E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow; drawing by David Levine

In the course of his career E.L. Doctorow has made a subspecialty of constructing New York Cities, varied by historical setting as well as by architecture of genre and psychological weather. In Ragtime and World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate, for example, the city is carnival and mountain range and obstacle course by turns, brilliantly colored and dangerous and exhilarating. The city he has erected in The Waterworks is in most regards the Manhattan of 1871, the oyster of the Tweed Ring, still fat from war profits but possibly hollow within, lurching its way into the modern era.

You may think it stands to your New York City today as some panoramic negative print, inverted in its lights and shadows…its seasons turned around…a companion city of the other side.

This is the narrator speaking from somewhere just the other side of the century’s turn, recalling in old age events he witnessed in his early middle years. The contrast he sees between his earlier and his later city is of course nothing compared with the city of the reader’s present—or is it that 1871 is more like the present? The youth of 1871 are “a wary generation, without illusions…revolutionaries of a sort…though perhaps too vulnerable ever to accomplish anything.” They make “little social enclaves of irony,” wear bits of Civil War uniforms, are “of that postwar generation for whom the materials of the war were ironic objects of art or fashion.” Perhaps this is not so much the early modern city as the pre-postmodern city, in which the nascent industries are those of self-consciousness and artifice.

The germ of The Waterworks would seem to be an enigmatic sketch of the same title that appeared in Doctorow’s 1984 collection Lives of the Poets, which here appears as a flashback. At the Croton Holding Reservoir, the massive Egyptian-styled structure that stood on the present site of the Public Library, at Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, a boy falls in the water and apparently drowns. As a crowd looks on, a bearded man rushes up, pulls the boy out of the water by his feet, wraps him in his coat, rushes downstairs and into a waiting carriage, which speeds away. Everyone has assumed the man to be a relative or a doctor rescuing the boy, until the terrified mother appears. It seems the man had come from nowhere and had returned there bearing the boy, for unknown reasons. In its sketch form the anecdote is unexplained and stands alone, with the fathomless clarity of a vision or a dream. In the novel it functions as a harbinger of unsavory revelations to come.

Its witness is a newspaper editor, McIlvaine. He conforms to a classic type of nineteenth-century narrator, fortuitously present for all the major events of the novel, but whose function within it is largely restricted to witness, with perhaps a sideline in introducing the other characters to one another. He is a bachelor, saturnine, slightly uneasy, given to vicarious passions, with a deliberate, ruminative voice that gives the book its ellipsisladen style. The narrative begins with the disappearance of his favorite freelance writer, Martin Pemberton, a slight, nervous youth who writes devastating, career-puncturing book reviews (he has savaged not only the Boston sages, Holmes and Lowell and Longfellow, but another sort of literary critter, “a sporting man, a heavy drinker with a predilection for stripping to the waist in saloons and engaging in prizefight matches,” although his name is not Hemingway, but then the reviewer’s isn’t Poe, either).

Pemberton is the estranged son of August Pemberton, a plutocrat whose piety and social responsibility poorly camouflage his outsize rapaciousness. Not only has he established, in a contemporary-sounding way, “a pattern of loyalty not to any one business, but to the art of buying and selling them,” but he has been secretly a slave trader, persisting in the commerce as late as 1862.

Now the elder Pemberton has expired and been entombed with appropriate ceremony, but his son, before vanishing, has given several people breathless accounts of having seen his father in the flesh, not once but twice, aboard Municipal Transport stages. McIlvaine surmises that the son’s disappearance and the father’s putative spectral apparitions must be linked, and he gradually enlists a motley cast of accomplices to help him get to the bottom of the mystery. This crew seems to have stepped as much from a novel of the period as from the period. There is Martin’s idealistic fiancée, herself the daughter of a rich man; his young, unworldly stepmother; his father’s myopic old confessor; his Columbia roommate, now a rude but passionate realist painter (who a century ahead of his time occupies “the top floor of a commercial ironfront on West Fourteenth Street, the equivalent of one large room, and with a bank of windows characteristic of the ironfronts,” and who in the course of the story appears to invent a procedure that anticipates the police identikit sketches of the present); and, finally, the one utterly incorruptible member of the Police Department, who promptly takes charge of the investigation.


Elements of pastiche are never far from the surface of any of Doctorow’s novels, and The Waterworks is no exception. He seems particularly fond of the boys’ adventure novel; Loon Lake and World’s Fair both suggest this genre, and Billy Bathgate might be his version of Treasure Island. The Waterworks owes its form to a mode slightly later than the period of its setting, the “scientific romance.” Such is its flavor—cartoonish and cryptic, flatfooted and lyrical, slight and profound at once. After many travails our heroes, led by the stalwart Captain Donne, penetrate a seemingly unassailable barrier of silence, made possible by the financial manipulations of the Tweed Ring, and uncover a hidden world presided over by the mysterious Doctor Sartorius. In this realm unimaginably sinister depths are sounded, justified by the claims of pure disinterested science. This is a familiar state of affairs for the genre, and Dr. Sartorius is a familiar figure, recalling Wells’s Dr. Moreau, Verne’s Dr. Ox, Gustave Le Rouge’s Dr. Cornelius, and a long line of twisted medicos down to Dr. Mabuse and Dr. Phibes, all of them descended from Dr. Frankenstein.

The genre is apt because it evoke the mingled enthusiasm and dread with which the symptoms of change were greeted in that vulnerable period, and maybe too because its contrivance matches the prevailing artifice of our time. But ours derives from overstimulation and panic; the innocent devices of the past risk seeming precious today. In the end, the novel’s contradictions are not resolved. There is a chasm between surface and implication that threatens to swallow the reader, who cannot suspend disbelief and simultaneously indulge it to the same degree.

Dr. Wrede Sartorius is a German émigré, perhaps a ‘forty-eighter, a veteran of the Union Army, and a re-doubtable medical pioneer. During the war he invented numerous surgical procedures, rejected the use of collodion dressings in favor of fresh air, devised a new kind of hypodermic syringe, successfully innovated with aseptic solutions, and generally represented an extraordinarily farsighted approach to infections and their remedies. Later in his career he turns out to have invented means for blood transfusion, dialysis machines, procedures for transplanting bone marrow, and, at the end, he is preparing to carry out heart transplants. He adheres to the prototype of the Romantic nineteenth-century scientist, appearing sinister in part because he is so far ahead of his time, and in part because he is so purely intellectual that he evades the pull of human feelings. Like many of his fictional predecessors, he has been assigned Faustian and Promethean attributes by an uncomprehending society.

The younger Pemberton is found languishing in a dungeon beneath a dubious orphanage owned by Dr. Sartorius. When he at length recovers the power of speech, he tells what happened after he dug up his father’s grave and found a dead child in the coffin. Making contact with a known associate of the elusive Sartorius, who had been his father’s physician at the end, he was knocked out in a saloon and recovered consciousness in a windowless sanctum, site of the doctor’s laboratories. The doctor himself is not the monster he had expected, but a rational if bloodless savant who shows him around the plant and allows him to watch the procedures. It seems that his father, along with a half-dozen other rich old men, has signed most of his assets over to Dr. Sartorius in exchange for which he gives them a form of immortality, which turns out to be a bare vegetal existence, as creatures of social conventions. These formerly powerful men have in effect become automatons.

While the orchestrion disk revolved and tined out its lumbering waltzes, boosted with automatic bass drum and cymbals, the creatures of the immortal fellowship danced in their black ties…with their caretaker women. It was a medley of the waltz tunes of the day, to which the old men, led by their cyprians, made their obedient slow shuffles…including my father, doing his dutiful dance in a way that absolved him in my mind of all his criminal cunning. He had foregone the dignity of death, as they all had. He was reduced to a vacant old man I could look in on.

But Martin somehow transgresses and, having seen too much, is condemned by the doctor and his henchmen to waste away on a pallet in pitch darkness.

For all the trappings of villainy that surround him, Dr. Sartorius is not the real bad guy here. He even has an alibi for the most serious charge that can be lodged against him—that he victimizes street children. Apparently all he does is extract “fluids” from them, and otherwise keeps them sheltered and fed; the corpses with which he replaces his undead plutocrats are those of victims of accidents, such as the boy at the reservoir. But he and his shadowy domain throw into relief the two invisible realms that bookend urban society and serve to define it. At one extreme are the urchins, omnipresent and yet unseen by the rest of the population; at the other are “men hidden, barricaded, in their own created realm behind the thick walls of the brownstones of New York…men who are only names in your newspapers…powerful, absent men.” It is not even economics so much as a sort of alchemy that makes for their strange unequal equivalence, where the existence of each makes possible the existence of the other. At one point the narrator says,


I define modern civilization as the social failure to keep all children named….Only where we have newspapers to tell us the news of ourselves…are children not assured of keeping their names.

It is as if the disembodied rich who populate the press were sucking away those names and hoarding them for their own use.

The Waterworks is crowded with such dualities, temporal, economic, moral, generational: art and science, soul and body, inner and outer, human and divine, and so on. This is fully in keeping with its period flavor. Allusion is likewise made to the “sunlight and shadow” motif prevalent in journalistic accounts of New York City at the time of its setting, a conceit that could sum up the city’s dizzying and appalling contrasts, equally well for purposes of poetic shorthand or moral laziness. In that booming period, accounts of ragpickers and nomadic children and anonymous murder victims could serve a perverse civic pride: New York had more of them than anyplace else. It seemed only fitting that the city with the most advanced systems of transportation and lighting should also possess the most horrifying crimes, the most bottomless destitution. Lurking just beneath this sort of smugness is the unexamined notion that progress is fueled by such horrors, depends on them for propulsion.

In the novel progress and civic evil are joined in the image of the waterworks, the city’s circulatory system, the vast project of aqueducts, tunnels, and pipes that continue to link upstate reservoirs to the island city. The Croton Waterworks in Westchester is identified as the central organ, around which “the ground…pulsed like a heartbeat,” while the holding reservoir in the center of Manhattan is “a squared expanse of black water that was in fact the geometrical absence of a city.” The metaphorical power of this occult system can be further appreciated in the light of a bizarre coincidence: another novel, issued by the same publisher in the same season, employs the same device. In Caleb Carr’s elephantine penny-dreadful The Alienist,* which takes place in 1896, a map of the city’s water system furnishes the trajectory for an evil scheme. In that book, too, a major set piece takes place at the holding reservoir, although its anatomical significance is different; it is “the heart of the city’s water system, the center to which all aqueducts fed and from which all mains and arteries drew their supply.”

In Carr’s book the water system finds its bloody correlative within the symbolic order in the mind of a nineteenth-century Zodiac Killer or Son of Sam. In Doctorow’s it is identified with the machinery of civilization, a matter of considerable ambiguity. It is both the locus of possibly nefarious deeds and a marvel of engineering no less impressive today than it was then. Within its precincts Sartorius carries out his experiments, which are futuristic and quaint, morally questionable and straightforwardly inquisitive. His zombies may be bound to their antique convention of the afternoon dance, but the automated music supplied for the occasion does not seem far from the mode of the present, automatic bass drum and cymbals included.

This may be part of Doctorow’s point, that progress is a slippery matter, that change does not move in a straight line, and that orders of succession are not to be trusted. Fathers can succeed sons—or so the elder Pemberton would have it, at least—and the present has little to teach the past. In McIlvaine’s words:

You may think you are living in modern times, here and now, but that is the necessary illusion of every age. We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time. There was nothing quaint or colorful about us. I assure you, New York after the war was more creative, more deadly, more of a genius society than it is now.

But, then, he goes on to cite the constituents of this genius: rotary presses, steam engines, gaslights. Just as every era believes itself superior to the past, so it also imagines that it holds the key to the future, which it does, but never in the way that it expects. The equivocal Sartorius is the man of the future, but not even McIlvaine at a remove of decades can quite appreciate this. Long before Pasteur and Koch, Sartorius believes that diseases are spread by germs. McIlvaine, in one of several lovely descriptions of the city streets, recalls a walk down Broadway:

The air seemed suspended, unmoving, with a specific attar projected by each shop, store, restaurant, or saloon. Thus we walked through invisible realms of coffee, baked goods, leather, cosmetics, roasting beef, and beer…at which point, on no scientific authority whatsoever, I was willing to endorse the miasma theory of zymotic infection.

The sources of those odors have vanished as surely as the odors themselves, as surely the miasma theory itself. That which has thrived has been transmitted by germs unsuspected at the time, marginal phenomena and loony theories that turned out to possess the future. The city’s genius resides in its capacity for breeding such germs. Meanwhile, change is the only real constant, as New York, of all cities, proves by its history. After ending his story with a couple of weddings, as in Dickens or a Russian fairy tale, Doctorow closes on a mirage: an empty, icy city on a winter Sunday, “as if the entire city of New York would be forever encased and frozen, aglitter and God-stunned.” It is only in that city—the one under the snow-globe—that immortality can be achieved.

This Issue

June 23, 1994