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Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution
by E.L. Doctorow
Certain writers are good enough that you want to read who they read. So Philip Roth talks about Kafka and Bellow, and John Irving piques your interest in Dickens and Grass, and Norman Mailer turns you on to Miller and Hemingway. Each choice reveals much about the writer: Mailer's machismo, for example, or Irving's predilection for caricatures. The danger is that, if the writer is well-read and persuasive, you wind up with a "To Read" list so long it can only be completed if you quit your day job.
The literary topics E.L. Doctorow writes about in his first book of essays, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, make sense if you know Doctorow. He is a writer for whom the social and political is just as important as the aesthetic. So it is with his choices: London, Dreiser, Orwell, Thoreau. One topic is not a writer at all but the most important document our country has ever known. What do these subjects have in common? According to Doctorow in the introduction, "(A) kind of presumptive nationalism."
They are bound here by Doctorow's fine prose and sharp insights. I find myself in the Jack London essay understanding why as a child The Call of the Wild did not appeal to me the way that other dog books did. Lassie Come Home is a story about a dog who manages to find its way home with only physical, not spiritual, imparities. Lassie doesn't change really from beginning to end. Buck, in The Call of the Wild, is also torn from his home but he never makes it back. There is no "back." This is something I didn't want to know as a child.
The first paragraph of the Hemingway essay includes a description of his style that seems so precise it made me want to read the great man all over again:
[When] composing a story he would withhold mention of its central problem; when writing a novel he would implant it in geography and, insofar as possible, he would know what time it was on every page; when writing anything he would construct the sentences so as to produce an emotion not by claiming it but by rendering precisely the experience to cause it.
Doctorow even made me want to read the Constitution, although he warns, "It is five thousand words but reads like fifty thousand. It lacks high rhetoric and shows not a trace of wit, as you might expect, having been produced by a committee of lawyers." He goes over the various interpretations of our founding fathers from revolutionaries who created a republic of equal rights, to wealthy landowners whose system of checks and balances were designed to protect what they had and concludes, "I embrace all those interpretations. I believe all of them." He says the ambiguity is not in the Constitution but in ourselves.
Doctorow is never funnier than when, no longer hiding behind the wisdom of the novel, he gets to vent his spleen against the political right:
In 1968 Richard Nixon rebounded from his defeat at the hands of Jack Kennedy, and there he was again, his head sunk between the hunched shoulders of his three-button suit and his arms raised in victory, the exacted revenge of the pod people. That someone so rigid and 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 never a hope of wisdom, but living only by pure politics, as if it were some colorless blood substitute in his veins that this being could lurchingly stumble up from his own wretched career and use history and the two-party system to elect himself president is, I suppose, a gloriously perverse justification of our democratic form of government.
Ironically, it is the very certainty embodied in the above that Doctorow objects to in non-fiction. In his mind, novelists are noble clowns, "like some old relative in mismatching pants and jacket who knocks on our door during a dinner party to remind us from what we come". The novelist is equated with Theodore Dreiser's description of his younger self: "Chronically nebulous, doubting, uncertain, I stared and stared at everything, only wondering, not solving." In fact Doctorow's very first words of greeting are an admission that he prefers fiction to the essays you just bought: "With one exception the pieces in this book were weritten because someone asked me to write them."
It's almost as if he's handing you the book between thumb and forefinger, nose crinkled in distaste.
—July 26, 1996
© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard