E. L. Doctorow is a political novelist concerned with those stories, myths, public figures, and literary and historical forms that have shaped public consciousness. Even when his subject is not overtly political—as in his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times—he chose the genre of the Western to comment upon the American sense of crime and justice. Knowing that the Western has often been the vehicle for the celebration of American individualism and morality, Doctorow purposely writes a fable like novel in which he questions the American faith in fairness and democracy. At the same time, he writes from within the genre by maintaining the customary strong opposition between good and evil, between the bad guys and the good guys, and a simple but compelling plot.
The struggle in Welcome to Hard Times is between the Man from Bodie, who in a fit of rage destroys a town in a single day, and Blue, the tragic old man who almost single-handedly tries to rebuild it. The plot and characters echo classic Western films such as High Noon (1952), with their solitary heroes who oppose villains tyrannizing a community. Doctorow’s vision, however, is much bleaker than the traditional Western and cannot be encompassed by the usual shoot-out or confrontation between the sheriff and the outlaw. In fact, Doctorow’s novel implies, the West was chaotic and demoniac, and order was not usually restored in the fashion of a Hollywood motion picture. The reality of American history has been much grimmer than its literature or its popular entertainment has acknowledged. Indeed, Doctorow’s fiction shows again and again a United States whose myths do not square with its history.
It is a paradoxical aspect of Doctorow’s success that his parodies of popular genres are themselves usually best sellers. Perhaps the reason for this is that alongside his ironic use of popular genres is a deep affection for the literary forms he burlesques. The title of his first novel, for example, is a kind of genial invitation to have some fun with the pieties and clichés of the Western. Doctorow is deadly serious about the “hard times” and grave flaws in American culture, but he usually finds a way to present his criticism in a comic vein.
There is not much humor, however, in The Book of Daniel—a major political novel about the Cold War period of the 1950’s, centered on a couple bearing a striking resemblance to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed for espionage in 1954 after they were accused and convicted of stealing the “secret” of the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union. Doctorow has one of their children, Daniel, narrate the novel and investigate what happened to his parents while trying to come to terms with his own sense of radicalism. Concerned less with whether the couple are actually guilty of spying, Doctorow has Daniel search for his own identity by tracking down and interviewing those closest to his parents.
Through this personal story, Doctorow also conducts an analysis of the failure of American radicalism, of one generation to speak to another. By and large, the novel shows that 1960’s radicals do not know much about the history of the Left and that the traditional Left has done little to pass on its history, so that young men such as Daniel feel isolated, bereft, and angry about their lack of connection to a heritage of social protest.
Like The Book of Daniel, Ragtime is anchored in the story of a family—this time of a little boy who grows up at the turn of the twentieth century during events such as the development of motion pictures, polar exploration, and political upheavals led by radicals such as Emma Goldman. From his naïve viewpoint, the boy observes the explosive changes and the stresses of a society that does not know how to handle its own dissenting elements. Coalhouse Walker, for example, a proud black man who is insulted by a group of white firemen and who (more in the style of the 1960’s) resorts to violence and hostage taking, demands that society recognize his human rights.
Ragtime is similar to Welcome to Hard Times in that it has a fairy-tale quality. The prose is quite simple, descriptive and declarative, so that Doctorow could almost begin with the phrase “once upon a time.” It is clear, however, that his point is to link the past and the present, to show that the craving for mass entertainment at the beginning of the twentieth century naturally had its outlet in the invention of motion pictures, just as the urge of Arctic explorer Robert Peary and other explorers to roam the world had its industrial and societal counterpart in the mass production of the automobile. Repeatedly, Doctorow links the innovations in domestic life with great public adventures and events, fusing public and private affairs in an almost magical, uncanny manner.
The class distinctions that play an important role in Ragtime become the focal element of Loon Lake (1980), which, like The Book of Daniel, contains a double narrative perspective, shifting between the experience of a poet on a rich man’s isolated estate and a poor man’s picaresque adventures across 1930’s America. The power of the materialist, the millionaire capitalist, is meant to be balanced by the imagination of the poet, but the novel fails to measure up to Ragtime’s astonishing feat of fusing the realms of fiction and history. The poetic interludes in Loon Lake are reminiscent of the introverted, stream-of-consciousness “Camera Eye” sections of novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (1937), but they seem excessively obscure and introverted and disruptive of the novel’s narrative pace.
Nevertheless, Loon Lake has a haunting, ineffable quality, evoking a metaphorical but almost tangible sense of history which is akin to the novel’s image of the lake: a dazzling surface of ever-shifting and widening perspectives above glinting depths that are only suggested. History as mirror—refracting, distorting, highlighting, and obscuring human actions—is a palpable presence in Loon Lake. A great social novelist, Doctorow manages to describe every level and grouping of society in the soup kitchens, monasteries, mansions, and assembly lines of the United States between the two world wars.
In much of Doctorow’s work there is a tension between a naïve, childlike point of view, with fresh perceptions, and an older, ironic, detached perspective. Sometimes this split is expressed in terms of dual first-person and third-person narration, as in The Book of Daniel. In Ragtime, the narrator seems simultaneously to be the little boy and his older self, both witnessing and remembering the past. Likewise, throughout most of The Waterworks, McIlvaine appears to be describing events as they occur, but near the end of the novel he reveals that he has reflected upon this story for many years before finally telling it. Similarly, in City of God, Sarah’s father speaks in the voice of an adult describing childhood experiences in the ghetto, but at times the voice of the young messenger breaks through. World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate also seem more conventional than the earlier novels, for they are told from the standpoint of two narrators, both mature men reviewing their youth. Yet both novels unfold with such immediacy that they appear to be taking place as their narrators reminisce.
In The Waterworks, Doctorow again begins with a traditional genre: this time, the detective story. McIlvaine’s search for Martin Pemberton soon becomes a quest for truth beneath the veneer of Gilded Age society. The conflict between ethics and selfishness is once more played out within a family—the Pembertons. Most of the conflicts involve ethical decisions, and the most sympathetic characters are those whose integrity will not allow them to succumb to the corruption of the era. The most ambiguous character—and apparently the one most fascinating to Doctorow—is Dr. Wrede Sartorius, a German doctor who served as a Union Army surgeon during the Civil War. In The Waterworks, he is portrayed as an obsessed scientist who has allowed his pursuit of medical knowledge to destroy his humanity. When Doctorow returns to Sartorius, in The March, the doctor’s compassion can be seen more clearly, though his experiences as an Army surgeon eventually result in a detachment that seems to anticipate his later isolation from humanity. Perhaps McIlvaine’s interest in Sartorius’s ideas implies a similar isolation on his part, as the roles of both journalist and doctor require them to be primarily observers of human life.
Similar quests for truth and knowledge are significant elements in City of God. The novel begins with a discussion of the Big Bang theory, and references to science, particularly astronomy, recur throughout the novel, apparently suggesting a universe in which humans may be left to devise their own moral and ethical standards without the guidance of religious doctrine. One likely result is seen in the scenario devised by Everett, the writer and would-be filmmaker: A man begins an affair with a married woman, through plastic surgery remakes himself until he literally (as well as figuratively) usurps her husband’s life, and is killed by the displaced husband, who finally is convicted of killing himself in the person of the impostor. In this supposed film script, Everett deals symbolically with one’s position in the postmodern world where scientific possibility has replaced religion as the governing force in human interactions.
On an individual level, however, Thomas Pemberton (Pem) doubts the religious tenets his father taught, and his eventual rejection of the church may in part be a break with his father similar to Martin Pemberton’s renunciation of his patrimony in The Waterworks. Though no explicit link appears, Doctorow may want the reader to see Pam as both a literal and a symbolic heir of Martin. Pem’s quest leads him to explore the meaning of human suffering and perhaps even of human history. As Everett, the narrator and observer of his actions, comes to realize, humankind’s satisfaction cannot be achieved through science, violence, revenge, intolerance, or analysis of the culture; like medieval theologians, Doctorow suggests that the search for God is more significant than the conclusions one reaches.
While City of God is more overtly philosophical than most of Doctorow’s fiction, it uses some of the familiar devices. The lives of well-known historical figures, such as Albert Einstein, often parallel the lives of the major characters, usually unknown people who are searching for their own identities, often within a meaningful family relationship. Doctorow’s most innovative strategy for thematic development, though, is the interspersed performances by the Midrash Jazz Quartet. Their commentaries on the so-called standards, ranging from “Me and My Shadow” to “The Song Is You,” serve as a commentary on the characters’ thoughts and actions. When Pem hears the young nun singing these songs to McIlvaine in the charity hospital, he decides that secular songs can affect him in the same way as hymns.
In contrast, the short stories collected in Sweet Land Stories (2004) reflect their magazine roots; plots are highly compressed, with the primary focus on characters, many of whom are duplicitous. Nevertheless, these stories develop several familiar Doctorow themes: Within families, intergenerational conflicts develop, involving ethical questions; generally poor characters are relatively powerless in dealing with wealthy Establishment types; and social issues frequently are seen both in the wider context of society and in the narrower context of the family, and conventional ties can be badly strained as a result. Nevertheless, these stories have not received the critical acclaim usually accorded to Doctorow’s novels. The difference may be that the short-story format does not allow Doctorow to create his customary detailed historical backgrounds or to develop representative characters that evoke reader empathy. Thus “A House in the Plains” can be described as an unduly macabre comment on American public taste, and “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden” can be characterized as another indictment of governmental and corporate indifference to the effects of environmental pollution. Perhaps Doctorow has recognized this problem because in The March, he returned to the novel format, emphasizing representative characters as they deal with situation and issues of historical importance.
The Book of Daniel
First published: 1971
Type of work: Novel
In the turbulent 1960’s, in the midst of social protest and calls for revolution, Daniel searches for the significance of his parents’ execution for espionage.
The Book of Daniel is in many ways a political mystery story. As young children, Daniel and his sister lose their parents. Condemned as spies and betrayed by members of their own family, Daniel’s parents are martyrs in the view of the Left, which is sure they are innocent. As far as Daniel is concerned, however, his parents abandoned him, and he is doubtful that they understood the implications of their actions or how much their behavior actually played into the hands of the government that executed them.
Daniel finds it both fascinating and frustrating to try to piece together the past. When he finally tracks down the relative who informed on his parents, for example, Daniel finds that he is senile. So many years have passed that it is difficult either to re-create the feelings of another age or to determine the truth of the charges against his parents. Without a heritage he can share with others, Daniel feels isolated and without an identity. He wonders on what basis he can live his own life when he has such fundamental and apparently unanswerable questions about his own parents.
As a student of history, however, Daniel is capable of seeing things in terms larger than his own personal obsessions. The chapters of the novel alternate between first-person and third-person narration as Daniel himself swings from subjectivity to objectivity. His plight, he gradually realizes, is not so different from that of his country, which tends either to obliterate the past or to sentimentalize it. Daniel’s images of his parents lack a certain substance, as they have become figures in Cold War ideological battles, and the truth often eludes Americans who are fed a steady diet of entertaining, pacific, and nostalgic pictures of the past.
Near the end of The Book of Daniel, there is a brilliant set-piece description of Disneyland, which comes to stand for the forces in American life that threaten a complex sense of history. At Disneyland, which resembles a film set, are arranged the figures and artifacts of American history, the symbols and the tokens of the national heritage, wrenched from their social and historical context, abstracted into a series of entertainments for customers who do not have to analyze what is presented to them. This spectacle of history substitutes for the real thing, demeaning the past and replacing it with a comfortable and convenient product that need only be enjoyed and consumed.
What fuels Daniel’s anger is the way his parents allowed themselves to become symbols in the ideologies of the Left and the Right. Their willingness to sacrifice themselves, no matter what the cost to their family, appalls him. The human element, the complexity of loyalties to family and friends and country, is what distinguishes Doctorow’s novel, taking it out of the realm of the merely political while at the same time asking the most fundamental questions about the relationship between ideology and individualism. Until Daniel comes to terms with the humanity of his parents, he finds it impossible to get on with his own life and to care for his wife and child. Only by reclaiming his mother and father in terms that are far more complex than those of their public immolation can Daniel function as a husband and father.
First published: 1975
Type of work: Novel
At the beginning of the twentieth century, on the eve of world war and tremendous cultural changes, a proud black man defends his...
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