Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Waterworks is twenty-eight chapters of disjointed recollection in which McIlvaine, an elderly former news editor, recalls from some indeterminate time in the future incidents of 1871 in New York: his search for a missing freelance book reviewer, Martin Pemberton, and Martin’s tycoon father, Augustus Pemberton. First, the cynical Martin announces that he has seen his supposedly dead father in a horse-drawn omnibus with other stupefied old men. When Martin is missing, McIlvaine summons Edmund Donne, one of the only honest policemen in the New York run by William “Boss” Tweed and his ring of corruption. Donne and McIlvaine question Martin’s artist friend Harry Wheelwright. One night, Harry and Martin go to Woodlawn cemetery and hire some men to dig up the body of Augustus. In the coffin, they find the body of a boy. Donne and Sarah Pemberton, Augustus’s wife, engage in a romance, and Sarah learns that Augustus deliberately disinherited her and her young son Noah by liquidating all of his assets before he died.
Sifting evidence, Donne finds an orphanage in which no graft passed hands. Eustace Simmons, Augustus’s right-hand man in his slave-trading business, is the director, and Dr. Sartorius, who signed Augustus’s death certificate, is the attending physician. Donne surrounds the orphanage, rifles through the building, and finds the emaciated Martin Pemberton in a hidden cell. Martin, however, is traumatized and cannot talk....
(The entire section is 546 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Waterworks, set in New York City in 1871, poses the lives of Doctorow’s characters against the background of significant social and political change. Civil War idealism has deteriorated into selfishness at all levels: “A conspicuously self-satisfied class of new wealth and weak intellect was all aglitter in a setting of mass misery.”
Robber barons control the city’s financial life, and the newspapers refuse to print anything negative about them, even when several die and leave their families as paupers. Graft and corruption dominate the city’s political life; no business or civic projects can exist without payoffs to Boss Tweed’s notorious political machine. Most judges, prosecutors, and police officers take bribes.
Millennial religious groups are challenging traditional religious authority and actively opposing scientific inquiry. Scientists suggest public acceptance of scientific inquiry has progressed little beyond the antidissection riots of one hundred years earlier. The enthusiasm for technological advances, celebrated by Walt Whitman, no longer exists.
These elements are significant in The Waterworks’s plot as McIlvaine, editor of The Telegram, searches for his lost reporter, Martin, the self-disinherited son of recently deceased tycoon Augustus Pemberton. Immediately before his disappearance, Martin told family and friends that he had begun to doubt his own sanity because twice...
(The entire section is 582 words.)