Remembering E.L. Doctorow, great American mythologist

Author E.L. Doctorow, photographed here in 2004 in his office at New York University, died at 84.

Author E.L. Doctorow, photographed here in 2004 in his office at New York University, died at 84.

(Mary Altaffer / AP)

E.L. Doctorow, who died Tuesday of complications from lung cancer at 84, was perhaps the most American novelist of his generation. More than Philip Roth or John Updike, more even than Norman Mailer, Doctorow created fiction that existed at the intersection of American myth and hypocrisy.

His first novel, “Welcome to Hard Times” (1960), written while he was a reader for a movie company, took the conventions of the western and upended them, highlighting the inevitability of evil, or at least of chaos, and our weakness or indecision when faced with it.

But it was only with the publication of his third novel, “The Book of Daniel” (1971), that Doctorow truly found his métier, blending history and imagination to tell the story of Daniel Lewin, adult son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, a couple modeled on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and, like them, executed at the height of the Cold War.

Daniel is a tormented character, adrift amidst the radicalism of the 1960s, on the run from history. That, in his case, history was both personal and collective made him a quintessential Doctorow character.

“Every book has its own voice,” the author told me in 2006. “I think there’s a kind of ventriloqual thing that goes on when I write. I don’t ever want to hear my own voice; it’s one of the worst things that can happen. ... In ‘The Book of Daniel,’ I wrote 150 pages and threw them away, they were so bad. It wasn’t until I realized that Daniel should write the book, that it should be his voice rather than mine, that it began to work.”

This quality of looking beyond himself, of seeking stories that were broader than personal testimony, was what set Doctorow apart. Each book was a different experience, with its own set of challenges and expectations.

In “Ragtime” (1975), he crafted a big American novel inspired by John Dos Passos, juxtaposing historical figures such as Emma Goldman, Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit with characters of his own creation to tell a story of the United States at the turn of the last century, a nation of possibility on the one hand and scabrous inequality on the other. In “The March” (2005) — his last great novel — he reimagined Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march as a kind of native Grand Guignol.

“When you use a historical character like Sherman,” he explained, “it’s your Sherman. You’re doing what a painter does when he paints a portrait. It’s a rendering. ... Whether the character is publicly known or not publicly known, you’re doing the same thing.”

“Ragtime” was Doctorow’s breakthrough book, a bestseller and winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, it was made into a film in 1981. It also led to the author being considered a historical novelist, which both was and wasn’t the case.

Certainly, much of his writing dealt with the past: “Billy Bathgate” and “World’s Fair,” set in the Bronx of the 1930s; “The Waterworks,” a tale of 19th century New York. But Doctorow was equally at ease with contemporary characters and their conundrums.

His finest novel, I think, remains 2000’s “City of God,” which brought together subjects as diverse as the Holocaust, theology, quantum physics and the inexplicability of love to explore nothing less than the nature of reality and the validity (or lack thereof) of faith.

Doctorow could work that way. He was deeply influenced by the Transcendentalists, taking the title of his 2003 essay collection “Reporting the Universe” from Emerson and recasting Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield” into a memorable short fiction of his own.

“A novelist,” he said simply, “partakes of many identities.”

He traced this sensibility to his Depression-era upbringing in the Bronx, where, he said, his household was “split down the middle between the religious impulse and the irreligious impulse. … Yes, I was bar mitzvahed, but my grandfather gave me a copy of Tom Paine’s ‘The Age of Reason.’ So it’s always been that way with me, that nothing dogmatic was stamped on my soul.”

As a result, perhaps, he became a highly intuitive writer, bound less by labels — political writer, historical writer, Jewish writer — than simultaneously inside and outside these categories all at once. This was true, as well, of his process, which required feeling out the shape, the textures, of a story; he never knew where he was going when he began.

“[I]t’s like driving a car at night,” he told the Paris Review in 1986, describing what it was like for him to work on a novel: “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

At the same time, he also insisted, intuition alone was not enough. In that same Paris Review interview, he described the rigors, even, of composing a brief note to a teacher when his daughter was a young child.

“She gave me a pad and a pencil.” Doctorow remembered. “So I wrote down the date and I started, ‘Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline ...’ and then I thought, No, that’s not right, obviously it’s my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again. ‘Yesterday, my child ...’ No, that wasn’t right either. Too much like a deposition. This went on until I heard a horn blowing outside. The child was in a state of panic. There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor, and my wife was saying, ‘I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this.’ She took the pad and pencil and dashed something off. I had been trying to write the perfect absence note. It was a very illuminating experience. Writing is immensely difficult.”

Twitter: @davidulin



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