Social Critic: Civic Booster

Scholar Andrew Delbanco is a patriot who doesn't wave the flag but uncovers its hidden meanings in America's greatest works of literature

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People here at TIME, like most people in the news business, are obsessed with originality. We'd murder to find something "fresh" to write about. So it's admittedly a bit odd that we chose Andy Delbanco as America's best social critic. He is a historian of American literature, a man who looks back for a living, who reads and rereads, even in middle age, books like Moby-Dick and poems by Walt Whitman, stuff most of us leave behind after 11th grade.

But Delbanco reads America and its literature so closely and so well, finding so much meaning in our great books, even for 2001--especially for 2001--that he stands worthy of recognition. His own books and essays, most of which draw on his study of writers from Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century to Abraham Lincoln in the 19th to Lionel Trilling in the 20th, inspire Americans to revisit some of our oldest ideas and remember a time when we could speak of a "civil religion" without irony, when the notion of sacrifice for country didn't seem confined to Spielberg-Hanks movies.

Listen to Delbanco bewail our current solipsism in his fifth book, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope: "If we fail to contribute to some good beyond ourselves, we condemn ourselves to the hell of loneliness." He notes that "the highest aspiration" of our "soul-starving to keep the body forever young." He dares to use terms like destiny and Satan and still show his face in Manhattan, where Heaven and Hell are merely the names of competing downtown bars.

Which doesn't mean Delbanco is a prig. When he venerates Puritans, it's not because they were moralists but because, as his research suggests, they were more searching than self-assured, believing "that the self without God is helpless" and yet finding themselves in this confusing, isolating new land. For Delbanco, the most important thing we have lost in our age of detached sardonicism isn't morality but moral curiosity, the search for the meanings of good and evil in our confusing times.

Last year, in an essay titled "Are You Happy Yet?" Delbanco noted that "phrases like 'job satisfaction' and 'personal growth'...have become part of the language, while terms like commonweal, and even citizenship--in which there lingers a residual sense of public good and private obligation--sound archaic." Serious outward pursuits such as citizenship first require a hard look within, and we're not much for what Delbanco calls "strenuous self-reflection" these days. He notes that even Billy Graham wrote a 750-page autobiography in which he says almost nothing about his inner journey to God. "Inwardness," Delbanco writes, "should not be missing from a religious book." Nor should it be missing from a good society, Delbanco is saying.

Delbanco's contribution to such efforts comes with every student he inspires. His model would appear to be Emerson, who, "like every great teacher," Delbanco once wrote, "was in the business of trying to 'get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.'" Delbanco is doing his part to jostle her awake too.