on public health and safety convened to consider the matter. “Humans are not God,” Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri declared as …

The Great Leviathan

Son of one Revolutionary War hero and son-in-law of another, Allan Melvill had, as we would say today, good connections. Among the cousins of his wife, Maria, were the Van Rensselaers, and his own name was honored in the genteel circles of Boston and New York. But he failed miserably …