I began this somewhat lengthy essay several Octobers ago, soon after E.L. Doctorow’s death. It has since lain dormant on my hard drive with nowhere to go. So here it is.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow died last summer. I didn’t hear about it until nearly three months later, when I happened to read his entry in Wikipedia.
For a long time now, E.L. Doctorow has been among the writers I most admire. My favorite Doctorow novel is Ragtime; it’s probably everyone’s favorite. The book’s prose style seduced me years ago. Considering how steadily my regard for his fourth published novel has risen over the years, it surprises me to remember it didn’t hook me until my second reading. The first time I set it down after a few dozen pages, and didn’t pick it up again for a year.
Doctorow has been lauded as “a serious writer who is also popular; a political writer who is also a stylist; an original writer who is highly eclectic; a historical writer who invents the past.” He was all of those things, but in this essay I look at Doctorow not as a literary critic, but as a writer upon whom his influence has been enormous.
Other favorite Doctorow novels are The Book of Daniel, Billy Bathgate, World’s Fair, and to a lesser extent Loon Lake. I can’t help but wonder about the genesis of any creative work I admire. Where does this stuff come from? Where does reality end and invention begin? Doctorow’s blend of historical fact and fiction, a technique he used many times to great effect, adds a layer to the question.
A clue to his process came in a 1971 conversation with another favorite writer, William Kennedy, when the latter still labored as a journalist and book critic. “The novelist,” Doctorow said, “has to break through the facts to get at the truth. And if he feels constrained by the facts, to that extent he’ll fail.”
As Doctorow told it, he might never have written Ragtime if he hadn’t been creatively drained after The Book of Daniel.
One day I was sitting in my study, on the top floor of my house in New Rochelle, and I found myself staring at the wall. Perhaps I felt it was representative of my mind. I decided to write about the wall. And then about all the walls together. “My house was built in 1906,” I wrote. “It is a great, ugly three-story manse, with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. When it was new the shingles were brown and striped awnings shaded its windows...” I then imagined what New Rochelle looked like when the house was new. In those days trolley cars ran along the avenue at the bottom of the hill. People wore white in the summer. Women carried parasols. I thought of Teddy Roosevelt, who was president at the time. And the blank page of my mind began to fill with the words of a book.
Something in Ragtime’s narrative voice suggested to me it knew everything. An author must, after all, have authority; Jane Smiley says writers should strive for this. I’ve had similar reactions to the prose of Philip Roth and Donald Barthelme: something in their tone giving evidence, at least to me, of an encyclopedic grasp of the world.
The narrative voice of Ragtime became at least as important to me as the story, probably more so. I imagined Doctorow in front of his typewriter on the top floor of his New Rochelle home, improvising on the theme of blank walls. “My house was built in 1906. It is a great, ugly three-story manse...” These exploratory lines, so similar to the eventual opening of Ragtime, are pungent with inspiration.
Perhaps, at the time I discovered E.L. Doctorow, I needed a new literary hero. I had outgrown Jack Kerouac. I’d left behind the Teachings of Don B; Donald Barthelme’s fragmented style was, in the end, too fragmented. (Don B loved fragments, he once declared to a crowded press conference held in a laundromat – but that’s another story.)
As he wrote Ragtime, Doctorow seems to have enjoyed a state of grace. An anecdote that goes to the novel’s creation is almost spiritual. As Marie Arana explained in The Writing Life, Doctorow
puzzled over one tiny point of American history. He wanted to move his character from Depression-weary New York City to Lowell, Mass., via trolley, “from one town to the next, tossing a buffalo nickel in at the end of every stop on the interurban trolley line.” The trouble was that he didn’t know whether such a trip would be possible. [*]
He was roaming the inner recesses of the library one evening, pondering the difficulties of that question, when suddenly he caught sight of a brazenly orange book leaning toward him from the business shelf. “It was the color that drew me,” he says, still marveling at the mystical nature of the moment. “When I picked it up, I saw that it was a corporate history of the trolley car business. Exactly the stuff I needed.”
Another clue to the Doctorow process came in an interview with the National Book Foundation. “I was not the kind of writer who could walk into a party and listen to the talk and see how the people were dressed and what they were up to and who was sleeping with whom and then go home and write a story about it,” he said. “I was not given to literary realism; I was not a reporter, I needed distance, I needed a dramatized voice to work in. Whatever light came to me would have to shine through a prism of invention.”
But not invention from whole cloth – and for me this is the crux of the matter. Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, and Billy Bathgate, among others, are all rooted in historical fact. Doctorow once called World’s Fair “the most autobiographical of the books,” and said he “used myself as material for the composition, as I would use anything else from any other source.”
How much of E.L. Doctorow, the author, is in Edgar, the child narrator of World’s Fair? And how much is in Daniel, the protagonist and sometimes-narrator in The Book of Daniel? Doctorow gave each of these characters an identical experience: witnessing a horrific accident by a neighborhood school, where a playground had been carved into the side of a hill.
On a school day a Chevrolet coupe ran up the sidewalk on Weeks Avenue and knocked a woman through the chain link fence atop the high wall. With her bag of groceries she fell the two stories to the schoolyard below. She had been carrying bottles of milk. They had broken and the milk spread in pools about her body. Then her blood seeped into the milk. The front half of the car stood pushed through the fence, its wheels hanging over space and spinning ... [ambulance attendants] put her body on a stretcher and put a blanket over it. It lay there while police and doctors consulted. Then the attendants carried the body to the ambulance. I watched the woman’s arm, which had slipped off the edge of the stretcher: it bobbed in rhythm with the unhurried pace of her stretcher bearers.
That’s the World’s Fair version. The same episode is in The Book of Daniel.
Once, playing on the porch, he had seen a woman walking along the fence right here, coming home past the school. In her arms she had two bags with groceries. As he looked up and saw her, a car skidded up on the sidewalk and smashed her right through the schoolyard fence, and she disappeared. The front end of the car was stuck through the fence, and the wheels turned in the air. The police came, and there were a lot of people, and when he went across the street to look, the woman was lying down in the schoolyard; she had been carrying bottles of milk in her grocery bags, and the bottles had broken and the milk was mixed with her blood, and glass was in it. She was dead and they carried her to the Eastburn Avenue end in a stretcher, with a blanket over her, and her arm hung over the edge of the stretcher, bobbing up and down as if she was still alive.
Surely this incident is drawn from the author’s personal experience. It intrigues me that Doctorow felt free enough to use it twice (at least) in his novels. I’d love to know more; my tiny bit of preliminary research has thus far come up empty.
Parallel wordings and observations appear elsewhere in Doctorow’s work, like one in World’s Fair and Ragtime, which must come from the author’s private musings. Consider this phrasing from World’s Fair, when Edgar is in his grandma’s bedroom.
On the top of the chest was my grandma’s prayer book, her Siddur, and the cover had those Jewish letters on it that looked to me like arrangements of bones.
In Ragtime, the femme fatale Evelyn Nesbit passed through New York’s Lower East Side, and
saw stores with Hebrew signs in the windows, the Hebrew letters looking to her eyes like the arrangements of bones.
The grandma character also shows up in The Book of Daniel. Like her World’s Fair counterpart she fights a losing battle with dementia, wrongly suspects her daughter of poisoning her food, and smokes legally obtained marijuana for medicinal purposes.
And what of the handyman? He’s a big and muscular man living beneath the home of Edgar in World’s Fair (where he’s known as Smith) and Daniel in The Book of Daniel (known as Williams)? In each book he performs similar tasks, like shoveling coal, and is intimidating, in equal measure, to both young protagonists.
These are among the details I cannot help but notice and cannot help but wonder about, as I ponder the mystery of the creative process. How was Doctorow’s life, and how is any writer’s life, folded and molded, formed and reformed and reinvented into fiction? I have similar questions about Philip Roth, whose Zuckerman novels are so obviously patterned on his experiences. Yet Roth cautions against taking anything for granted. “By the time you feed this material through the meat grinder,” he told an interviewer on BBC 4, “it comes out a strange kind of hamburger, you know, which isn’t you.” Or as E.L. Doctorow put it, “There is no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction. There’s only narrative.” And no absolute answers. The examples cited here instruct and influence me; they allow me to conduct my own experiments in fiction.
In the end, what is it about the novels of E.L. Doctorow that so attracts me? One of the things I most love are those isolated sentences and paragraphs scattered throughout his work; spectacular rushes of words that astonish me. Consider this early passage in Billy Bathgate: the teenaged street urchin-narrator, a fledgling criminal, is about to be attacked and beaten by his envious street urchin friends. His sin? Catching the eye of Dutch Schultz, the notorious gangster, who sees promise in him and has given him a ten-dollar bill.
“Watch this,” I said, holding forth the bill but really extending my arms to hold the circle, because before the attack comes there is a kind of crowding movement, an encroachment on the natural territorial rights of the body; and taking the crisp bill in my fingers I folded it once lengthwise, and once again, and then tightly twice more to the size of a postage stamp and then I did a hocus-pocus pass of the hands over each other, snapped my fingers, and the ten-dollar bill was gone. Oh you miserable fucking louts, that I ever needed to attach myself to your wretched company, you thieves of the five-and-ten, you poking predators of your own little brothers and sisters, you dumbbells, that you could aspire to a genius life of crime, with your dead witless eyes, your slack chins, and the simian slouch of your spines – fuck you forever, I consign you to tenement rooms and bawling infants, and sluggish wives and a slow death of incredible subjugation, I condemn you to petty crimes and mean rewards and vistas of cell block to the end of your days. “Look!” I cried, pointing up, and they tracked my hand, expecting to see me pluck the bill out of the air, as I had so often their coins and steelies and rabbits’ feet, and in the instant of their credulity, as they stared upward at nothing, I ducked under the circle and ran like hell.
By the early 1950s the unpublished Doctorow had graduated from Kenyon College and was an Army veteran. An abandoned novel sat in his desk drawer. He was near a turning point. From 1955 to 1959 he worked as a reader for CBS TV and Columbia Pictures. He read a novel per day, many of them Westerns, and wrote a summary of each. “I knew how many bad books were being published,” he said. “I thought I could lie about the west better than the people I was reading.” His 1960 debut novel Welcome to Hard Times resulted from this insight – but it was not a typical Western, and deliberately so. “What intrigued me finally was the idea of taking a disreputable genre and making something out of it, writing quite seriously in counterpoint to the reader’s expectations.”
Doctorow biographers will probably make much of an episode from his high school days, when the future novelist wrote in counterpoint to the expectations of an English assignment to find and describe a colorful person.
Doctorow soon delivered a brief biography of Carl, a doorman at Carnegie Hall who had escaped the Holocaust and came to work every day with a thermos full of tea, which he drank Old-Europe style, through a cube of sugar held between the teeth. The great classical musicians of the day, like Vladimir Horowitz, adored the guy.
Edgar’s teacher was so enamored of the piece that she told him she wanted to photograph Carl and run the picture, along with the story, in the school newspaper.
“You can’t do that to Carl,” Doctorow replied.
“Why not?” asked the teacher.
“Well, he’s very shy,” he said.
“What do you mean, he’s shy? He talked to you, didn’t he?”
“Not really,” Doctorow confessed. “There is no Carl. I made him up.”
She slashed an F across the story.
Recalling this years later, Doctorow said, “It seemed to me so much more sensible to make something up than go through the tedious business of interviewing someone. I was just a kid and so maybe I was scared that no one would want to talk to me. And I figured that if there wasn’t a Carl the doorman, there should have been.”
As an editor at Dial Press Doctorow acquired William Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck, and the two became lifelong friends. “Ed was at the very top level of American writing and I think of him as one of the successors to Faulkner,” Kennedy said, not long after Doctorow’s death. “I feel something has gone out of American life with Ed gone and the other great writers we’ve lost.” He meant Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, and several others. “In a certain sense, those were the guys I was talking to when I was writing. We were having long conversations with each other and the world in our novels.”
Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, Billy Bathgate and World’s Fair are among those rare books I can, and do, re-read every few years. Their influence continues. By reading and re-reading his work, and trying to get inside of it, E.L. Doctorow became one of my great writing instructors. Confession: I have yet to read most of his later novels. One of them, The March (2005), is on my bookshelf. I’ve picked it up and put it down before. It’s about time to pick it up again.
This essay was written, in fits and starts, between October 2015 and May 2016. Is it an appreciation or homage? I do not know.
[*] I could probably have described this more succinctly, but I wanted to include this less-succinct excerpt from The Writing Life to correct an irritating error: Ragtime is set not in the Depression, but 1906. Sorry to be such a bitch, but I couldn’t resist pointing that out. (Maybe it is just a sloppy sentence.) The Ragtime character in question, known only as “Tateh,” was in fact fleeing himself, and what he perceived as personal failure.