Winter 1994, Volume 11.1

An Interview with E. L. Doctorow

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in New York City on 6 January 1931. He attended Kenyon College, where he studied philosophy and literature under a distinguished faculty, most notably John Crowe Ransom. Following his graduation in 1952, he undertook graduate study at Columbia University, but was drafted into the Army and spent two years in Germany (1953-55). A senior editor for New American Library from 1959-1964, he assumed the role of editor in chief at Dial Press in 1964. In 1969-70, Doctorow was appointed writer in residence at the University of California at Irvine. He has since held similar positions at Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, the Yale School of Drama, and currently holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University. Doctorow lives in New Rochelle, in Sag Harbor and, for periods of teaching, in New York City. He is married to Helen Henslee; the couple has three children.

Doctorow is one of America's most distinguished literary practitioners today. His professional writing career began with the publication of Welcome to Hard Times (1960), followed by Big as Life (1966) and The Book of Daniel (1971). His play, Drinks before Dinner (1979), was originally produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. Ragtime (1975) secured him the popular and critical acclaim that his subsequent novels have received: Loon Lake (1980), World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and a collection of short stories, Lives of the Poets (1984). His recent collection, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays 1977-1992 (1993), will shortly be followed by his new novel, The Waterworks (forthcoming Spring 1994). Several of his novels have been made into films. Doctorow has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, the PENIFaulkner Award, the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and both the Arts and Letters award and the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters.

In a sense, the interview that follows really began when I became interested in Doctorow's work during my days in graduate school. Little did I know that years later, as featured speaker of Weber State University's National Undergraduate Literature Conference, Doctorow would do me the honor of speaking to me face to face. The interview was recorded at the Ogden Park Hotel, 15 April 1993, and is based on a set of written questions Doctorow read in advance. His humanity and generosity of spirit are encapsulated not only in his writings, but also in his response to my first question. When I asked how I should address him, he responded with a bemused smile: "Call me Ed. "

Wutz: Looking back over your work, it seems to me that the years of the Cold War up through Vietnam are pretty much encapsulated in The Book of Daniel. Do the more recent political changes have any consequences for your fiction at all?

Doctorow: The Cold War went on for a long time-so long, that with the exception of the generation of writers now in or approaching their seventies, the working life of every one publishing today has been entirely circumscribed by it. So it's been a lifetime. The end of the Cold War didn't bring on any national sense of elation. Mentally we may still be in it, to a certain extent. And aren't those bombs still lying around? The population of the planet has doubled in the last fifty years or so, and in another thirty will double again. Some sort of post-humanistic fate is still a possibility. China is running out of potable water. Russia is close to anarchy. And a lot of raging fanatics are running around in Europe and the Mid-East. Not communist fanatics anymore but fanatics... who learned a lot about bellicosity from the super states. So the animus has been distributed. Perhaps the effect of all of this on anyone's fiction is the least of our problems.

Wutz: In 1988 Bill Moyers asked you why most prominent contemporary political fictions are written in Latin America and South Africa, but not in the United States. You responded to him by saying that "There's no critical fraternity today that has much regard for the political novel in America. " I'm wondering whether this lack of critical response for political fiction that you see is, in any sense, related to the domineering presence of the New Criticism in the decades from, say, the 1940s to the mid, late 1970s? Put differently, is this political lethargy that you detect perhaps a kind of residue of an essentially a historical mode of critical-literary investigation?

Doctorow: I wouldn't pin it solely on the New Criticism. I grew up as a New Critic at Kenyon College. It was an historical response, you know, to a real lack of precision in critical thought. It was valuable in drawing attention to the text-in its presumption that the text itself could teach you everything you needed to know about it. I think what you describe as lethargy has more to do with the fact that with the Cold War the entire country, including a large part of the intellectual community, turned right. Domestically, the Cold War at its worst was a kind of civil religion with distinctly Puritan cruelties. People were cowed. It's true that a generation rose up against the ideology in the 1960s, but by the seventies they were pretty well mopped up. The ranks of the public critics began to thin-the generations behind Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin disappeared into the academy. Fled, one might say. There seemed to be a depoliticization of cultural life, generally. It was clear the USSR was a terrible mistake. But the correlate to that was ... that anyone in America who wrote a political novel was writing a foolishly adversarial novel. It was possible according to Cold War orthodoxy to appreciate political novelists like Kundera from Czechoslovakia, or Coetzee or Gordimer from South Africa, but the American political novel was an egregious aesthetic error. A novel about an heroic CIA operative could be a good story... but a novel about a conscientious objector was a political tract.

Wutz: You've just lamented the demise of the critic who mediates between academia proper and the public at large. One influential critic, Fredric Jameson, once observed (in an early draft of an essay which he later revised) that what characterizes contemporary culture is "the gradual eclipse of historicity, the loss of any vital imaginative sense of the past, in all its radical difference from us." And Jameson links this phenomenon with the products of mass culture, such as nostalgia films, and also with your novel Ragtime. He says that Ragtime, "better than any other recent novel strikingly dramatizes the transformation of the past, under postmodernism, into the sheer images and stereotypes of that past, the displacement of the past as referent with a new experience of the past as simulacrum and as pseudo-past." How do you respond to a charge like that?

Doctorow: Is it a charge? I haven't read the piece. I find it hard to believe that a reasonably attentive reader, let alone a professional critic, would misconstrue the irreverent spirit of that book. What makes it puzzling.... In The Book of Daniel written previous to Ragtime, I offered much the same critique of nostalgia with Daniel's analysis of Disneyland-that is, the uses to which history is put in terms of replacing the felt life with a few reductive images, or lies of nostalgia, that rob the past of its true meanings. But I would have to read the material you're citing to speak with certainty.

Wutz: It seems to me that in the last hundred years, our literary landscape has been dominated by this general bifurcation: there's modernism, which is the period before the Second World War, and then there's postmodernism which, roughly speaking, is the period after. Are the terms modernism or postmodernism, in any sense, applicable to you or your work; where would you situate yourself within that spectrum?

Doctorow: I'm not sure I'm interested in situating myself in that way. I mean, certainly, I've used certain postmodernist techniques, but for what I think of as entirely traditional story telling purposes. What does that make me-a post-post-modernist?

Wutz: Notwithstanding your critique of American literary criticism, you're one of the few contemporary American novelists who is popular both with the critical establishment and with the general readership in this country. To what do you attribute this "double popularity," if that's the right term?

Doctorow: I don't know the answer to that. I honestly don't know. When one thinks of the size of the communities in the past that have produced periods of flourishing fiction, they were much smaller and more visible as class societies, so that, for example, Dickens writing about London could rely on certain things that everybody knew-certain types of people, the middle class, the merchant class, the class of tradesmen, the working class and the upper class, with self portraying patterns of speech for each class. This is a large country and it claims to be classless, very volatile with periodic infusions of immigrant populations from various parts of the world. It is a pluralistic society; there's very little that we all have in common. But if you use a disreputable genre like the Western as I have, or play against the historical myths that everyone carries around in their mind, you may be making meaningful connections. I don't know if that's true. But I would offer that as an idea to consider.

Wutz: Keyword disreputable genre. Welcome to Hard Times, of course, is not the only novel that parodies such a genre. Your second (and least favorite) novel, Big As Life, is a sort of science fiction. And Billy Bathgate, your last published novel, plays off of the crime novel, which could be seen as a disreputable genre as well. What is it that fascinates you about these "outlawed" forms of fiction, these subgenres that exist beyond the pale of the "literary"?

Doctorow: Well again, the use of the material of popular culture has always appealed to me because popular genres are meaningful and a source of analysis of who we are and what we're doing. The American affection for gangsters seems to me to be characteristically American. Those of us who pay our taxes and observe the speed limit have great admiration for lawless people; and the great operative myth of individualism in this country expresses itself to a degree beyond tolerance in the gangster. We like to watch our gangsters flaunt their brazen sociopathic ways and then we like to see them punished. The myth of the West of course is ours, and ours alone. So when you decide to use these materials, you rely on a certain kind of ground music that the reader has in his or her head, and you have the chance to write some counterpoint.

Wutz: Your first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, seems to address two issues that appear to be a constant of much of your work. For one, there is Blue who questions the myth of the American West; and two, he also meditates on the epistemological problem of containing experience in language. He realizes that the ledgers that he keeps do not allow him to "fix" truth-that's his own word-but that any verbalized experience is always already a construction. It seems to me that similar cases could be made for The Book of Daniel, for Ragtime, and also perhaps for Loon Lake. Would it be fair to say that this kind of, let me call it, double demystification-namely the unmasking of a received truth as myth and inquiring into the process of meaning making-is a fundamental continuity of your project as a novelist.

Doctorow: Well now that you've described that so well, I say-why not?

Wutz: What amazes me about your oeuvre is the uniqueness of each of your books. Each novel is radically different from the previous ones, each book has its own distinct voice; and you have, of course, always been resistant to the observation made by critics that you have a personal style, a signature of your own, if you will. Nevertheless, is there an essential Doctorow emerging from all of your writing, a kind of stylistic or thematic preoccupation that binds much, if not all, of your work?

Doctorow: I do feel that each book has its own identity and that I'm hidden in it. It's like those picture puzzles where you look at a tree and you're asked to find the wolves hiding in the leaves-that kind of thing. Nevertheless, by simply changing your focus, it seems to me you could bring into sharp relief certain preoccupations, thematic concerns, obsessions that are in every book. So, there again it has to be left to the critic. Different people see different things. There are always children in your books. Yes, you're right, a lot of children in my books. Or you play off myths, with popular culture and history. Yes, I do that. Your books all have different voices. Yes, that's true. So, you know, someone will have to take this further. I don't think it's my job to do that.

Wutz: Children, of course, do play a great role in American literature, not just in this generation of writers. It's almost a staple of much of American fiction. Could you please comment on the role of children in your fiction, and whether this centrality of children in recent American fiction is tied to a particular historical moment of this country.

Doctorow: Well, the first part is easy to answer. Children are the narrative sources of Billy Bathgate and World's Fair. The children's experience in The Book of Daniel frame, organize, and create the being of that book. The hidden narrator of Ragtime is probably the little boy in later times.

Wutz: Excuse me for interrupting here. Why do you say "probably"? Of late, that's a question that has received quite some attention within the critical community-whether or not the little boy is, indeed, the narrator.

Doctorow: Because he was hidden to me for so much of that book. At a certain point quite near the end he betrays a personal relationship to everything he has narrated and appears to be the son of Mother and Father, namely the little boy. I'm pretty sure that's who it is, but I'm not sure that that is essential for reading the book to know that. Now, to go back to the first part of the question, it seems to me writers have always used children, I'm not sure that's specific to our moment. Dickens, of course, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, J. D. Salinger. There's a tremendous advantage writing from a child's point of view. You recover the capacity for wonder that you give up as an adult, that you've lost as an adult. You can rhapsodize the ordinary, which is empowering to a writer. Besides, you know, literature deals with hell and injustice and people going down under the weight of life, and the child is the symbol of the fully sensible mind and being who can't quite control experiences. Childhood is full sentient being and powerlessness combined, which most adults in this world can probably understand quite well.

Wutz: In your essay "False Documents" you suggest the fundamental permeability of our traditional concepts of fact and fiction. It's an essay about the breakdown or deconstruction of boundaries, about the ontological sameness of fact and fiction. As such, the essay also subverts what you have called "the power of the regime"-the Western world's belief in the hegemony of reason to construe reality. Your essay reminded me of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because he also portrays a world in his narratives where fact and fiction interpenetrate in a peculiar way. Do you see any affinities between your own work and that of Marquez?

Doctorow: No, I don't. I see his work coming out of a wonderfully errant religious sensibility that simply overwhelms the physical world. I admire his work tremendously. He's a great prose poet, is what he is. But I don't feel a close connection with him.

Wutz: Repetition and reversal obviously play a great role within many of your individual novels. I'm wondering whether one could also speak of the repetition of certain scenes or characters across the boundaries of an individual text. I am thinking here of the black janitor Williams in The Book of Daniel who reappears as Smith in World's Fair. I'm thinking of Rochelle Isaacson's crazy mother, who is asthmatic, who speaks Yiddish, who is afraid of being poisoned, and who runs away frequently, and this woman reappears as a virtual double in the later novel, World's Fair. There's the fatal accident of the woman squashed against a schoolyard fence by a car that is witnessed by both Daniel and by Edgar; and both narrators, in fact, are as asthmatic as their grandmothers. Do you engage in some sort of intertextual recycling?

Doctorow: I suppose I do, but I wouldn't have called it that at the time I was doing it. One of the things I've found myself realizing is almost the sense that I have a repertory company of characters, and I keep changing their costumes and their looks, and maybe even altering their relationships. But they're my company of players and they play different roles, but they're beginning to appear to me as my loyal troop. There are certain things that you do, and then you still need to do, really. You know you see this most clearly in a writer like D. H. Lawrence. If you read any page of The Rainbow, just open the book at random, you will see the act of writing becoming very visible. He will describe a flood, for instance. There's this big flood in The Rainbow, and he'll do a paragraph on the flood, and he will not be satisfied, he will not have felt that he's sufficiently done the flood. So he gives you another paragraph where the same thing happens, but it's a little more, a few runs, a few changes on the original paragraph, and then a third paragraph. And so on, for pages.... And you see repetition, but it isn't repetition. It's just the writer having to do it until he's finished. Same thing in terms of recycling characters from book to book. All writers do this. Musicians do it, too. I mean Bach liked certain themes; you hear a theme in the violin concerto, you hear it again in double piano concerto, you hear it in the orchestral suite. Mozart, too. Artists like things, you know. An artist who uses paints likes certain colors, or he paints the same field, or the same set of still-life objects or the same nude, over and over. It's an admission by the artist not to have achieved perfection. If you achieve perfection, there's no reason to ever do anything again.

Wutz: The concluding segments of The Book of Daniel and World's Fair take place in a simulated and futuristic environment-the 1939 World's Fair and Disneyland-while the historical present of both novels is overshadowed by a war, in one instance the Second World War, in the other, Vietnam. Why this final juxtaposition between a technocratic vision of the future and a grim historical reality?

Doctorow: I'm not sure. Perhaps this is society's way of prayingconstructing a future when the very possibility of a future is in doubt.

Wutz: In your essays and interviews, you have invoked the philosopher Walter Benjamin. How would you respond to the observation that Benjamin is present in much of your writing in the 70s, that he is almost a kind of kindred spirit. I'm thinking here in particular of Benjamin's wonderful reflections on the work of Nikolai Leskov, "The Storyteller," and his essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Both essays, it seems to me, raise a number of issues-such as the loss of an oral tradition and the consequences of technological replication-that are also present in some of your work at the time.

Doctorow: Other people have talked about these issues, too. Albert Einstein, for instance. What did train travel do to our perception of the environment, when people could move faster than they could walk or ride a horse? What does it do to your understanding of music to be able to hear it over and over again by pushing a button, rather than waiting for the next time the orchestra or the pianist comes to town? These are significant questions. Ragtime is set in a period when motor cars were just beginning to make their way, and there are player pianos, and things were massproduced resolutely. Benjamin is a philosopher of all of that. Novelists are not philosophers, they're rarely original thinkers, but somehow instinctively pick up on things that are articulated as ideas more articulately by other people.

Wutz: You have repeatedly said that your writing is largely the result of a process of trial and error, and that any rationale for the composition of a book is essentially a construct that is imposed in retrospect. Now, one reader of your work has suggested that Ragtime appears to have been produced by what he calls a "narratological assembly line," which refers of course to Henry Ford's invention in the text and to the novel's narrative speed (Harpham). I'm wondering whether such a sequential model suggests a degree of design and linearity that is at odds with your own process of composition.

Doctorow: I'm not crazy about the metaphor.

Wutz: Let me, for the moment, propose a different or perhaps a complementary model of composition. One of the most sustained image clusters in Ragtime is that of rags, which appears in numerous configurations, most prominently of course in the music from which the novel derives its title. How would you respond to the observation that Ragtime is both in terms of its thematic and its composition an assembly of narrative rags, "a crazy quilt of humanity"? Would such a patchwork approach to writing be closer to your experience as a novelist, and would such a model of composition accommodate the patterned randomness of the novel?

Doctorow: That's a little closer to the truth. With an assembly line, everything is pre-planned. A rag is both a tune and a rag. What is suggested is the impoverishment of the writer. The image of the writer as a ragpicker wandering through the streets, his disreputability and insecurity-I like that, in the sense that the materials of all novels are the lives the writer has lived or observed or heard about, these materials of rags, bits and pieces of thread, notions and stuff that he puts together somehow into something that didn't exist before. That can be worn, or used to keep warm.

Wutz: Lives of the Poets is not the first of your works to echo another work of literature in its title, in this case Samuel Johnson's book by the same title, of course. I'm thinking about the Dickensian overtones in Welcome to Hard Times and the biblical allusions in The Book of Daniel. What is your purpose in establishing these kinds of resonances?

Doctorow: Well, they may show I'm a different kind of novelist, from the writers I grew up on and took from. It's quite possible that you could not have a conversation like this with Dreiser. Hemingway would kick you out of the room. They wouldn't understand you, whereas I do. We may be in a period of literary ecology where writers are a little more educated, a little more self-conscious, and understand their books as answering other books. Every book inevitably is a response to some other book. Maybe our literature was better off when our writers were generally uneducated, coming up out of newspapers, rather than universities. I can imagine the fun Sam Clemens would have with a conversation like this.

Wutz: You have published individual pieces of short fiction in the past, but Lives of the Poets is your first published collection of short stories. Why the shift from a novel in the traditional sense to a series of shorter narrative forms?

Doctorow: Well I can't account for that. I started writing these pieces and I didn't know why, and because I'm not a short story writer but a novelist, I look for the connection among them. And the connection I found was the fictional writer who might have written them. And that led me to the novella that anchors the book. I think the case can be made that Lives of the Poets is a novel.

Wutz: World's Fair gives a vivid picture of the time when radio was the predominant means of entertainment, and we see how Edgar's imagination translates auditory signals into images. His was a culture of listening and imagining, not of televised seeing and passive absorbing. Your novel seems to celebrate this kind of imaginative engagement through radio broadcasts. Do you see in the radio a last technological stage of an oral culture that is based on the transmission of words? And as a follow-up to that, what affinities do you see between your own work as a novelist or storyteller and the radio?

Doctorow: I grew up listening to radio, and it left you room to participate. As I think I say in World's Fair, if you heard a car engine starting, you knew by the depth of the sound what kind of car it was. You always had to visualize the scene and the way the characters looked, even your favorite characters, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow-all these radio figures. And it is a form of oral storytelling. At some point when I was a boy, I thought nothing could be finer in life when I grew up than being a sound effects man for radio programs. The illusion of that was delightful to, thrilling to contemplate. Before I ever saw television, I'd heard about it and I thought this has to be great! You turn on a box and there's-a picture! And the very first reaction I had was one of extreme disappointment. The picture was flat, hermetic, oppressive. I was quite young at the time. I'd expected the same depth in the television picture as I had in my mind when I listened to radio shows. But it wasn't-it was this done deal. It was all there and it was one dimension and it was constrictive. And I'll never forget that impression I had-the flatness and the almost claustrophobic nature of the image pressed up against that screen. Yes, radio is oral culture and related to storytelling. I think that's unquestionable, because whether you hear it over the airwaves as it's dramatized with different voices or it's one person sitting and telling you this story and doing all the voices, you still have it in your mind, the depthless mind. And you are your own director and costumer and hairdresser and lighting designer. The nature of visualization is profoundly different from mere vision. It's like a dream where things change radically from one thing to another and you don't mind-it seems logical and natural that they do.

Wutz: Billy Bathgate is the last in a series of your young male protagonists whose quest for selfhood and self-actualization is inextricably intertwined with the search for a father figure. Why do you come back to this linkage between paternity and identity?

Doctorow: Well, these are Bildungsromane, aren't they? And I think it's inevitable, this linkage. People say to me, why do you write books that take place in the past? Well, I say, we live in it. Any city you walk in is made of the decisions of the dead. And who can look in the mirror and not see his own father, his own mother? In Dickens, they don't know who their fathers are. Billy Bathgate doesn't know who his father is. It's maybe not knowing who your father is that requires this linkage. Knowing too well who your father is creates a different kind of problem entirely.

Wutz: Could you give us a sense of what you are working on at the moment? A preview of coming attractions?