Thursday, 23 July 2015


I was on BBC Radio4 Front Row yesterday, discussing E.L. Doctorow with Samira Ahmed. Although I was saddened by his death, it was a privilege to be able to convey some of my enthusiasm for his work, and for him as a person, to a wider audience. You can link to that broadcast here; our segment starts about 16 minutes in, but really it's worth listening right through from the start, it's that good a programme.

Doctorow's work is always about relations of power—whether class, financial, racial, physical or whatever, and how the imbalance of those relations is at the core of the American experience, if not the core of the American Dream. It is always about the problems of America, the way those at the bottom experience the City on A Hill. It's easy to miss, because the stories themselves are so engrossing, the characters so well drawn: his historical figures blend with his invented ones, reinforcing his insistence that he was not writing historical fiction. Take The March, published when he was 74. It's as good a Civil War novel as anyone had written in a long time, but at heart it's about the way, even before the war was over, the rebellious southerners were being welcomed back into the fold, and the newly 'freed' slaves were being found a status not much different from slavery.

I met Doctorow once, at a debate organised by the New Yorker (with whom I was on good terms at the time, though never good enough to sell them anything) and the Sunday Telegraph at Cheltenham Ladies College, probably about 25 years ago. I was standing by myself at the pre-debate reception, and two guys standing next to me drew me into their conversation. 'Hi, I'm Joe, this is Ed,' one of them said, and a few seconds later I dissolved into fan boy status as I realised I was talking to Joe Heller and Ed Doctorow. It was one of the finest half-hours I've ever spent: the discussion never got near literary gossip; it covered real topics, and had mobile phones been invented I would even now be bombarding you with selfies.

Doctorow was maybe the last of the politically involved novelists from the time writers of fiction (and excellent non-fiction) were considered important pundits, rather than retreating to academia and ceding the high ground to the screeching beltway hacks who now populate the airways and leech into print. He was younger than Vonnegut, Mailer, or Vidal, but like them he accepted a public presence. He and his Kenyon classmate Paul Newman helped keep the Nation, America's pre-eminent left-wing weekly, afloat for years, and Doctorow contributed many fine essays to it. And like Mailer, and Roth (who is two years younger) he may the last of that generation of novelists educated in New York's public schools and then WASPy private colleges. I mentioned on Front Row that Doctorow's academic career reads like a character from a Philip Roth novel (Marcus, from Indignation, actually).

What was important from Doctorow's time at Kenyon was his study with John Crowe Ransom, one of the godfathers of 'New Criticism'. There's an interesting essay to be written about how New Criticism's analysis of Modernism helped generate Post-Modernism. Mailer and Vidal followed the modernist greats, with Vidal picking up a post-modern sort of irony; but Vonnegut and, with less flash but more variety, Doctorow, clearly embraced a post-modern sense of narrative. I mentioned how Doctorow's narrative strategies changed with each book: Loon Lake, perhaps the most extreme example, might be compared with John Hawkes.

But it was Doctorow's sense of history that inevitably defines his writing. John Updike hated Ragtime, saying Doctorow was 'playing with helpless dead a gravity-free faintly sadistic game'. But I can't think of a writer less sadistic to his characters. One often has the feeling the author wishes the characters could be something other than what they are, but that what they are is simply too powerful, too real, to change. The famous story about staring at a portrait of J.P. Morgan by Edward Steichen to 'research' his character rings absolutely true. It's also why I like his first novel, Welcome To Hard Times, so much. Many of the obituaries repeated the line that the book started out as parody, but even were that Doctorow's original intent, his sense of parody became one of deconstruction. I look at the book as a precursor to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, and Berger's novel as a sort of precursor to Doctorow's bigger novels. The film of Welcome To Hard Times isn't great; Burt Kennedy's scripts were always better when someone else directed them, but you can see Henry Fonda gets what the book was about. In passing, it's odd how that great wave of post-modern novelists: Heller, Doctorow, Vonnegut, Mailer, Berger, Barth, Pynchon, were either ill-served or served not at all by Hollywood. I sometimes wonder if too many of Doctorow's novels end in melodrama and violence, and if those genre novels he edited at NAL did affect him, but it occurs to me that an imbalance of power in society is almost always enforced by violence, and protested by violence. Hard Times is about what happens when society is ill-equipped to deal with rampant evil; that's a classic western trope, but Doctorow's idea is that it is really endemic in our society.

I mentioned the New Criticism; Doctorow was a fine editor at New American Library and Dial Press. His obits mentioned the big names he edited, everything from Mailer and Baldwin to the unlikely pairing with Ayn Rand. But Ed Brubaker wrote today about how it was Doctorow who commissioned Jules Feiffer's The Comic Book Heroes; the first serious study of comics, and one that looked wryly at the America those early super-heroes represented. I mentioned to Samira that World's Fair might be my favourite of Doctorow's novels, and I spoke of the sense it gives me of the time in which my parents grew up; but I realised too that part of my pleasure in that book is the way our knowledge of what became of the world since then burnishes our memories of 1939. It was published in 1985, as if to say, look what we came out of, look at how high our hopes were, and now you want to turn the clocks back to the age of greed?

I ought to explain as well that I don't consider Waterworks his best novel, but in its style and structure it may be his best piece of prose writing. I haven't even mentioned Billy Bathgate or The Book Of Daniel, either of which might head many people's list of favourite Doctorow books, but we do mention them in the Front Row talk. I recommend his short stories too, and especially his essays, which approach literature and politics with the same caring that he shows his fictional characters. He gave a graduation address at Brandeis, and after the college edited the copy for its magazine, The Nation published it in full. It was almost a Jeremiad, an effort to remind the students of the world they were about to enter, and remind them more of what they could bring to it with the learning they had just received. Couching his words in almost literary theory, but using an uncharacteristic vituperative approach, he talked about how we were seeing a 'national regression to the robber baronial thinking of the 19th century—nothing less than a deconstruction of if we were not supposed to be a just nation, but a confederacy of stupid murderous gluttons.'

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