Writing

How E.L. Doctorow Expertly Wove History into Fiction

History, according to the writer E.L. Doctorow, is a battlefield. As he told an interviewer in 1986: “It’s constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.”

Another word for myth is story, and Doctorow, who wrote celebrated historical novels for much of the second half of the 20th century, was nothing if not a storyteller. He had no qualms putting Sigmund Freud on a ride at Coney Island with Carl Jung, or the anarchist Emma Goldman in a bedroom with tycoon Stanford White’s mistress, Evelyn Nesbit. He claimed to have based his intricately detailed portrait of JP Morgan solely on a photograph, and called research “finding a reliable source for the lie I was about to create.”

Of course, there’s a bit of self-mythologizing in these claims, as well — anyone who’s read Doctorow’s precisely described account of the sights and smells of a Civil War battlefield in The March, or his careful and elaborate description of the workings of the New York City aqueducts in The Waterworks, knows the writer must have put in long hours with the microfiche to achieve such scientific and technical specificity.

But ultimately Doctorow, who died in 2015 and whose final story collection has just been released, was concerned with a less fact-checkable source of the truth: the lives of ordinary people who, unremarkable and uncelebrated in their time, never had their stories transformed into myth, and in this way, represented a truer form of history than the fables we pass on about great men and women. Discussing his celebrated book Ragtime, the writer said: “everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J. P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography…Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up. The historical characters in the book are Mother, Father, Tateh, The Little Boy, The Little Girl.” The writer himself, who gave characters his own name but denied autobiographical aspects of his novels, was both a character from fiction and history, which is why we need a biography of E.L. Doctorow.

The facts of Doctorow’s life have been well-documented: born to a poor but book-loving family in the Bronx, the young writer (he claimed to have known his vocation from the age of nine) went to Kenyon College, where he studied literary theory, then Columbia University, where he studied English Drama. He married in 1954, spent two years in the Army, then got a job as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, where the execrable quality of the scripts for Westerns inspired him to write what began as a satire but ended up an earnest first novel, 1960’s Welcome to Hard Times. He worked for years as an editor, and with the critical and commercial success of Ragtime in 1975 was able to devote himself to writing full-time.

Throughout his career, Doctorow was adopted by various constituencies as the voice of their concerns. The left saw his novels, which featured characters oppressed by economic, social, and political forces, as essentially political arguments. Historians considered him chiefly a chronicler of America in the 19th and 20th centuries, and literary critics celebrated him as a restless experimenter of narrative, voice, and form. Readers found his cinematic, breath-stealing scenes (Billy Bathgate opens with a mobster stepping into a bucket of wet cement, in preparation for being thrown overboard a tugboat) irresistible.

Doctorow once claimed he’d had very little experience in his life, saying “I try to avoid experience if I can. Most experience is bad.” As with his assertion about creating the character of JP Morgan whole-cloth from looking at a picture, this allegation cannot be taken literally. He was speaking more generally of the experience of being human, one we all have available to us. Doctorow believed if a writer can only tap into his or her own humanity deeply enough, we can find the empathy to inhabit the soul of a character. But just what his own experience of being human was, Doctorow never says. Perhaps a skilled biographer could find out.