erik lundegaard

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Thursday July 23, 2015

E.L. Doctorow: 1931-2015

He was one of my guys—the starting left fielder of my literary nine. Now only three are left. The bench is being depleted. My scouts are on hiatus. 

E.L. DoctorowI keep returning to three of his books: “The Book of Daniel,” “Ragtime” and “World's Fair.” They share qualities. Sometimes they even share scenes: a small boy seeing the aftermath of an accident—a woman carrying groceries hit by a car—and watching the milk mix with blood. That's in both “Daniel” and “World's Fair.” First it was Daniel's burden, then Edgar's. Both boys are small criminals of perception. 

“Ragtime” begins with an epigraph, an admonition, from Scott Joplin: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast ...” I always felt guilty because “Ragtime” is such a breezy book, so dense and interesting and readable, that I could never not read it fast.

Here's an example of the style of “Daniel.” It's a nothing moment, a nothing memory, made fascinating:

In a window an advertising cutout faded from the sun: a modern housewife, smartly turned out in a dress that reaches almost to her ankles. She has her hand on the knob of a radio and does not look at it but out at you, as she turns it on. She is smiling and wears a hairdo of the time. She is not bad looking, with nice straight teeth, and she obviously has a pair though not trying to jam them in your face. She is in green, faded green. Her dress, her face, her smile, all green. Her radio is orange...She is a slim, green woman for whom the act of turning on an orange radio is enormous pleasure. Maybe it was a defective radio and gave her a jolt. Maybe she was turning it off. I never thought of that.

A lot of his other books either seemed surprisingly lightweight (“Lives of the Poets,” “Waterworks”) or incomprehensibily heavy (“City of God”). The three above are his sweetspot. Or so it seems to me at the moment.

His words are part of my life:

  • “And it's still going on, Danny. In today's newspaper, it's still going on. Right outside the door of this house it's going on.”
  • “We should have talked, we should always have talked.”
  • “I can live with anyone's death except my own, man.”
  • “Most freelances are nervous craven creatures, it is such a tenuous living after all, but this one was prideful, he knew how well he wrote, and never deferred to my opinion.”

That last was a tagline of sorts on the first website I created back in 1998—until a friend suggested it seemed too combative, too prideful, and I took it off, nervous craven creature that I am.

Did I begin to study history because of him? I wanted to write, but I didn't know anything, and I figure I needed to know more. I think I got this into my head when I'd taken a break from college and was working at a bank near the university. I was 20 or 21 years old and re-reading “Ragtime” or “Daniel,” or maybe “Loon Lake” for the first time, in a rundown apartment in a sketchy part of Minneapolis. 

Years later, I interviewed Frederic Silber, the general counsel at Paul Allen's Experience Music Project in Seattle, and he was describing his upbringing. In the '40s and '50s, he and his parents went to hootenannies led by singers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Pete Seeger used to come by their house, a “middle income cooperative apartment” on the lower east side of Manhattan:

Silber: So it was that kind of prototypical, Jewish, middle-class, urban New York upbringing. Jewish leftist intellectual background: that's what I claim.
Me: I immediately think of “The Book of Daniel” by E.L. Doctorow.
Silber: And you wouldn't be far wrong. [Smiles.] Although my parents were not atomic spies.

I wonder if I would even make that comment today. Or would I assume no literary knowledge on the other end of the conversation? I used to assume it; I assumed serious literature was central to the culture, as it kind of was, even into the 1970s, when Bill Veck, running the Chicago White Sox, held a “Ragtime Night” at old Comiskey Park, giving away copies of the novel to the first 10,000 people through the turnstiles. The digital world has set me straight. All the programmers and coders and hackers and businessmen.

He wrote one the sexiest scenes I've ever read. It's from “World's Fair” when Edgar goes to the 1939-40 World's Fair with his friend Meg and her mother Norma, and he discovers that Norma actually works there as an underwater bathing beauty. But more. It's a kind of peep show. He's not supposed to watch it, or know about it, but he's a small criminal of perception. She swims in a giant tank of water and has her bathing suit slowly removed by a man in an octopus suit. It's a fantasy come true. It also recalls Edgar's earlier thoughts on the idiocy of Lamont Cranston's Shadow. I'd give you a sample of the scene but I don't have my copy of “World's Fair.” I must've loaned it to somebody. 

He also wrote one of the saddest scenes I've ever read. It's early in “The Book of Daniel. Two of the central characters, Daniel and Susan Isaacson (nee Lewin), the children of a fictionalized Rosenberg couple, are being led by a well-meaning lawyer to a left-wing protest rally in New York City. But then Susan gets something in her eye and they have to stop. Daniel, with the lawyer muttering impatiently, leads Susan to a doorway, away from the wind, to try to remove the object. He cajoles her and teases her and promises to play with her. He's just a kid himself at his point, no more than 10 or 11, and Susan is younger, and both are beginning to feel ostracized because their parents are national traitors. And it suddenly becomes too much for her. She cries. But this is what's needed; her tears remove the object. At which point she looks back at Daniel and asks, ”Will you still play with me?“ That's the sentence that killed me. When I reread the book in the 1990s, I just stared at it and tears began to well up in my eyes, and I went to share it with my girlfriend at the time. I wanted to share it with the world. 

After Gore Vidal's death, I wrote, ”Doctorow and Roth live.“ Now just Roth. It's ”And Then There Were None," isn't it? We're all in a big house wondering who will get picked off next.

I want to reread him all again now. I want to try the later books I didn't get into. Surely there's something there for me. I feel guilty that I've let it all sit, that I haven't come back for more.

We should have talked. We should always have talked. 

 E.L. Doctorow books

My guy. My books. 

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Posted at 08:07 AM on Jul 23, 2015 in category Books
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Wednesday July 22, 2015

Wait, How Long Ago Did Ty Cobb Play Again?

From Charles Leerhsen's biography “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty”:

But for whatever reason the 1907 World Series went about as badly for Detroit as things would go for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid down in Bolivia a few weeks later.

I guess I knew this. I certainly knew Cobb began his career in 1905, and I knew that Butch and Sundance lasted into the 20th century, but the juxtaposition of the two (or three) is still somewhat startling. 


Posted at 10:26 AM on Jul 22, 2015 in category Books
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Friday July 10, 2015

#KnowHope: Augusta, Ga., 1904

The following excerpt is from Charles Leerhsen's “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.” It's Opening Day, 1904, for the Augusta Tourists, one of Cobb's first professional teams:

Two thousand was a decent crowd even for a midweek major league game in those days, and it certified the Tourists as the most popular attraction in town since a traveling show reenacting scenes from the Boer War had passed through a month earlier. In a matter of months, [Tourists' manager] Con Strouthers would be begging for an umpiring job in a lesser league, and the skipper of the opposing Skyscrapers, Jack Grim, declared legally insane. But for now, hope reigned.

I'm enjoying this. Con Strouthers, by the way, seemed to deserve his fate, since, two games into the season, he cut Cobb from the squad, despite the kid going 2-4 with a double and homer on Opening Day. A year and some months later, Cobb would be in the Majors. By the time he retired in 1928, he would be considered the greatest player to play the game. 


Posted at 06:27 PM on Jul 10, 2015 in category Books
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Monday July 06, 2015

Why I Never Got in the Door of My Bank

Point of No Return, by John Marquand, would seem to me to be the important book in the postwar O'Hara-Marquand oeuvre. It tells the story of a man from the milieu I am describing whose values are in conflict. He has taken his liberal arts education (the one owned by the upper class) seriously; on the other hand, he is in compettition for high office at his bank. Which way will he go? The story is poignant from the point of view of this moment. No one who showed the mildest suggestion of the kind of conflictedness Marquand's hero was feeling could get in the door of his bank now.”

-- George W.S. Trow, from the essay, “Collapsing Dominant,” the 1997 intro to his essay (and book), “Within the Context of No Context.” I reread it over the 4th of July weekend. I'll never understand it but I'll always get something hugely valuable out of it. 

BTW, has anyone read “Point of No Return”? Or any Marquand?


Posted at 01:51 PM on Jul 06, 2015 in category Books
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Thursday July 02, 2015

Excerpt from 'Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty'

One of about three books I'm reading at the moment is Charles Leerhsen's “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” about the man who, for most of his career, was considered the greatest baseball player of all time. Now? He's a bit down on the list: still first in batting average but twenty-fifth in OPS, behind, among others, Johnny Mize and Joey Votto. On the other hand, Cobb is fourth all-time in position-player WAR. Of course, for the man who once said that baseball was “something like a war,” he probably wouldn't take kindly to being behind Babe Ruth in this category, since, for Ruth, baseball was something like a helluva lotta fun, kid. 

Ty Cobb: A Terrible BeautyAnyway, Leerhsen is involved in what seems like a monumental task: rehabilitating Cobb's rep. Over the years, Tyrus Raymond went from “greatest player of all time” to “one of the best” to “kind of a racist bastard” to “the worst man ever to put on a baseball uniform,” and Leerhsen, and he's probably right, thinks Cobb doesn't deserve this last honorific. Leerhsen will in fact be arguing that Cobb, for his time, wasn't particularly racist. We'll see.

In the meantime, I loved this bit. And not just because it was against the Yankees:

The Yankees were in town on that unseasonably warm Friday. In the seventh inning, with his team down 5–3, Cobb came to bat with runners on first and second—and hit a line drive off “Slim” Caldwell that smacked against the wall of the left field bleachers for an opposite field double. (Cobb, though naturally right-handed, always batted left.) The man on second, Tex Covington, scored easily, but Donie Bush, the trailing runner, barely slid in safely under catcher Ed Sweeney's tag. Not surprisingly, given the closeness of the play, Sweeney turned to the umpire and, said the New York Times, “began a protest” while “all the members of the infield flocked to the plate to help.” In other words, in the heat of the moment the Yankees forgot that Cobb was standing on second. Under such circumstances it is the custom of the base runner to sit down on the sack and wait for something to turn up [the Times continued]. But Cobb, observing that third base was unguarded, trotted amiably up there. No one saw him. So he tiptoed gingerly along toward the group at the plate. He did not come under the observation of the public until he was about ten feet from the goal all base runners seek, where for a few seconds he stood practically still, peering into the cluster of disputants before him, looking for an opening to slide through. He found one and skated across the plate with the winning run under the noses of almost the entire New York team, Sweeney touching him with the ball when it was too late.

Opportunities everywhere, kids. For the taking. 

Here's my take on the awful 1994 movie “Cobb,” of which I wrote “A hagiography would've felt less like a lie.”

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Posted at 07:11 AM on Jul 02, 2015 in category Books
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