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.
I 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.
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.
My guy. My books.