If you have ever seen E.L. Doctorow, on stage, in a restaurant, or even across a crowded room, you know that he’s a mild-mannered Clark Kent kind of guy, more likely to be registering a voter or building a harpsichord than rousing a rabble or leading a charge. And if you’ve ever heard him, at a committee meeting or reading his own words, you know that he’s a man of measured merriment, to be counted on to stay calm, as if the culture’s fever blisters were susceptible to sweet reason, as if hate radio and Fox News were squeaky insect creatures on an ammonia-smelling planet in some other, colder solar system.
Then why is this man furious? There he is, up at Harvard, delivering the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, published as Reporting the Universe, thinking out loud about Emerson and Poe, Melville and Whitman, Jack London and Robert Frost, the Constitution as our sacred text, secular humanism as our civil religion, pluralism and theocracy, fundamentalists and “ecstatic literalism,” loyalty oaths and blacklists, reading as an act of faith, doubt as crucial to ethics, the Tower of Babel, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Mark Twain’s Becky Thatcher, and personal stuff left out of Lives of the Poets (1984) and World’s Fair (1985)—his father who sold music, his mother who played piano at silent movies, his grandfather the socialist.
There hasn’t been such a generous batch of essays in the decade since his own Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution (1993), which spoke of Dreiser’s yearning, Orwell’s masochism, Jimmy Carter’s “vapidity,” Dick Nixon’s triumphal return to power in 1968 (“the exacted revenge of the pod people”) and Papa Hemingway’s eagerness for battle as an opportunity and an aesthetic (“War is the means by which one’s cultivated individualism can be raised to the heroic. And therefore, never send to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls so that I can be me”).
And even as he prepared these lectures, he must have been writing the five cautionary tales in Sweet Land Stories, where people have jobs in dime stores, laundromats, tattoo parlors, and Dairy Queens, where babies are kidnapped while Patsy Cline is singing on the car radio, and abused young women go to jail or loony bins, and severed heads show up in gunnysacks after houses and orphans burn to the ground, and FBI agents wonder why nobody in the White House really cares how the body of a six-year-old Hispanic boy got into the Rose Garden, and the elders of a cult of true believers on a Kansas commune take up arms after Judgment Day has come and gone, their Cyclone Prophecy was obviously mistaken, and their Leader has run off with all their money and another man’s wife.
Inscrutably violent: like the local news and Doctorow’s previous collection, Lives of the Poets. A peasant boy in turn-of-the-century Galicia destroys his family by tattling on his mother to his father. A child’s body is found pressed against a sluice gate in a reservoir that looks like a Mayan pyramid. A schoolteacher in a factory town will be hunted down in her own classroom, behind her autoharp, by the driver of a yellow bus. A curator of pre-Columbian art jogs early one morning right into the middle of a terrorist bombing that dismembers little girls in Catholic school. And social-control theorists cannot decide if a new subversive class has planned an antisocial action to be triggered by a concatenation of such code words as “Night. Ladder. Window. Scream. Penis…. Patrol. Mud. Flare. Mortar…. President. Crowd. Bullet.”
Who does he think he is, Joyce Carol Oates? John Cheever also comes to mind, another charmer with skeletons in his liquor cabinet. In Shady Hill and Bullet Park, there was lighter fluid instead of vinegar in the mixed green salad, a wife shot her husband dead as he hurdled the living-room couch, and a little girl’s neck was broken on a ski tow. “Finally,” Doctorow said in The Waterworks, “you suffer the story you tell.”
It can’t be that he’s furious because he wants attention, although he deserves more, as a writer who has quietly amassed a shelf of books that are as serious-minded as they are beautifully crafted; who is at once a radical historian, a cultural anthropologist, a troubadour, a private eye, and a cost-benefit analyst of assimilation and upward mobility in the great American multiculture, as well as the chronicler of the death of fathers, the romance of money, and the higher “latitudes and longitudes of gangsterdom”; who has put on more narrative glad rags and jet-propelled pulp-fiction sneakers than a Condé Nast cafeteria—western, sci-fi, gothic, gangster, ghost, fairy tale and fable, historical or philosophical romance—sort of like Melville’s Confidence Man; and who can’t stop going to the movies.
Should we really be surprised that the best movie ever made from a Doctorow novel stuck the closest to his own script? Welcome to Hard Times doesn’t count; Hollywood did what Hollywood does to first novels by unknowns, despite Henry Fonda’s best intentions. Neither does the Robert Benton pale facsimile of Billy Bathgate, from a Tom Stoppard script, which the novelist refuses to discuss. But Three Screenplays clearly shows that Sidney Lumet honored Doctorow’s own recasting of The Book of Daniel, in which the self-hating son of Communist martyrs who very much resemble Julius and Ethel Rosenberg tries in his passage from electric chairs to Disneyland to find a role in contemporary politics worthy, not of his parents, the Isaacsons, but of his sister Susan, Franny to his Zooey in this cold war. Still, can you imagine Timothy Hutton saying of his feelings for his sister, “We understand St. Joan: You want to fuck her but if you do you miss the point.”
Whereas the 160-page screenplay Doctorow wrote for Ragtime, thinking it would be a Robert Altman extra-vaganza (six hours on the big screen, ten hours for a television miniseries), was of no use whatsoever to a Milos Forman set on jettisoning as many characters as possible to focus on Coalhouse Walker (Doctorow speaks of Forman here as “pathetic and contemptible”). So goodbye and amen to Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, Emiliano Zapata, and the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike. The Broadway musical was closer to the novel. And no one so far has wanted to make a movie of Loon Lake, from Doctorow’s screenplay or any other. It seems to me his weakest novel, anyway—I haven’t read Big as Life, and I bet you haven’t, either—although it would be nice to see some director rethink a Great Depression to include the Ludlow massacre, the Seattle general strike, the Pinkertons, and the troubled actress Frances Farmer.
But he is furious. He is furious because somebody has done to his country what Milos Forman did to his novel. Already, in Jack London, he had gone after Ronald Reagan’s Counter-Reformation of the Greedheads, so you can imagine how he feels about Bushwackery. Up at Harvard, staring down from the steep perspectives of those nineteenth-century writers who performed “as de facto prophets created by their new country to speak in its voice,” appalled at a Republic—his and our America—up for sale to the highest-bidding aerospace corporation, investment banker, energy conglomerate, or insurance cartel, E.L. Doctorow finds himself in hell:
The instructive image is from Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXV. We are in a pouch of the Eighth Circle, where the thieves reside. A typical transaction occurs between a thief and one of Hell’s manifestations, in this case a monstrous six-legged lizard-like creature who leaps onto a thief, wraps its middle feet around his belly, pins his two arms with its forelegs, and, wrapping its rear feet around his knees, swings its tail up between his legs and sinks its teeth into his face. And so intertwined, monster and thief, they begin to melt into one another like hot wax, their two heads joining, their substances merging, until a new third creature is created though somehow redolent of both of them. And it slowly slithers away into the darkness.
Yes! I submit that as various as the many genres he explores and exploits, there are even more multiples of the man of letters himself, a skinwalker and a shape-shifter, a John Doc Passos and a Scott Edgerald, a James T. Farrow and an E. Dash Hammett. He has been, at different times and even simultaneously, a magus, a stormbird, a sherlock, and an Ancient Mariner. But two of his aspects predominate. As much as he is Citizen Doctorow, he is also the Prophet Edgar.
Citizen Doctorow is the public intellectual who delivers the lectures and writes the essays that cohere in such books as Reporting the Universe and Jack London. The Prophet Edgar shows up when he wants to or needs to, in essays, stories, novels, and screenplays, heartsick, awestruck, ecstatic, scornful, possessed. He speaks in Reporting the Universe of “a spiritual sort of alternating current” that keeps the writer swinging pole to pole. From his nonobservant father, he inherited a humanism “that has no patience for a religious imagination that asks me to abandon my intellect.” But on his mother’s side he received “a spontaneously felt sense of the sacred” that “engages the whole human being as the intellect alone cannot.”
To which add the Yiddish accent of his Bronx boyhood with Tolstoy, jazz, and L. Frank Baum, the High School of Science where Kafka encouraged him to write a story called “The Beetle,” the big surprise of Kenyon College in Ohio, where he read Matthew Arnold, and mastered the New Criticism at the neat feet of John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell, followed by a stint in the army, occupying Germany, and a stretch as a reader for a film company where he parsed far too many westerns, resulting in that first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), set in a Dakota territory he had never seen, later to be travestied on the big screen, and then a second, the science fiction Big as Life (1966), suppressed by its own author ever since.
No matter where Edgar goes, the Prophet sees things the rest of us can’t—dark signs, frigid depths, evil devices, raven droppings, tiny golems, counterterrorists, cuneiform and hieroglyphs—as if he is blessed or cursed with a spectral sonar, eavesdropping on the future or catching ghostly glimpses of the past, like the New York City Melville saw in nightmare fogs, a nineteenth-century “negative print” of our modern metropolis—“a companion city of the other side,” Doctorow says in a Jack London essay, “some moral hologram generated from an unknown but intense radiation of historical energy and randomly come to imprint on our dreaming brains.”
No wonder, then, that he recalled, in his 1989 commencement address at Brandeis University, a member of the class of 1959, the clown prince and media apache Abbie Hoffman, who had thrown fistfuls of dollars down on the heads of the brokering beasts on the pampas of the Stock Exchange—who had done his shamanistic best to levitate the Pentagon:
He got people terribly mad, Abbie, and for very good reason: He was insufferable. He was insufferable because he held the mirror up so that we saw ourselves. That’s just what the biblical prophets did, they operated in just that way. Wasn’t it Isaiah who walked abroad naked to prophesy the deportation of the Jews? And wasn’t it Jeremiah who wore a yoke around his neck to prophesy their slavery?
Not only had Doctorow known Abbie in the 1960s; he put him into The Book of Daniel (1971) to say something about “the generally sacrificial role” the left has played in American history. His Abbie Hoffman/Artie Sternlicht was in too much of a hurry to have the time of day, still less the historical purchase, for such ambassadors from a wounded Old Left to the crazy New as pathetic Daniel or his sick sister Susan. According to the Yippie motormouth:
You want to know what was wrong with the old American Communists? They were into the system. They wore ties. They held down jobs. They put people up for President. They thought politics is something you do at a meeting. When they got busted they called it tyranny. They were Russian tit suckers. Russia! Who’s free in Russia? All the Russians want is steel up everyone’s ass. Where’s the revolution in Russia?… The American Communist Party set the Left back fifty years. I think they worked for the FBI. That’s the only explanation. They were conspiratorial. They were invented by J. Edgar Hoover. They were his greatest invention.
Unfortunately, the prophet Abbie didn’t make it to the screen in Lumet’s movie, in spite of their shooting his scene from two different angles. In an interview with Paul Levine, the editor of Three Screenplays, Lumet himself concedes that by omitting Hoffman, the film failed to make the connection that had mattered so much to the novel: “This is why we have no American Left today, because it cut itself off from its roots.”
Still, there is no shortage of naked Isaiahs or yoke-wearing Jeremiahs elsewhere in Doctorow, speaking a heightened, hallucinatory language—even elsewhere in Daniel, as Daniel and Susan are attacked by a “giant eye machine” with insect legs and an incinerating beam, and dive with open arms into shock therapy and revolutionary space, as if to die “on a parabolic curve.” Ragtime (1974) is prophetic in its bowels: in Sarajevo, Houdini having failed to warn the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, “the green feathers of the plumed helmet turned black with blood.” In Egypt, on his camel, J.P. Morgan is surprised to find the pennant-winning New York Giants baseball team swarming “like vermin” over the Great Sphinx, sitting “in the holes of the face.” And in Mexico, in the great desert “of barrel cactus and Spanish bayonet,” the bomb-making Younger Brother will at last find Zapata.
In Loon Lake (1980), a poet discovers Japan’s Bunraku puppet theater and takes it personally (“yes it’s exactly true…when I decide to do something someone else is propelling me when I look up at the sky or down at the ground I feel the talons on my neck”) while a carny worker contemplates the plutocrat he will become by prestidigitation (“he was a killer of poets and explorers, a killer of boys and girls and he killed with as little thought as he gave to breathing, he killed by breathing he killed by existing he was an emperor, a maniac force in pantaloons and silk slippers and lacquered headdress dispensing like treasure pieces of his stool, making us throw ourselves on our faces to be beheaded one by one with gratitude”). In World’s Fair (1985), the most autobiographical of all Doctorow’s novels, it’s hard to know which is more prophetic, Edgar’s ether dream of his dead grandmother (“my own terrible passion, with my eyes turned into the past as if rolled up in my head, and I seeing what was dead and gone in the disconnection from my own forwardness through time, as if, becalmed and drifting to stillness, to inanimation, the mind sees death as life”) or the burning of the zeppelin Hindenburg:
They were not supposed ever to touch land, they were tethered to tall towers, they were sky creatures; and this one had fallen in flames to the ground…. Everything around me was going up and down, up and down. Joe Louis hit Jim Braddock and Braddock went down. I had seen paintings in books of knights fallen from their horses, or horses fallen, and in King Kong there was the terrible shaking of the earth by the falling of the great dinosaurs in battle. And, of course, Kong himself had fallen. Just recently I had seen an old man in the street suddenly drop to his knees for no reason at all, and then topple to one side and sit on the sidewalk leaning back on one elbow, and I had found that terrifying. In bed, trying to sleep, I imagined my father stumbling and crashing to the ground, and I cried out.
When Dutch Schultz is gunned down in Billy Bathgate (1989), we are told that his “monologue of his own murder” isn’t poetry; it is more “a cryptic passion.” But a cryptic passion can pass for prophecy:
The fact is he lived as a gangster and spoke as a gangster, and when he died bleeding from the sutured holes in his chest he died of the gangsterdom of his mind as it flowed from him, he died dispensing himself in utterance, as if death is chattered-out being, or as if all we are made of is words and when we die the soul of speech decants itself into the universe.
City of God (2000), as much as prophecy, is also full of prayer: “Wherever you look in the world now, God belongs to the atavists.” And:
Oh, Lord, our Narrator, who made a text from nothing, once more I dare to speak to You and of You and inevitably from You in one of Your inventions, one of Your intonative systems of clicks and grunts and glottal stops and trills.
Let us celebrate the constancy of the speed of light, let us praise gravity, that it is in action the curvature of space, and glory that even light is bent by its force, riding the curvatures of space toward celestial objects as a fine, shimmering red-golden net might drape over them.
But let us leave this portion of the sermon with some sentences from Lives of the Poets:
Maybe like that poet in Yeats who lies down to die on the king’s doorstep because he’s been kicked out of the ruling circle. Yeah, that’s what this place is, that’s what I’m doing here, and if I die, let the curse be on their heads. What else can this mean except that I’ve been deprived of my ancient right to matter? Yes, you mothers, I of the Untitled Thread Mills, a mere man of words, will sit once more in the councils of state or a dire desolation will erupt from the sky, drift like a fire-filled fog over the World Trade Center, glut the streets of SoHo with its sulfurous effulgence, shriek through every cracked window, stop the singing voice of every living soul, and make of your diversified investment portfolio a useless thing.
Whatever else I may repent of, therefore let it be reckoned neither among my sins nor follies that I once had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world’s destiny.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
I began thinking about Doctorow as, among novelists, our preeminent lefty. There is a richer literature than is sometimes suggested, from the John Dos Passos who hit the streets for Sacco and Vanzetti to the Max Eastman who put Big Bill Haywood in a novel to Sherwood Anderson’s Marching Men, Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited, Joe Freeman’s Never Call Retreat, Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, and James T. Farrell’s Danny O’Neill quartet, plus Josephine Herbst, who was informed on to the FBI by Katherine Anne Porter, Mary Lee Settle, who devoted one novel to Mother Jones and another to Harlan County and the Spanish Civil War, and Theodore Dreiser, Nelson Algren, Lillian Hellman, Edward Dahlberg, Kay Boyle, Waldo Frank, and Tillie Olsen, as well as Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, Harvey Swados’s Standing Fast, and Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, after which I will forget a few but certainly not Chuck Wachtel, who in The Gates left the Lower East Side for Managua and Sandinismo, Richard Powers, who in Operation Wandering Soul tried to save third-world orphans in a public hospital in Watts, and Grace Paley, who has enjoined the rest of us to “go forth, with fear and courage and rage to save the world.”
Even so, Doctorow is radically stained. In his pages we have met Thermidor and Kronstadt; the Triangle factory fire and a Hester Street flu epidemic; Paul Robeson, Upton Sinclair, Red Emma, Eugene V. Debs, and Wobblies; Pancho Villa, Norman Thomas, Morris Hillquit, Chairman Mao, and the Red Army Chorus singing “Meadowlands” between purges. Besides which, The Book of Daniel is the class of the progressive crop, a keeper of Malraux’s company or Victor Serge’s.
But, of course, he isn’t flying on a single wing. And in Reporting the Universe, he sneaks in a working definition of a different sort of worship. In high school, Kafka, Singer, and Bellow were so “spectacularly themselves” that “it was never the case of any sort of ethnic bonding.” And so, too, was everybody else who really counted. García Márquez was a Catholic from Colombia, Jane Austen an Anglican from Britain, Dostoevsky a fanatically Orthodox Christian from Russia: obviously, “there is another religion the great ones practice in their art, and it has no name.”
With that in mind, we look briefly at Doctorow’s last two novels, reviewed for the most part indifferently by people who have earned our indifference in their turn.
The Waterworks (1994) is both a Gothic and a detective story, about science, religion, and capitalism, but also journalism, politics, and New York. We are reminded of Melville, Poe, Crane, and Edith Wharton, but also Joseph Conrad. In 1871, as today, the spendthrift city, with its temples raised to savage cults, its gaudy display and blind selection, its humming wires and orphaned children, is a Darwinian jungle, a heart of darkness, and a necropolis. In this new industrial park, after a bloody Civil War, imagine a white stagecoach full of old men in black top hats. A freelance book reviewer for one of the city’s many newspapers thinks he sees his dead father in this coach. When this critic disappears, his editor and the only honest cop in Boss Tweed’s corrupt New York will seek him from Printing House Square to Buffalo Tavern to the Black Horse. Meanwhile children who have vanished from the streets or drowned in the reservoir turn up in coffins not their own. We move through the mosaics of daily journalism and routine police procedure toward what Doctorow calls “the limbo of science and money.” There, in an orphanage and a conservatory, in a laboratory and a ballroom, we will be asked questions about sanity and virtue, vampire capitalism and the morality of medicine, historical truth and natural selection, as, from the blood, bone marrow, and spinal fluid of nameless missing children, the Very Rich and Living Dead are rendered “biomotive” and seen to waltz, with deaf-mute caretaker women, under the shameless water, vaulted heavens, and God-stunned stars.
As for City of God, well, it’s about …everything, including both world wars, the Holocaust, and Vietnam. But also, again, science and religion, reason and faith, prophecy and sacrifice, tellers of stories and watchers of birds. Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Frank Sinatra are characters. And a novelist, looking for his next book in the bare ruined choirs of modern Manhattan. And an Episcopal priest, Thomas Pemberton, who will fall in love with a reform rabbi, Sarah Blumenthal, when the cross that has been stolen from the altar of his Lower East Side church mysteriously reappears on the roof of her Upper West Side synagogue.
Popular music and Hollywood movies are characters, too, glorious and ominous. Except one can’t imagine City of God on any big screen. How do you adapt a book as messy as the Bible itself, a hodgepodge of chronicles, verses, songs, and sins, a brilliant scissors-and-pasting of Hebrew gospels, Greek myths, Yiddish diaries, quantum physics, surreal screenplays, prose poems about trench warfare and aerial bombing, and an archive of every scrap of witness to the Nazi occupation of Lithuania? Or film the Midrash Jazz Quartet, a rap group of Talmudic interpreters of such pop standard secular hymns as “Me and My Shadow,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me”? What does gravity look like? Or “unmediated awe”? Or “moral consequence”? Or what Einstein has called the “first sacrament, the bending of starlight”? How, finally, do we picture an Episcopal priest who is so fed up with Christianity, and so in love with Sarah, that converting to Judaism is the only way he can think of to redeem himself from knowledge of the death camps?
So one points a finger at the obvious, and says that each new Doctorow interrogates another narrative strategy. That sounds French. The greater truth is that he’s got urgent things to say and seeks some form to say them in, or a form that will tease and torture secret meanings out of what he thinks he already knows, or a form, like a wishing well, down which to dream, scream, or drown. At stake is the soul of the citizen and the shape of community. To this redemptive mission, every time out, he brings all his many avatars: prophet, citizen, pilgrim, thaumaturge, Sam Spade, and Joe Hill. Nobody does it better.