Andrew Delbanco is Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia.
 (November 2016)

IN THE REVIEW

On the Election—II

Donald Trump
All American elections tend to be touted as historic, for all American culture tends toward the condition of hype. Flummoxing, then, to be confronted with a struggle for political power in which, for once, all is at stake. We have long since forfeited the words to confront it, rendering superlatives threadbare, impotent.

Mysterious, Brilliant Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass

The Lives of Frederick Douglass

by Robert S. Levine

Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American

by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier
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

Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream

by Suzanne Mettler

The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion-Dollar Problem

by Joel Best and Eric Best
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 Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War

by James Oakes

The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It

edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean
“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

I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

by Jerome Charyn
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 …

NYR DAILY

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.

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.