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…
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