Analysis of E. L. Doctorow’s Novels

E. L. Doctorow’s (January 6, 1931 – July 21, 2015) work is concerned with those stories, myths, public figures, and literary and historical forms that have shaped public and political consciousness. Even when his subject is not overtly political—as in his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times—he chooses the genre of the Western to comment upon the American sense of crime and justice. Knowing that the Western has often been the vehicle for the celebration of American individualism and morality, Doctorow purposely writes a fablelike novel in which he questions American faith in fairness and democracy. At the same time, he writes from within the genre by maintaining the customary strong opposition between good and evil, between the “bad guys” and the “good guys,” and by fashioning a simple but compelling plot line.

t-el-doctorow-rag-timeWelcome to Hard Times
The struggle in Welcome to Hard Times is between the Man from Bodie, who in a fit of rage destroys a town in a single day, and Blue, the tragic old man who almost singlehandedly tries to rebuild it. The plot and characters echo classicWestern films such as High Noon (1952) with their solitary heroes who oppose villains’ tyrannizing of a community. Doctorow’s vision, however, is much bleaker than that of the traditionalWestern and cannot be encompassed by the usual shootout or confrontation between the sheriff and the outlaw. In fact, Doctorow’s novel implies the West was chaotic and demonic, and order was not usually restored in the fashion of a Hollywood Western. The reality of American history has been much grimmer than its literature or its popular entertainment has ever acknowledged. Indeed, Doctorow’s fiction shows again and again an America whose myths do not square with its history.

It is a paradoxical aspect of Doctorow’s success that his parodies of popular genres are themselves usually best-sellers. Perhaps the reason is that alongside his ironic use of popular genres runs a deep affection for the literary forms he burlesques. The title of the novel, for example, is a kind of genial welcome, an invitation to have some fun with the pieties and clichés of the Western. Doctorow is deadly serious about the “hard times” and grave flaws in American culture, but he usually finds a way to present his criticism in a comic vein.

The Book of Daniel
Doctorow’s fiction is often set in the past, during an identifiable historical period—the 1870’s, the 1920’s, the 1930’s Depression, the 1950’s, or the 1960’s. Characteristic of Doctorow’s deft handling of important political themes and historical periods is The Book of Daniel, a major political novel about the Cold War period of the 1950’s. Centering on a couple (who bear a striking resemblance to spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg) who were executed for espionage (supposedly for stealing the “secret” of the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union), the story is narrated by one of their children, Daniel. He sets out to investigate what happened to his parents while trying to come to terms with his own 1960’s brand of radicalism. Concerned less with whether the couple was actually guilty of spying than with uncovering his own identity, Daniel tracks down and interviews those who had been closest to his parents. Through this personal story, Doctorow conducts an analysis of the failure of American radicalism, of one generation to speak to another. By and large, 1960’s radicals did not know much about the history of the Left, and the traditional Left has done little to pass on its past, so that young men like Daniel feel isolated, bereft, and angry about their lack of connection to a heritage of social protest.

Daniel mourns the loss of his family. Unable to cope with his parents’ sacrifice of themselves to a political movement, he allows his own marriage to deteriorate as he is racked by memories of what it was like for his parents to be constantly harassed for their political beliefs. The human costs of political activism are what embitter Daniel, but those costs are also what make him fiercely determined to gain some truth out of what happened to his parents and to confront those relatives who seem to have collaborated in his parents’ execution.

From the point of view of 1960’s radicalism, Daniel has a certain contempt for his parents and their attorney, who tried scrupulously to accommodate themselves to the American judicial system rather than challenging that system outright by calling the trial political and acting in court—as protesters did during the 1960’s— as defiant political prisoners. Politics serves as the metaphor for the divisions in family life. In other words, there is a merging between the private and public realms, between individuals and political movements, just as the narrative swings between Daniel’s first-person (intimate) and third-person (impersonal) points of view. In his great trilogy, U.S.A. (1937), John Dos Passos separated elements of history and fiction by creating discrete sections called “Camera Eye” and “Newsreel.” It is Doctorow’s achievement to have fused the personal and the public, the fictional and the historical, into one narrative voice, suggesting the indivisibility of history and the individual’s perceptions of it. There is no “history” out there, he implies; there is only the “history” within the minds of the people who live it and recreate it.

Near the end of The Book of Daniel there is a brilliant set-piece description of Disneyland, which comes to stand for the forces in American life that threaten any complex sense of history. On the Disneyland lot, which resembles a film set, are arranged figures and artifacts of American history, the symbols and the tokens of the national heritage, wrenched from their social and historical context, abstracted into a series of entertainments for customers who do not have to analyze what is presented to them. This spectacle of history substitutes for the real thing, demeaning the past and replacing it with a comfortable, pacific, and convenient product that need only be enjoyed and consumed.

In Ragtime, Doctorow goes even further in suggesting that much of American history has been turned into a myth. In this novel historical figures have the same status as fictional creations. The novelist’s Sigmund Freud, who appears in Ragtime going through the Tunnel of Love with Carl Jung, one of his disciples (later a rival), and the historical Freud are equally products of the imagination, of the language that is used to invent both history and fiction. So convincing is Doctorow in inserting famous people such as J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman into his narrative that he has caused many people to wonder that incidents in the novel are “true.” Doctorow has implied in interviews that in a sense it is all “true,” since the imagination has such power to reconfigure history. Ragtime is surely one of the most subversive novels ever written by an American, for it suggests that history can be viewed as a consummate fiction.

Like The Book of Daniel, Ragtime is anchored in the story of a family—this time of a boy who grows up in New Rochelle, New York, at the turn of the twentieth century during the time of polar exploration, the development of great inventions such as motion pictures, and political upheavals led by radicals such as Emma Goldman. From his naïve viewpoint, the small boy observes the explosive changes and the stresses of a society that does not know how to handle its own dissenting elements. One of these is Coalhouse Walker, a proud black man who is insulted by a group of white firemen and who resorts to violence and hostage-taking, demanding that society recognize his rights after his wife, Sarah, is killed while trying to petition a politician on Coalhouse’s behalf. Although the boy sees his society falling apart, it is also reconstructing itself. He sees his mother take into their home Sarah and the child she had with Coalhouse, and the boy later sees his uncle join the Coalhouse gang.

A third family important to the novel is the immigrant family of Eastern European Jews: Tateh, Mameh, and their little girl. After their financial crisis causes Mameh to resort to prostitution, Tateh expels her from the family, becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to get money, and finally, after leaving his past behind, manages in Horatio Alger fashion to make a fortune as a film director. The final interweaving of the novel’s families occurs when the mother of the New Rochelle family marries Tateh and they move to California with their two children and the black child they have adopted, the son of Coalhouse and Sarah.

If the actions of Coalhouse Walker seem more appropriate to the 1960’s than to turn-of-the-century America, it is Doctorow’s way of exaggerating those elements of the future that inhere in the past. The rage that Walker feels is both a personal and a historical rage; the insult is to him and to his race. If a black man in the age of J. P. Morgan would not in fact take over the financier’s library full of art treasures, the truth is (Doctorow implies) that the conditions for such terrorism were brewing for a long time in the United States. Such an act could almost have happened then. The fact that the seemingly stable world before WorldWar I was on the verge of cataclysm is suggested at the end of the novel’s first chapter, when the boy exclaims, “Warn the duke”—referring to the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the event that precipitated World War I.

Ragtime is similar to Welcome to Hard Times in that it has a fairy-tale quality. The prose is quite simple, descriptive, and declarative: Doctorow could almost begin with the phrase “once upon a time.” It is clear, however, that his point is to link the past and the present, to show that the craving for mass entertainment at the turn of the century naturally had its outlet in the invention of motion pictures, just as the urge of Robert Peary and other explorers to roam the world had its counterpart in the mass production of the automobile. Repeatedly, Doctorow links the innovations in domestic life with great public adventures and events, fusing public and private affairs in an almost magical, uncanny manner.

The very title of the novel, Ragtime, refers not merely to the syncopated, accented music of the time but also to the quality of the period, with its fragmented, volatile changes that transformed the character of the country. This was the beat, the rhythm of the period, Doctorow implies. Time was being given a different tempo by the inventions, innovations, and struggles of the immigrants, the underclass, and the black people, even as Americans of an earlier generation took refuge in patriotism and public displays that excluded these new groups.

Loon Lake
The class distinctions that play an important role in Ragtime become the focal element of Loon Lake, which, like The Book of Daniel, contains a double narrative perspective. Loon Lake shifts between the experience of a poet on a rich man’s isolated estate and a poor man’s picaresque adventures across 1930’s America. Somehow the power of the materialist, the millionaire capitalist, is meant to be balanced by the imagination of the poet, but the novel fails to measure up to Ragtime’s astonishing feat of fusing the different realms of fiction and history.

The poetic interludes in Loon Lake are reminiscent of the stream-of-consciousness “Camera Eye” sections of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. Loon Lake also has a haunting, ineffable quality, evoking a metaphorical but almost tangible sense of history that is akin to the novel’s image of the lake: a dazzling surface of ever-shifting and widening perspectives and hinted-at depths. History as mirror—refracting, distorting, highlighting, and obscuring human actions—is a palpable presence. A great social novelist, Doctorow describes every level and grouping of society in the soup kitchens, mansions, and assembly lines in the United States between the two world wars.

World’s Fair
In comparison to Doctorow’s earlier novels, World’s Fair seems remarkably straightforward. It resembles a work of conventional nonfiction, and like a memoir it is largely bound by a chronological structure. Although a few sections resemble oral history accounts from other characters’ perspectives, much of the action is seen through the consciousness of a young boy, Edgar, growing up in the Bronx during the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Given the main character’s name and background, it is difficult not to conclude that Doctorow has himself and his family in mind. He had already used his New Rochelle house as a model for the house in Ragtime and the mind of a young boy as the intuitive medium through which many of the domestic, private events of that novel would be filtered. Doctorow’s interest in the way the fictional and factual impinge upon each other would naturally lead to this exercise in quasi-autobiography, in which the materials from his own background underpin the plot. The World’s Fair becomes a metaphor for the boy’s growing up and for the country’s maturation.

Unlike many American novelists, Doctorow does not merely criticize American materialism, seeing in the emphasis on things a soul-deadening culture that is antithetical to the artist’s imagination. On the contrary, he enjoys playing with the materiality of America, decrying, to be sure, the way in which the culture often turns its important figures and events into toys and commercials for capitalism, but also capturing—and honoring—the American delight in inventiveness and machinery. In World’s Fair, he triumphantly combines the personal and familial aspects of life with the way a society celebrates itself. In doing so, he recovers the synthesis of history and literature that made Ragtime such a resounding success.

Billy Bathgate
In most of Doctorow’s work there is a tension between a naïve, childlike point of view, often fresh with perception, and an older, ironic, detached perspective. Sometimes this split gets expressed in terms of first-and third-person narration, as in The Book of Daniel. In Ragtime, the narrator seems to be simultaneously the little boy and his older self, both observing for the first time and remembering the past. Like World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate seems more conventional than earlier novels, for it is told from the standpoint of its main character, a mature man reviewing his past. However, the novel unfolds with such immediacy that it appears to be taking place as the narrator tells it.

The first long sentence of Billy Bathgate launches right into a scene in which Dutch Schultz is disposing of a disloyal associate, Bo Weinberg. The setting is described by fifteen-year-old Billy Bathgate, the novel’s narrator, who is impressed with the smooth running of the Dutchman’s criminal enterprise. A car drives up to a dark dock, and without using any light or making a sound, Dutch’s crew gets on the boat with Bo and his girl, Drew Preston. Dutch’s control over the situation is inspiring for the young boy, who has been given the honor of running errands and performing other chores for the famous gang.

Doctorow exquisitely handles the feeling of an adult remembering his adolescent self and the sheer excitement of being privy to the most secret counsels of criminals. Billy describes, in fascinating detail, the process by which Bo’s feet are encased in concrete. Facing the torture of drowning, Bo taunts Dutch, hoping to provoke his famous temper so that Dutch will shoot him quickly rather than make him suffer the agony of a slow death. Dutch keeps calm, however, while Bo retails instances of Dutch’s violent and ungiving nature. Dutch takes his revenge by appropriating Bo’s mistress, Drew.

Billy fears but is also fascinated by Dutch’s violence, for Dutch cuts a great figure in the world, with minions to serve him and women to fawn over him. Billy’s Irish mother has occasional periods of dementia (pushing around a baby carriage full of garbage), and his Jewish father long ago abandoned his family. Dutch provides a glamorous alternative to this grim life, and the gang a surrogate family for the neglected boy. The Dutchman sees him juggling on the street and takes a shine to him, eventually calling Billy his “pro-to-jay.” Billy is, in Dutch’s words, “a capable boy.”

Dutch has a way of utterly changing the face of things, and for a long time working for him has a fairy-tale quality. No sooner is Bo Weinberg overboard with his cement overshoes than Dutch is making love to Drew Preston—a socialite who is fascinated, for a while, by his presence and energy. She even accompanies him to Onondaga in upstate New York, where Dutch takes over a town, plying the locals with gifts and setting up a cozy atmosphere in preparation for what he rightly expects will be a favourable jury verdict in the case brought against him for tax evasion.

Dutch has the power to create his own world, staying for days at a time in his hotel room with Drew. There is something engaging and down-to-earth in his crude, raw energy, which is perhaps why Drew finds herself attracted to a man so unlike her husband and his rich cronies. Drew’s involvement with Dutch is reminiscent of Evelyn Nesbit’s fascination with Tateh, the Jewish immigrant, and his daughter in Ragtime, for they represent a life of the streets, a flavor of what is going on in the lower orders, that is at once alien and appealing to those living a highly stylized and often repressed life in the upper classes.

Dutch’s great strength is also his great weakness. By making all of his business revolve around himself, he fails to see how crime is becoming organized and corporate. His way of doing business is almost feudal—depending on violence and on the loyalty of subordinates—and he has no grasp of how to put together an organization that can compete with the government or his rival, Lucky Luciano. Dutch wants to personalize everything, so that it all evolves out of his own ego. However, that ego is unstable. On an impulse, he kills an uncooperative colleague in an Onondaga hotel, one of many instances when he goes berserk against his opponents.

Members of Dutch’s gang—particularly his accountant, Abbadabba Berman— sense that the old ways of doing things are nearly finished. Bo’s defection is only the beginning of events that put Dutch on the defensive and that culminate in his gangland murder. Abbadabba tries to persuade Dutch to recognize that he is part of a larger crime network, but Dutch can think only in terms of his own ambitions and calls off plans to join with Lucky Luciano and other gangsters. In compensation, perhaps, for Dutch’s inability to adapt to new times, Abbadabba turns to Billy, making him an apprentice and lavishing attention on the boy.

Through Abbadabba and Drew, Billy gains perspective on Dutch. Drew, Billy finds, has her own sort of power and sense of ease. When she tires of Dutch, she simply leaves him, conveying to Billy the impression that Dutch’s charisma has its limits. Billy never dares to think of actually leaving the gang, but he keeps his own counsel and is prepared to take care of himself when Dutch is murdered. At the death scene, in which Dutch, Abbadabba, Lulu, and Irving have been shot, Billy learns from Abbadabba the combination of the safe where Dutch has stashed much of his loot. Evasive about his subsequent career, Billy intimates at the end of the novel that he has indeed gained the Dutchman’s fortune, but he does not explain what he will do with it.

Billy’s reticence is a perfect foil to the Dutchman’s very public career: Even Dutch’s last delirious words are taken down by a stenographer and published in the papers. Dutch never learns to be circumspect and even plans to assassinate Thomas E. Dewey, the district attorney who made it his mission to put Dutch in prison. By the end of his career, not only has Dutch alienated his gangland associates, but he has also made it impossible for corrupt Tammany politicians to accept his bribes. He is a relic of an earlier age of unbridled individualism. Billy, on the other hand, hides Dutch’s fortune, goes back to school, graduates from an Ivy League college, and becomes an Army officer inWorldWar II and then a business entrepreneur—an inconceivable career in Dutch Schultz’s world.

Billy Bathgate is a combination of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Horatio Alger. He is a hero who is prudent, yet an adventurer who risks making love to Drew Preston, even though he knows that it means certain death if the Dutchman finds out. He keeps a cool head even when the Dutchman is punishing him for not having provided a piece of vital information sooner. Billy is a romantic, melting at the sight of Drew and hardly believing that they have been sexual partners. He is also a rationalist, realizing that his best chance of survival is to play the role of the loyal Bronx kid.

As Billy prospers and gets to know the different worlds to which he has been introduced, he finds it impossible to return as he was to his old neighborhood. He dresses differently, carries himself differently, and has a consciousness of a world that extends far beyond the Bathgate Avenue from which he has derived his assumed name. Billy becomes, in other words, a self-invented figure, transcending his origins not only in the actions he narrates but also in his very language, a blend of popular and sophisticated vocabulary that precisely captures the boy and the man who has become the narrator of this novel.

The Waterworks
The possibility that even a child like Billy Bathgate may be destroyed by adults is suggested by The Waterworks, in which the industrialism and politics of 1870’s New York threaten all children. In some ways Doctorow’s bleakest novel, The Waterworks has elements of a detective tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Unlike Doctorow’s novels in which a young man’s viewpoint is central, The Waterworks is narrated by a mature journalist, McIlvaine, who sees the victimization not only of the masses of homeless, abandoned children wandering New York, but also of youth at the top of the social scale. McIlvaine’s young freelance writer Martin Pemberton, son of the corrupt businessman Augustus Pemberton, finds himself first disinherited by his father and eventually made a subject for experiments by the novel’s mad scientist, Dr. Wrede Sartorius.

When Martin abandons his fiancé, Emily Tisdale, disappearing after announcing that he has seen his supposedly dead father still alive and riding through the streets in an omnibus, McIlvaine joins with an honest policeman (a rare creature in this time of the Tweed Ring) to solve the mystery. They discover that old men are faking their deaths, abandoning their wives and children, and turning their wealth over to Sartorius, who will keep them alive as long as possible by injecting them with bodily fluids taken from children. The casket August Pemberton’s wife and sons thought they had buried him in is discovered to hold a child’s body. Although the conspiracies against children are apparently defeated by the novel’s end and two marriages appear to give the novel a happy ending, McIlvaine concludes his tale with little faith that children (or adult women, for that matter) can do anything to defend themselves against preying men.

McIlvaine comments on the difficulty of pinning down the source of evil in his story. Sartorius can be given alibis, much of the evil activity is learned about through rumor, evil characters are glimpsed rather than caught in spotlights. It is as if the city itself is evil, or as if evil is in the water. Even more troubling is McIlvaine’s similarities to his supposed villains, for he too takes advantage of young people in order to produce his book. TheWaterworks shares with several other novels a thematic concern for the role of the writer in society, and like Blue in Welcome to Hard Times, McIlvaine may create evils in the course of trying too hard to cover up horror. Insofar as The Waterworks is read as a prologue to Doctorow’s other New York novels, it casts a pall over them. This novel allows the reader less ability to accept what looks like a loophole for optimism in another book, because it instructs the reader on the ways civilization ignores or forgets its errors, the ways civilization chooses to remember what supports its illusions.

Doctorow’s work contains acute perceptions of the way the public makes its selections about what it will remember about the past, aided by the film industry and Disneylands of the culture. Gangsters, film stars, cowboys—all have a certain glamour in Doctorow’s fiction, because they have that glamour in the popular genres he mimics. As models for a rational, democratic society, these stock types fail, and Doctorow is fully aware of that reality. However, he cannot abandon them, for these amusements reflect the core of the American psyche, the overwhelming urge to mythologize history, to make it amenable to human desires and hopes.

City of God
Doctorow’s underlying theme in City of God is humanity’s quest for meaning. Everett, the story’s writer-narrator, is compiling a nonfiction account of the way his friend Pem (Thomas Pemberton) is dealing with loss of religious conviction. The son of a clergyman, Pem has repeatedly been disillusioned by his own ethical failures, especially his failure to discover a rational basis for Christian faith. He is considering a complete break with the Church—a literal rejection of Christianity and a symbolic rejection of his father.

A seemingly random street crime then brings Pem into contact with Joshua Green, his wife, Sarah Blumenthal, and their Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism. A large brass cross stolen from the wall of St. Timothy’s is found on the synagogue’s roof. The cross seems symbolic of Pem’s diminished religious conviction: Beneath its brass veneer, it is steel, and it can easily be dismantled because it consists of two parts held together with screws. Pem never discovers the identity or motives of the thieves, but he sees the theft as a sign leading him to Joshua and Sarah, rabbis whose search for the City of God parallels his own. Complicating their quest, though, are stories of the Holocaust told by Sarah’s father, who is sinking into dementia. For Joshua especially, modern society seems overwhelmed by what Saint Augustine called “the City of the World,” and he is martyred as he tries to reveal the ghetto horrors, thus ending humanity’s apparent indifference to the Holocaust.

Everett becomes obsessed with the ghetto stories, which become the new focus of his book. Recording those stories brings him into closer contact with his own heritage, as he explores his father’s World War I exploits and those of his brother in World War II.

First Joshua and later Pem search for the long-lost ghetto records. In effect, Pem avenges his friend’s death by locating the trunk of records written by ghetto leaders, smuggled out by Sarah’s father and preserved by an anti-Nazi Roman Catholic priest. Sarah gives the originals to the government to be used as evidence against war criminals, and Everett uses her photocopies to complete his book.

Near the end of the novel is another symbolic film scenario. Obsessed with a war criminal living in the United States, a writer stalks the old man, considering ways to execute him, then accidentally kills him in a bike accident. Although the writer escapes capture, newspaper accounts portray him as the villain, and the old man is honoured instead of dishonored. In contrast, even though the ghetto accounts are located too late to prosecute the local commandant, using contemporary accounts to authenticate his atrocities proves a more effective revenge.

As the novel ends, Pem converts to Judaism and, with Sarah, continues his quest to establish meaningful religious traditions. Soon they are married—a symbolic union of Jewish and Christian traditions prefigured early in the novel when Everett observes a great blue heron and a snowy white egret perched back to back, sharing a New York City pier. Near the novel’s end, another ecumenical symbol appears as Everett describes the City of Birds, near Madrid, where many species of birds peaceably pick over a huge garbage dump.


Major works
Long fiction : Welcome to Hard Times, 1960; Big as Life, 1966; The Book of Daniel, 1971; Ragtime, 1975; Loon Lake, 1980; World’s Fair, 1985; Billy Bathgate, 1989; The Waterworks, 1994; City of God, 2000; The March, 2005. Homer & Langley 2009; Andrew’s Brain 2014.
Short fiction: Lives of the Poets, 1984; Sweet Land Stories, 2004.
Play: Drinks Before Dinner, pr. 1978.
Screenplays: Three Screenplays, 2003.
Nonfiction: Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977- 1992, 1993; Poets and Presidents, 1993; Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, 1999; Reporting the Universe, 2003; Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993-2006, 2006.
Edited texts: Best American Short Stories, 2000, 2000.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


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