What Would Doctorow Do?
Dec 11, 2017
29 Min read time
“However you find your society . . . you do not have to embrace its lies, or become complicitors in its cruelties,” wrote E. L. Doctorow, whose novels offer a map for navigating the Trump era.
E. L. Doctorow died on July 21, 2015, about a month after Donald J. Trump announced and commenced his run for President of the United States. These events were not related, but they have since become fused in my mind. Doctorow was my favorite living writer, and when Trump began his campaign by riding down the escalator to the gold-plated lobby of his tower, I thought the scene could almost have been composed by that great mythologist.
Before Trump was a candidate, before he was even a Republican, he already seemed some kind of throwback to the Gilded Age—a high-society vulgarian straight out of Doctorow’s best-known novel Ragtime (1975), which made fictional characters of real, historical New Yorkers from 100 years ago, including the insane millionaire Harry K. Thaw, the architect he murdered, Stanford White, and the chorus girl they both loved, Evelyn Nesbit.
By the time of that fateful press conference, however, Doctorow was 84 years old and very ill with lung cancer. He did not survive to witness Trump’s ascendancy, nor to write about it. This was, perhaps, a mercy for the author himself, but a shame for avid readers like me. When I wonder how he might have characterized the present head of state, I am also childishly wishing that I could watch them fight, or at least hear them debate. And when I go back to Doctorow’s novels and essays, I find them filled with rhetorical ammunition.
Well into the twenty-first century, E. L. Doctorow warned that the United States was again coming to resemble its nineteenth-century self in terms of violence, poverty, inequity and plutocratic rule.
Consider this judgement upon Richard Nixon: “That someone so . . . lacking in honor or moral distinction of any kind, someone so stiff with crippling hatreds, so spiritually dysfunctional, out of touch with everything in life that is joyful and fervently beautiful and blessed, with no discernable reverence in him for human life, and certainly with never a hope of wisdom [could get himself elected] . . . is, I suppose, a gloriously perverse justification of our democratic form of government.”
Or this, from a piece published back when Bill Clinton was running against the incumbent George H.W. Bush, and which now reads like grim prognostication: “The president we get is the country we get. With each new president the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. . . . He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail.”
In the current mean season of ill winds and frightening cloudbursts, I’ve been thinking about Doctorow a lot. I should say here that I am not a U.S. citizen, but I grew up in Ireland wishing that I was, to a degree that embarrasses me now. I tell myself it was a common syndrome among the kids of other English-speaking countries in the Reagan years, exposed as we were to music, movies, and books that made our own cultures seem unforgivably dull and parochial. I first picked up a copy of Doctorow’s 1989 novel Billy Bathgate because it had old-timey New York gangsters on the cover, shadowy tough guys in hats and coats, standing on some moonlit Manhattan pier in the Prohibition era.
The eponymous narrator was my age, fifteen, and a “capable boy” who inveigled his way into the sphere of real-life bootlegger and racketeer Dutch Schultz. But he told the story in the language of a much older man with an uptown vocabulary. Billy recalled so lucidly the gunmetal glamor of organized crime in its prime, as it appealed to the kid he used to be:
How I admired the life of taking pains, of living in defiance of a government that did not like you and did not want you and wanted to destroy you so that you had to build out protections for yourself with money and men, deploying armament, buying alliances, patrolling borders, as in a state of secession, by your will and wit and warrior spirit living smack in the eye of the monster, his very eye.
I loved that book, and went on to read everything Doctorow wrote. His work came up in my college courses on American literature and history, and it seemed to me a near-perfect synthesis of both—aesthetically splendid and politically dead-on. Taken together, Doctorow’s novels might be read as a fictive analogue to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (1980): an alternate account of the century-and-a-half from the Civil War to 9/11; a progressive rejection of the sustaining national narrative; a polyphonic chronicle of the betrayal, disfigurement, and eternal deferral of his country’s original promise.
Born in 1931, Doctorow was a capable boy from the Bronx. His grandparents were European Jews who fled from pogroms in Belarus. His father owned a small music shop, his mother was a gifted pianist who played Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude when upset. They weathered the Great Depression and World War II while he was busy growing up, and what he heard in the house as a kid gave him his ear for melody and rhythm in writing.
“At a certain point,” he told an interviewer, “the difference between music in music and music in words became elided in my mind.”
He went to the Bronx High School of Science, where he got into Franz Kafka, and studied poetry with master practitioner and critic John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College in Ohio. Drafted into the army in 1954, he served as a corporal in the signals corps. Commanding a radio truck near the East German border, he wrote his first stories in block capitals on the teletype machine at night, which was tantamount to dereliction of duty as the Russians conducted maneuvers on the other side of the fence.
Doctorow’s novels might be read as an alternate account of the century-and-a-half from the Civil War to 9/11; a progressive rejection of the sustaining national narrative; a polyphonic chronicle of the betrayal, disfigurement, and eternal deferral of his country’s original promise.
Demobbed, he got a job at Dial Press, which Doctorow said was useful in showing him “how many bad books are published.” Later, working as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, he found that most of the screenplays were poorly written westerns. Deciding that he could “lie better” about the American past, his debut novel Welcome To Hard Times (1960) started out as a parody of the genre and turned sober in the draft.
His follow-up, Big As Life (1966), was an odd sci-fi allegory about two colossal humanoid giants who materialize in New York Harbor and appear to fight in very slow motion, giving rise to a new government agency that responds to the crisis with bureaucratic overreach.
Doctorow felt the book was a failure and let it drop out of print, though journalist Luke Epplin recently dug up a copy at the New York University Library and made the case for its renewed prescience after 9/11. The shadows of those giants, wrote Epplin, “never seemed more terrifying or relevant.”
His third, breakthrough novel, The Book Of Daniel (1971) boldly novelized the lives and deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—the communist couple charged with transmitting nuclear secrets to the Soviets and executed for espionage in 1953. Their names and particulars were changed, and their story is narrated by the fictional son of the title, who is numbed to the shocks of 1960s by the memory of their electrocution.
The book was generally well-regarded and even beloved by some. Others said it smacked of tinkering with history and literature alike, misleading readers and effectively siding with spies and traitors. Critic Robert Alter accused him of writing “in a spirit adversarial to the Republic.” Doctorow later issued a rejoinder with a doozy of an essay titled “False Documents,” in which he asked outright: “What is a historical fact? A spent shell? A burned-out building? A pile of shoes? A victory parade? A long march?”
What is witnessed or suffered, he argued, can only be transmitted to others in words or pictures, which introduce meaning and constitute judgement. “Facts are the images of history, just as images are the facts of fiction.” Which is to say that a novelist might yet be more honest in controlling the narrative than almost any politician. Or, as Doctorow put it many years later to George Plimpton in an interview for the Paris Review:
In this country we tend to be naive about history. We think it’s Newton’s perfect mechanical universe . . . but it’s more like curved space, and infinitely compressible and expandable time. It’s constant subatomic chaos. When President Reagan says the Nazi SS were as much victims as the Jews they murdered—wouldn’t you call that fiddling?
History is a battlefield. It’s constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. . . . But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth.
In the same 1986 interview, Doctorow told Plimpton how Ragtime came about. He was sitting in the study of his Victorian house on Broadview Avenue, in the leafy liberal enclave of New Rochelle, New York, where he then lived with his wife and kids. “Desperate to write something,” he started writing about the wall he was staring at and then about the house as it stood when first built, circa 1906.
The narrative flowed forth from there, like film through a projector, bearing images of trolley cars and smokestacks, resurrecting noted personages of that era—Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, Emma Goldman. Doctorow had them say and do things in fiction they never said or did in reality, while suggesting that his portraits were more accurate to their souls than most of their biographies had been. (He also “confessed” to Plimpton that none of these people had ever existed, that “all of them were made up.”)
Published in 1975, the novel seemed almost uncomfortably timely on the eve of the country’s bicentennial. Some readers had what John Updike called “a Doctorow Problem.” Barely a year younger but much more widely feted, Updike did not care for Ragtime’s irreverence. As he wrote much later: “It smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets, and turned the historical novel into a gravity-free, faintly sadistic game.”
He eventually came around and credited Doctorow as “not so much a reconstructor of history as a visionary who seeks in time past occasions for poetry.” But the book had many fans who got there much quicker, and there are plenty today who consider it a serious contender for the Great American Novel.
If Doctorow is less often mentioned as a major figure in the national literature than Updike and other contemporaries such as Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, it is likely because he had no public profile to speak of and not much of an authorial signature. He was an immaculate stylist, but delivered every novel in a different register.
There are now plans for a memorial to Doctorow in New Rochelle. It is going to be raised next spring when the ground thaws in Huguenot Park, within hailing distance of the “three-story brown shingle” described on the opening page of Ragtime. It occurs to me that the more well-read alt-right zealots (if such a sort exist) might be as opposed to a life-sized bronze rendering of this secular Jewish intellectual, with his marked socialist tendencies and boundless immigrant sympathies as they were defensive of Confederate generals. And even while I look forward to visiting that monument at some point in the future, like the nameless girl on a pilgrimage to her favorite writer’s grave in the bookending scenes of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), I also find myself hoping that the United States is still intact by then.
A few years ago, President Barack Obama named Doctorow as one of the country’s best writers, and Ragtime as one of his own favorite books. I thought it remiss of Obama’s many enemies not to pick up on this, given that the novel’s most dynamic character is Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a successful black concert pianist in the early days of jazz who is wholly fictional and a bit opaque, but also highly dignified and immensely compelling.
After Walker’s custom Model T automobile is vandalized by racist volunteer firemen, his peaceful attempts to seek legal redress steadily escalate to urban warfare on the streets of Manhattan. The musician forms a kind of guerilla unit that he calls the Provisional American Government and declares himself its president. His men bomb firehouses, blast cops with shotguns and occupy J.P. Morgan’s landmark marble library by force, wiring the place with dynamite.
If this was Obama’s bedside reading in the White House, surely partisan Republicans and Tea Party recalcitrants blew a golden opportunity to freak out. Not to mention Trump, who was then in the pomp of his birtherism and who came off more than ever like some bloviating robber baron from the book—a foghorn mouthpiece for quasi-nativist balderdash.
Obama named Doctorow as one of the country’s best writers, and Ragtime as one of his own favorite books.
“Are you kidding?” asked Ta-Nehisi Coates, when I put this to him recently. “You think any of those guys ever read Ragtime? They never read it, that’s all it is. I doubt they ever heard of it.”
I wanted to ask Coates about Doctorow because he has cited Doctorow as a major influence on his bestselling, prize-winning epistolary memoir, Between The World And Me (2015), and references him throughout the Obama-era essays of his new collection, We Were Eight Years In Power (2017).
Considering the thrust of those pieces—“The Case For Reparations,” “The Legacy Of Malcolm X,” “Fear Of A Black President”—I kind of assumed that the racial element of Ragtime must have been the biggest hook for Coates. But he told me I was wrong.
“It was the voice of that book that got me,” he said. “So natural, so confident, right from the first page. He has these major historical figures just appear on the stage without making a big deal of them. Teddy Roosevelt is president. Sigmund Freud is sailing for America. Here’s Theodore Dreiser, here’s Houdini. Doctorow is like, ‘Fuck you, I’m writing so well that I don’t need to use any tricks. I don’t even need to clear my throat.’”
In a 2009 blog post, Coates wrote that he first responded to Ragtime on a “basic, beautiful sound level,” and he memorably compared Doctorow to a rapper—“the greatest M.C. I ever heard.”
He once listened to the author read the audiobook version on a long cross-country car ride, and it moved him to tears “more than once.” His favorite character, he told me, was the lovesick white man known only as Younger Brother, who works in a fireworks factory and becomes a revolutionary explosives expert. One sequence struck Coates as especially gorgeous, as Younger Brother tests out powerful prototype cherry bombs on a salt marsh, sending seagulls wheeling through the air:
“[H]is face was flushed and his eyes glistened. . . .He stood as if in a shower bath, as if upturned to the water. He held out his arms. The bomb exploded. . . .The birds turned in widening circles, soaring out over the Sound, swooping over whitecaps and hovering on the wind.”
The novel’s politics, Coates said, seemed almost beside the point, or beneath it.
“You couldn’t read Doctorow and not know he was coming from the left. But you always felt the story was on top, and the theory somewhere lower down. That’s why he had such an impact on me when I was really trying to find and shape my own voice. I didn’t want to be the kind of journalist who just puts together convincing arguments. I wanted my arguments to be haunting, and that desire to haunt is usually the province of poets and novelists. So you look to language and narrative to see how you might get to the heart.”
Coates surprised me again by admitting that he’d never read any of Doctorow’s essays. What he learned from him, he discovered in the fiction. “I think I always had a sense of it, but he showed me how to write it better. The centrality, the gravity of history. The idea that history matters.”
At the same time, of course, his exemplar played pretty fast and loose with known facts and public figures, as Coates himself noted in a tweet posted after Doctorow died: “[He] did not give 2 fucks about famous people in history. He had no problem giving us an utterly pompous Booker T Washington in Ragtime.”
Coates had no problem with that either, and I asked if he would allow other writers—conservative revisionists, say, or stone-cold racists— the same licence to make the Great Educator look like something of a fool. “Well, sure. Let them do it. Then we can talk about what they’ve written, and tell them why it’s trash.”
Doctorow, to Coates’s mind, was endowed with specific, uncanny power. “Look, I can read a nonfiction book about J.P. Morgan, and still not be able to imagine what the guy was actually like. But Doctorow puts him on the page, and I can see him right there in front of me. He could conjure the past. He could take you to that place. It was a spectral thing, but he made it feel real. And I know that he didn’t like to call it ‘historical fiction’ because that presumed it had no bearing on the present, or nothing to say about the modern world.”
In the last years of his life, Doctorow expressed a growing fear of American atavism, a return to the social conditions that prevailed before the New Deal. He had been raised under the presidential polestar of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he lamented the gradual undoing of that beloved Democrat’s “enlightened social legislation” by postwar Republican Party leaders from Nixon to George W. Bush. (To be fair, he didn’t have much time for Jimmy Carter either.) Their project, as he described it in his essay “The Character Of Presidents,” was to push the country “back to the time when people stayed in their place and owed their souls to the company store.”
Well into the twenty-first century, he warned that the United States was again coming to resemble its nineteenth-century self in terms of violence, poverty, inequity and plutocratic rule. Several of Doctorow’s later novels are set at key moments of that era, collapsing the distance between then and now.
The Waterworks (1994) is Coates’s personal favorite. It recreates the New York of 1870 for the purposes of a weird Gothic detective story, in which obscenely wealthy Civil War profiteers fake their own deaths to be kept alive like revenants in the underground laboratory of a genius ex-army surgeon. Their conspiracy touches on the real-world corruption of Boss Tweed and his ring of thieves at Tammany Hall—painted into the background of the story as early incarnations of the rich, white boardroom ghouls who recur to take power at every phase of the American timeline, not least in our present.
In the last years of his life, Doctorow expressed a growing fear of American atavism, a return to the social conditions that prevailed before the New Deal.
“[They] would carry ambition to its ultimate form,” writes Doctorow. “They were nothing if not absurd—ridiculous, simple-minded, stupid, self-aggrandizing. And murderous. All the qualities of men who prevail in our Republic.”
That book was apparently inspired by a time slip that Doctorow experienced one morning when he looked out the window of his apartment on the Upper East Side—fog was rolling down over the skyline, blanking out every building newer and taller than the iron-fronts and brownstones of the Industrial Age.
It made him think of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he once called “our greatest bad writer.” (His father was an unabashed fan and named him Edgar after Poe.) But the narrator of The Waterworks, a veteran newspaperman named McIlvaine, just as often sounds like Walt Whitman, breaking off from the core plot to sing of his city’s multitudes. Some democratic impulse makes McIlvaine—or Doctorow—reluctant to privilege the central characters over the surrounding crowds of shopkeepers, beggars, millenarians, factory workers, and ubiquitous street children.
He wants you, the reader, to see Manhattan in the late afternoon, long before you were born, “visible columns of sun crossing Broadway at the intersections . . . the air in cinders, sifting through the filigree of fire escapes and telegraph wires.” He reminds you that the dead are real, as Hilary Mantel once put it, and that the sun will go down on your day too.
“You may think that you are living in modern times, here and now, but that is the necessary illusion of every age,” reports McIlvaine. “We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time. There was nothing quaint or colorful about us.”
For all the solid information he imparts about the past, there remains a persistent sense of mystery, a nagging suspicion that history works in us or upon us through some strange animating force, as phantasmic and ungraspable as human consciousness itself.
The nominal villain of The Waterworks, the putative mad scientist, turns out to be unnervingly sane. Doctor Wrede Sartorius is a brilliant medical mind, an ultra-rationalist and uber-materialist with no patience for the “poetic conceits” or “epistemological limitations” of civilized society. But even he comes undone when confronted with Abraham Lincoln.
This occurs in Doctorow’s later novel, The March (2005), which is set some years earlier, toward the end of the Civil War. A younger, slightly warmer Sartorius runs a mobile field hospital in the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman, then fighting its final battles through Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas, trailed by a growing procession of freed slaves. (Coalhouse Walker Sr., father of the Ragtime musician, also features in the story as a banjo-playing enlistee among the army’s black “pioneers.”)
Discharged from the front to treat the famously fragile Mary Todd Lincoln, the doctor cannot reconcile his stark empiricism to the “sepulchral” presence of her husband:
“The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company. To explain how bad he looked, the public care on his brow, you would have to account for more than an inherited syndrome. A proper diagnosis was not within the realm of science. His affliction might, after all, be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.”
Rereading that passage not long ago, it brought to mind the greying of Obama through his years in office. Midway through his second term, the President sounded reminiscent of Lincoln, or perhaps of Doctorow, in an interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick: “You are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.”
The author, for his part, had called Obama “a great man” when he was first elected. “And I’m not just saying that because he reads my books,” he added. “I would have voted for him anyway.”
At the same time, he felt the President was “just beginning to understand the realities,” Those realities came to encompass a full spectrum of drone strikes, digital surveillance and wholesale deportation, but Doctorow did not live to see the end of the Obama years, let alone reflect on them in fiction.
His last, slim novel, Andrew’s Brain (2014), featured the main players of the previous administration—George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld—as semi-satirical caricatures in an atypical, experimental meditation on the recent past and imminent future. Always cosmically curious about the human condition, about our place in the universe of Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he now seemed deeply worried that microgenetics might finally reveal what makes us tick—and destroy us in the process.
Soon after Doctorow died, the Mexican-British poet and scholar Michael Schmidt described him in The Guardian as a hero, “an unillusioned patriot at odds with those who exploit patriotism.” We can only speculate as to what Doctorow would have made of the current president and the perilous state of the nation, but I invited Schmidt to take a guess.
“He had an amazing grasp of things as they were,” said Schmidt, “and he wrote it as he saw it, with no sugaring the pill. But I don’t know if his imagination could accommodate our recent turn toward science-fiction. He never would have been such an unrealist to think it could happen. If he were alive to see this cartoon villain running the show, this travesty of the American system, I think he might have been silenced by it.”
I also put the question to Doctorow’s widow, Helen. They had been married for sixty years at the time of his death, having met as drama students at Columbia University in the early 1950s. Doctorow made a strong impression on her in a rehearsal for Henry V, when he delivered a soliloquy while leaning against a proscenium arch and smoking a cigarette.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who cites Doctorow as a major influence, admits he has never read Doctorow's essays. What he learned from him, he discovered in the fiction.
Speaking from their New York apartment, Helen said her life now was “very different without that big brain around.” She said she likes to think about Edgar while sitting at his writing desk, and she likes to talk about him as often as she gets the chance. She had lately been sifting through old papers, and unearthed the love letters from their early courtship. I asked if this had been painful.
“Well, yes,” she said, “but maybe not in the way you mean. When you’re young and desperately in love, those kinds of correspondence can get a bit repetitive.”
In light of recent events, her late husband’s 1987 essay, “A Citizen Reads The Constitution,” had been “singing” to her. In that piece, he called the document in question “the prophetic text for a true democracy,” but also declared that prophecy as yet unfulfilled. Its framers, he wrote, could not have foreseen or endorsed the national military state that would derive its authority from their choice of words, some 200 years on.
He charged their executive inheritors in the Reagan White House with discoursing “not in reason and argument but in demagogic pieties . . . [their] lack of reverence for law and contempt for language seem to go hand in hand.” And he hoped that future amendments and supreme court decisions would keep improving the constitution toward its apotheosis: “Once this text is in voice, it cannot be said to be realized on Earth until all relations among the American people, legal relations, property relations, are made just.”
It didn’t happen in Doctorow’s lifetime, nor did he expect it to, said Helen. He was not a grumpy guy, she assured me, even in the midst of composition—he never once turned away any of their three kids when they interrupted him. But, he was, on balance, “a pessimist,” she told me.
“In a way, I’m glad that Edgar was spared the knowledge of what’s going on right now. ‘Apoplectic’ is the word that springs to mind when I try to think how he’d react.”
Doctorow was a lifelong agnostic too, and he hadn’t suddenly found God on his deathbed. He did suggest to her, however, that Billy Bathgate was the book he might like to be remembered for—the one that he couldn’t quite work out how he’d written.
Helen said her own favorite was The Book Of Daniel. “For me, one of the extraordinary novels of the twentieth century.” She was also partial to Loon Lake, from 1980, which showed Doctorow at his most avant-garde—a Depression-era tale of itinerant poets, secret mansions, circus freaks and union disputes, assembled from fragments of straight narration, blank verse and eerie screeds of biographical data akin to FBI profiles.
“I can hear his voice in that book in particular,” she said. “The prose moves like water—changing, sparkling, rippling, so placid in places.”
Talking to Helen about her husband made me think also of his late-career masterpiece Homer & Langley, from 2009. In that novel, Doctorow had extended the natural lifespan of the Collyer brothers, those infamous pack-rats and shut-ins who filled their vast Manhattan townhouse with mountains of accumulated junk, from scrap metal and faded newspapers to pianos and vintage cars.
Their bodies were found inside in 1947, but Doctorow had their fictional selves live decades longer, outlasting Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and enduring through the Vietnam War. What if someone did the same for the author himself? He is now a part of history and surely no less of a character than those who populated his fiction. And if I understand his philosophy, there is nothing to stop me telling a story in which Doctorow lives on into the present.
There is nothing to stop us telling a story in which Doctorow lives on into the present.
As an exercise in wish fulfillment, it goes something like this: the writer is duly appalled by the election of November 2016, but he is very far from silenced. He seizes on the irony of “fake news” as identified by a fraudulent commander-in-chief and publishes urgent, incendiary essays in the vein of past pieces such as “The Character Of Presidents.”
“The true President would have the strength to widen the range of current political discourse,” he quotes from that text, rhapsodizing on the Platonic ideal that has now found its opposite in Trump. “[He] would love and revere language as the best means we have to close on reality. That implies a sensibility attuned to the immense moral consequence of every human life [and] perhaps even a sense of tragedy that would not let him sleep.”
In his capacity as Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters at New York University, Doctorow is newly vehement in drawing a line between “good and bad stories.” He excoriates the ugly, flimsy fabrications of the White House, and calls upon his students to demonstrate responsible citizenship by way of resistance, or even revolt. Some don’t like what they’re hearing. They complain to faculty that his classes have become too biased, too socialistic, or at best “inappropriately political.”
But others cheer him on, recording his lectures and uploading them to YouTube. The author begins trending, becoming a meme through gifs and hashtags: #DoctorowsOrders, #DoctorowInTheHouse, #DoctorOhNoHeDidn’t.
Trump eventually takes notice, of course, and fires off a stream of tweets calling Doctorow a “washed up, has-been loser writer nobody ever heard of, who’s [sic] books are garbage and he LIES because he knows NOTHING about me.” Those who genuinely hadn’t heard of him are interested now. Doctorow is in the news, his books climbing the Amazon lists.
He doesn’t like the attention, is reluctant to do interviews and cannot even countenance social media, but he also feels a duty to engage. Times are desperate, he tells one reporter. The survival of the Republic depends on a collective act of awakening and remembering. When the ink was still wet on the constitution, he says, the people of the United States held joyous parades to celebrate that sacred text, united behind “the idea, the belief, the faith, that America was unprecedented.”
“In order to rebuild our sense of ourselves,” Doctorow says, drawing from another of his old essays, “The Beliefs Of Writers,” “we may have to go back to childhood, to the past, and start again. In order to reclaim our society, we need the words to find it.”
By which he means that we need the stories, and we need to tell them with the requisite conviction that there may yet be “salvation in witness and moral assignment.” Fiction, nonfiction, doesn’t matter—“there is only narrative,” he says. Hillary Clinton’s defeat, after all, was a failure of storytelling. Young leftists hear this and recognize the truth of it. Doctorow becomes, in his dotage, the voice of a movement. Readers, supporters, disciples adopt him as a more mysterious, more playful, more persuasive alternative to Bernie Sanders (albeit ten years the senator’s senior).
This is nothing that the author would want for himself. He is not a political animal, and professionally speaking, he defers to a rising generation of writers like Coates, who have read his work and taken it to heart. They stand ready to combust the myths of General Lee, of Milton Friedman, of Henry Kissinger and of Steve Bannon. Their sense of historical identity proceeds from the bone-deep knowledge that the United States has never been great, or not yet anyway, and accepting this must be the first step toward making it so.
Then Trump comes to town for one of his occasional overnights at “home” in New York. Responding to the President’s most recent attacks on journalists and other critics, various citizens’ rights groups—the American Civil Liberties Union, the First Amendment Coalition, American Booksellers for Freedom of Expression—organize a march on Trump Tower.
Thousands of protesters pour down 5th Avenue from Central Park, passing the monument to William Tecumseh Sherman and crossing East 57th Street, just a couple of blocks from Doctorow’s apartment. A delegation asks him to come out and say a few words to the crowd on the corner. The author obliges, remembering his old acquaintance Abbie Hoffman—the brilliant, insufferable shaman of American radicalism in the 1960s, whom he thinly fictionalized in The Book Of Daniel.
Hoffman once had his followers form a ring around the Pentagon and attempted to make the building levitate with their prayers and incantations. Doctorow wonders if he should suggest trying this with Trump Tower, but that is not really his way. Instead, he draws upon a speech he once gave to graduates of Brandeis University. At his age, he can be excused for repeating himself. “Every life has a theme,” he tells the hushed assembly.
It is a literary idea, the great root discovery of literature: every life has a theme and there is human freedom to find it, to create it, to make it victorious. And so however you find your society . . . you do not have to embrace its lies, or become complicitors in its cruelties.
You have sanctity of thought, the means to stay in touch with the truth. Your living, inquiring and lighted minds are enlisted in the struggle for a human future and a society unbesieged by terror.
The President, in his tower, watches some of this on TV and some from his window. He looks at Doctorow in close-up via cable news feed, and stares down at his distant figure in the mass below. He alternates between rage and disquiet. He’s unsettled in a way he can’t express. This elderly writer is calling him out, and he feels oddly frightened.
Not physically, of course. But . . . what? Spiritually? Morally? Historically? Doctorow’s words give Trump a looming sense of obsolescence, of silence, of nullity, as if his life has no theme at all, while the sun sets over Manhattan and drops down behind the planetary horizon.
December 11, 2017
29 Min read time