Lives of the Poets

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Readers do not expect to find in a collection of short fictions—in this case, “six stories and a novella”—the same degree of narrative continuity one finds in a novel, but readers do expect some continuity: similar character types, settings, plots, at the very least “style.” Consequently, what will especially disconcert readers of Lives of the Poets is the absence of any continuity whatsoever until partway through the closing work, at which point the reader slowly begins to realize that Lives of the Poets is not an author’s more or less random gathering of short fictions and not even the kind of unified collection exemplified by James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and John Cheever’s The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. Rather, it is a disguised novel, E. L. Doctorow’s most artfully ambiguous and most subtly crafted work to date, a brilliantly conceived and subtly unified meditation on the individual’s search for self, on the increasingly difficult and necessary process of making lives, as well as poems and stories, in the contemporary age. Lives of the Poets is itself in process; its meaning unfolds not in any one of its parts but in the evolving relationship that exists in the writing and reading of those parts. Only in the title novella does the reader discover that the confused narrator, Jonathan, is (or, more ambiguously, appears to be) the author of the six preceding stories, which are autobiographical in a double sense. Not only do they derive from materials drawn from Jonathan’s “real life,” as that life is described in the novella, but also, and more important, they evidence, by their variety as much as their content, Jonathan’s search for a distinctive authorial voice, the literary equivalent of the search for one’s own self.

Jonathan appears directly only in the closing novella and the opening story. “The Writer in the Family” is Jonathan’s backward glance at two related events: his father’s death in 1955 and, shortly after, his metaphorical birth as a writer—the three letters he wrote at his aunt’s request and in his father’s voice. Written to protect Jonathan’s ailing grandmother from the news of her son Jack’s death, the letters soon raise old family hostilities, of which the writer was apparently unaware. The letters also “implicate” him in his father’s life in two quite different ways. They enable the son to know his father imaginatively and in this way to understand more clearly both the man’s failings and his dreams, especially his dream of a sailor’s life on the free and open sea. The letter writing also forces Jonathan to become his father, to adopt Jack’s voice, and that entails his losing his already tenuous hold on his own life, his own voice. Thus the irony of Doctorow’s title: The family is at once the wellspring of the writer’s art and the prison that limits his personal and artistic freedom. The relationship between art and life and between the writer and his world, the son and the father, remains problematic.

However disconcerting it may be for Doctorow’s readers, it is entirely appropriate that in the next story Jonathan should in his quest for authenticity adopt a new narrative voice and a style so entirely different from the realism of “The Writer in the Family” that the reader may very well lose sight of the important connections between the two works. Also told in the first person, “The Water Works” is cast in the form of nineteenth century Gothicism, to which Jonathan-Doctorow adds a dash of Franz Kafka. The detective-narrator follows a mysterious “black-bearded captain” into the labyrinthine waterworks building, where, to their horror, they discovera small human bodypressed against the machinery of one of the sluicegates, its clothing caught as in some hinge, and the child, for it was a miniature like the [toy] ship in the reservoir, went slamming about, first one way and then the next, as if in mute protest, trembling and shaking and animating by its revulsion the death that had already overtaken it.

Instead of pursuing the captain, who carries the body off to the city, the narrator remains at the waterworks to ponder this new and more troubling mystery of human limitation, as imaged in the body of the drowned child struggling futilely against the sluicegates and against death, and to feel “the oppression of a universe of water”—the same water which in the previous story is associated with the father’s dream of freedom.

The sense of human limitation becomes still more acute in “Willi,” told by yet another first-person narrator whose distinctive style reflects his own particular and evolving sensibility. As the story begins, the thirteen-year-old Willi feels a transcendental oneness with his world; gradually, however, as the harmonious song of the universe modulates into “a woman’s pulsating song in the act of love,” the Emersonian vision gives way to the sight of his mother (a “headless corpse”) and tutor copulating in the barn. “I was given double vision, the kind that comes with a terrible blow.” No longer a child but not yet a man, Willi feels both betrayed and aroused. His mother’s sin becomes his guilt over his sexual fantasies. Fearing that he will be caught, he goes to his father “for absolution,” confessing not his own dreams but his mother’s adultery. His confession implicates him both in his father’s brutal revenge and in the eventual destruction of the godlike father who had lived “in the pride of...

(The entire section is 2279 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book World. XIV, November 11, 1984, p. 3.

Library Journal. CIX, November 15, 1984, p. 2161.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 25, 1984, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXXXIX, November 17, 1984, p. 515.

The New Republic. CXCI, December 3, 1984, p. 31.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, December 6, 1984, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, November 11, 1984, p. 1.

Newsweek. CIV, November 19, 1984, p. 107.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, September 28, 1984, p. 99.

Time. CXXIV, December 24, 1984, p. 69.