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: