A Writer’s Legacy
E.L. Doctorow’s Readers Were Guaranteed a Good Time
While we don’t know what posterity will make of the Ragtime author, who died Tuesday at 84, one thing is for sure: Each of his books promised a solid story and satisfying experience.
Death has cheated us out of any more E.L. Doctorow novels, and on that score Death has a lot to answer for. Without him in it, the world is diminished.
When I think back on the Doctorow novels I have read, the first word that comes to mind is pleasure. Or maybe the better word is fun.
I have no idea if Doctorow’s novels are timeless. I have no idea what posterity will make of him. And I don’t particularly care. All I know is that whenever I picked up one of his books, I was guaranteed a good time—a solid story, a well-made thing, a satisfying experience.
There is no way to convey to readers who weren’t there the excitement that Doctorow generated before Ragtime appeared in 1975. There had been a couple of novels before that. There was a Western, Welcome to Hard Times, that took a lowly genre form and taught us what a skillful novelist could do with it. There was a novel about the Rosenbergs that said here is a writer who knows how to put history into fictional form without cheapness. Then came Ragtime, the novel that secured his reputation.
But before Ragtime appeared as a novel, Doctorow published pieces of it in the New American Review, one of the best literary magazines of the ’60s (though it was not a magazine really; it was published as a series of paperbacks). It was there that I first read him.
In particular, I remember reading a story of his featuring Harry Houdini that filled me with such delight that I read it over and over, marveling at the ease with which Doctorow made Houdini a fictional character without ever sacrificing his actual reality as a historical figure. It was audacious, but more than that, it was fun.
When the novel appeared, the Houdini story was subsumed, along with vignettes about other real figures such as Freud and Emma Goldman, into a story about 1917 America and a middle-class family in New Rochelle. I never thought the sum was quite as good as the constituent parts, but perhaps that was because nothing could ever quite equal that initial excitement I felt upon discovering those first fragments.
Doctorow would go on to repeat the strategy of mixing history and fiction in a number of novels, some of them about famous events (the World’s Fair), others about famous people (William Tecumseh Sherman), and some about people who were famous or legendary by accident (Homer and Langley Collyer, who were notorious for the mammoth scale of their hoarding habits). Some of these books were better than others—the novel about Sherman, The March, is a fine book, but like everything ever written about Sherman, fact or fiction, it fails ultimately to unriddle this most mysterious man. Homer and Langley, on the other hand, is a noir gem.
Doctorow’s books are all solid, beautifully made things. No writer in the last half-century knew better how to get from one end of a story to the other. He simply never got lost. Perhaps it was because, to support himself and his family, Doctorow toiled as a book editor for years (editing Mailer, Baldwin, and William Kennedy, among others) before publishing his own work. So he knew the mistakes writers can make, and knew how to fix them.
That said, it’s ironically the fragments and special moments in his fiction that stick with me. There’s a passage in Loon Lake where a character is on a train stopped somewhere in upstate New York. Peering out the window of the train, he stares into endless wilderness. It’s a small throwaway moment in the book, but it conveys better than almost anything I ever read the dark immensity of the American landscape. Whenever I find myself driving through the woods of New York state, I always remember that passage—I am seeing New York through Doctorow’s eyes. Thinking about it even now gives me a little shiver.
A writer who makes himself part of your memories is not to be taken lightly. So yes, I am sorry that there will be no more Doctorow stories. My only solace is the knowledge that wherever he is now, he is surely preparing to put Death himself in an Edgar Doctorow novel. I only wish I could read it.