As he retired as a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor last month, Nicholas Delbanco was recognized not just as a novelist, nonfiction writer, and teacher, but also as the author of an innovative idea that set a high bar for creative-writing graduate programs everywhere: Ensure that all students can attend free.
After he arrived in Ann Arbor, in 1985, to head the graduate writing program there, Mr. Delbanco remembers, "I said to the people who hired me that there was nothing wrong with the program that $5-million wouldn’t fix."
Michigan had long had a tradition of strong undergraduate creative-writing programming. In the 1920s, Robert Frost was a poet in residence there; from 1985 through 2014, Mr. Delbanco held a professorship in his name.
But the graduate program, which had just gotten started in 1983, had to establish its own reputation. For 17 years Mr. Delbanco built it, then stepped down from its directorship in 2002 only to teach there for another 12 years. He also directed, from 1987 until last month, the Hopwood Program, a University of Michigan-based awards and support program for career and student writers.
Michigan’s creative-writing program has by now far surpassed the $5-million goal Mr. Delbanco set. "So our students are able to come for nothing, which was the dream with which I began," he says.
Between 2001 and 2013, the M.F.A. program received more than $60-million from the Zell Family Foundation, in Chicago, whose executive director, Helen Zell, is a 1964 Michigan graduate in English. Those funds allow the program, now known as the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, to provide more than $1-million a year in tuition waivers, stipends, health insurance, and postgraduate fellowships. Twenty-two students are admitted to the program annually.
Among the many salutes to Mr. Delbanco in the past decade or so is Ms. Zell’s request that a visiting professorship she endowed be named for him. Fiction Writers Review, a literary review led by a Michigan faculty member, devoted a week in December to hailing the longtime English professor’s "influential career as both a writer and a teacher."
Mr. Delbanco was born in 1942 to German-Jewish immigrants in London and came as a child with his family to the United States. He attended Harvard and Columbia Universities, completing a master's degree at the latter just after publishing in 1966, his first novel, The Martlet’s Tale.
He accepted an offer to teach at Bennington College—"insanely enough, to replace Bernard Malamud, who was taking leave"—and found during his 18 years there an artistic community that helped shape a credo of literary apprenticeship that he still holds: "It's inappropriate at best and criminal at worst to expect people to go deeply in debt to follow this particular passion." In contrast to the experience of, say, law, business, and medical graduates, "if you go to an M.F.A. program, certainly a writing program, the odds on your being able to repay $100,000 in debt are very slim."
The prospect of large debts keeps away a diverse range of young writers, among them some of the most talented, he says. His full-ride remedy has raised the stakes for the best writing programs. Many do not have the funds to pay students’ full costs, so they offer work-study packages of varying worth or pitch "low-residency programs" to aspiring writers with paying jobs.
Mr. Delbanco believes that more programs could find benefactors by professing that universities have developed the programs not as money makers but to fulfill the "high charge" of cultural advancement.
He recommends countering any skepticism about the value of writing programs by noting that professional musicians or dancers would hardly take the stage without intense training. Similarly, aspiring writers may benefit from following a medieval-guild-like model: Apprentice to the trade, "and after six or seven years of sweeping the floor or mixing the paint," receive journeyman papers and "ideally become a master craftsman."
Mr. Delbanco’s own variant of that path was a self-imposed regimen of persistent early-morning writing that in January will result in his 29th volume, The Years, a novel. His writing has encompassed essays, short stories, and a 2008 fictionalized account of a most unlikely genius, inventor, and spy, The Count of Concord, born Benjamin Thompson in Massachusetts in 1753.
He has written about artists who died young—The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts (2013)—as well as Lastingness: The Art of Old Age (2011) about the relatively few who maintained their craft past the age of 70 even though, as he says, "there's no intrinsic reason why an artist couldn't grow with age."
And that is what he intends to demonstrate in his own retirement.