Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In what ways is the effect of E. L. Doctorow’s novels’ enhanced by his practice of creating representative characters who interact with historical figures?

Doctorow is usually classified as an urban writer. Which novels seem to justify that description? Which ones contradict it?

Few of Doctorow’s characters are heroic in the traditional sense, but several of them are admirable because they pursue self-knowledge as well as literal truth. Which characters of this type do you find most admirable?

Doctorow has sometimes been criticized for writing fiction that is too “political.” Which of his political positions are actually controversial? Why?

Doctorow has been compared to Theodore Dreiser, a major figure in American literary naturalism, because both have written sympathetically but unsentimentally about the seamiest side of American life. Dreiser’s view of society was extremely negative, and he seemed pessimistic about the human potential for creating or even appreciating pure beauty. What elements in Doctorow’s writing seem to focus on the dark side of human nature? Are there redeeming positive qualities in some or all of his unlikable characters? Which ones?

Sometimes praised for the lyrical quality of his prose, Doctorow has maintained that his writing has been as much influenced by his parents’ emphasis upon music as by his own voracious childhood reading. In which books can you detect the underlying influence of music? Is that influence more prevalent in his nonfiction than in his fiction?