From 1978 until just months before his death this week, the novelist E.L. Doctorow favored The Nation with his comments on the American scene. Reading them now, we glimpse a literary man having his say on contemporary political and social issues. Interestingly, in his very first article for the magazine, “Living in the House of Fiction” (April 22, 1978)—which echoes the themes of his third novel, The Book of Daniel, a strongly political work inspired by the Rosenberg case—Doctorow discussed the question of a writer’s relationship to politics and ideology. He reached the conclusion that “ideologically committed writers” too often create works that offer views of reality framed by theories rather than by the author’s personal vision.
But Doctorow realized that going too far down the road of subjectivity could lead a writer to “a sort of aesthetic solipsism,” in turn leading to a genre of fiction that was all too prevalent: the psychological novel set in a private world. Too many contemporary authors had given up making “large examinations of society,” he lamented; novels that were “a major and transforming act of the culture,” the kind of novels that “can find out things, that can bring into being constituencies of consciousness, [that] can give courage.” In that piece Doctorow foreshadowed much of his future work. He developed a vision that is both historic (in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, John dos Passos) and social (in the lineage of Jack London and Theodore Dreiser). Ever since Ragtime made a literary and commercial splash in 1975, he has given us highly original novels that slyly subvert our received ideas about the American past and offer a radical critique of contemporary culture. As the editor and critic Ted Solotaroff put it in The Nation in 1994: “Viewed together, his novels form a highly composed vision of American history.” Former Nation literary editor John Leonard, writing about Billy Bathgate, which recounts the Alger-ish rise of an ambitious young man under the tutelage of the gangster Dutch Schultz, called it “a fairy tale about capitalism…in its first stages of primitive accumulation.”
Like Doctorow’s novels, his nonfiction was grounded in a set of core ideas and values—generally progressive, though not didactically so, and absolutist in their devotion to artistic and political freedom and to what he regarded as fundamental democratic principles. Reviewing one of his books in The Nation, Vince Passaro, a novelist of a later generation, placed Doctorow (born 1931) in a cohort affected “by their knowledge of an America their younger peers never saw, the experience of a brief period when Americanism and justice were not the antithetical concepts they later became; when progressivism had a foothold; when the labor movement became an established and significant force; when the United States achieved a kind of honorable strength in World War II.” Passaro contended that underlying Doctorow’s historical imagination was “a romantic love of his country, its history of democracy and violence, and its layered identity of individualism, religiosity, struggle and plenty.”
In his Nation essays Doctorow frequently lamented how our politics and our politicians have betrayed the nation’s fundamental ideals. Take “The Rise of Ronald Reagan” (July 19, 1980), a character study of the man, whose genial persona masked a corporatist ideology. “With not much more than his chuckles and shrugs and grins and little jokes,” he writes, “Mr. Reagan managed in two elections to persuade a majority of the white working/middle class to vote against their own interests.” In a democracy we get the president the majority votes for. But beware of answered prayers, Doctorow observed: “The President we get is the country we get. With each new President the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul.”
Consider Richard Nixon, who ultimately subjected the nation to the Watergate trauma. It was indeed consequential, Doctorow wrote, that the country chose “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 no discernible reverence in him for human life, and certainly with never a hope of wisdom but living only by pure politics as if it were some colorless blood substitute in his veins.” Not least in the power of that analysis is the final metaphor, conjuring up an image of Nixon the political zombie, his career a series of comebacks from the dead.
In a another presidential allusion (“The White Whale,” July 14, 2008), he described George W. Bush’s toxic cultural legacy: “The domestic political fantasy life of these past seven years finds us in an unnerving time loop of our own making—in this country, quite on its own, history seems to be running in reverse, and knowledge is not seen as a public good but as something suspect, dubious or even ungodly.” Welcome to the age of the Tea Party, which would repeal the theory of evolution as well as Keynesian economics and the social philosophy of the New Deal.
But we do not read a Doctorow essay for its policy prescriptions. We read it for his firm moral vision, his glittering style and his eloquence. It’s not just what he said but the witty, elegant way he said it. He brought to bear all the talents in his fictional arsenal: character analysis and story-telling power imbued with a subtle glamour. But also a deep sense of American history, culture and politics and a philosopher’s questing mind. Indeed, in another piece, “A Citizen Reads the Constitution” (February 21, 1987), he assayed the nation’s foundational document as a critic would a literary text, excavating its inner meanings by close reading buttressed by references to its historical origins, the expressed intentions of its authors and its historical reception.
Admittedly, he found nothing literary about the text. It is written in the dry language of contract lawyers, sprinkled with “whereins” and “whereases.” Yet behind the legalisms he discerned a central voice that claimed for itself the power to ordain. This voice is that of “the people,” not God as was customary in 1787. Thus, the Constitution is a “sacred text of secular humanism,” a “people’s text.” Its operative verb is shall; it addresses the future, the Republic to come—of, by and for the People. And for all its “moral self-contradictions”—most profanely, its endorsement of slavery—it immortalizes so long as the Republic lives “the idea of democratic polity.”
In reading the Constitution as a “literary text,” Doctorow said, he was approaching it as a “professional writer,” to whom words are power. But he added that in doing so he was joining a trend among contemporary legal scholars, a trend in which he found a lesson: “When I see the other professions become as obsessively attentive to text as mine is, I suspect it is a sign that we live in an age in which the meanings of words are dissolving, in which the culture of discourse itself seems threatened. That is my view of America under Reagan today: in literary critical terms, I would describe his Administration as Deconstructionist.”
Doctorow perceived a long-term, substantive trend at work that threatened to undermine the people’s text: “We are evolving under Realpolitik circumstances into a national military state—with a militarized economy larger than, and growing at the expense of, a consumer economy: a militarized scientific-intellectual establishment; and a bureaucracy of secret paramilitary intelligence agencies—that becomes increasingly self-governing and unregulated.” One of Doctorow’s recurring themes is the sovereign role in American culture of the atomic bomb, an enduring legacy of World War II. As he wrote in “The State of Mind of the Union” (March 22, 1986), “The great golem we have made against our enemies is our culture, our bomb culture—its logic, its faith, its vision.”
Doctorow’s reverence for the Constitution was also evident in his essay “In the Eighth Circle of Thieves,” published in 2000, in which he bemoaned the overweening influence of corporations on Washington. This corporate dominance betrays the “national ideal” articulated in the Constitution, of America as “the ultimate communal reality.” For corporations do not envision a “just nation” as the Constitution does; they call for “a confederacy whose people are meant to live at the expense of one another.” In such a warped polity, “the corporations…ask only one thing in return, that we recognize two forms of citizenship, common and preferred.”
Prophetically, Doctorow condemned those who speak of “corporate speech” as a “kind of speech that mustn’t be tampered with, as if to privilege the free speech of corporations with vast treasuries on those grounds is not undeniably to squelch the speech of others who do not have the same resources.” As we now know, this view would prevail in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which held that corporations have an inalienable right to buy or manufacture as much speech as they need to distort and influence policy issues.
In this same piece, he deplored America’s treatment of citizens who speak out against “the bewildering broad front of failure and mendacity and carelessness of human life in so much of our public policy in tones any louder than muted regret.” Such an outspoken dissident “will be marginalized… as a leftist, a bleeding-heart liberal or perhaps a raging populist, but in any event someone so out of the ‘mainstream’ as not to be taken seriously.”
Ironically, Doctorow was just so marginalized after delivering a commencement address at Brandeis University, at which the then–New Republic editor in chief, Martin Peretz, was present. Calling the address “a calumny against America,” Peretz, a trustee of the university, complained on the spot to Brandeis president Evelyn Handler. So much for a serious speech that Doctorow intended as a “critique of the Reagan administration and right-wing Republicanism.” Peretz later denied playing any part in the decision not to reprint the address in a university publication, a decision that, commendably, was later reversed. In any case, The Nation published the speech as “A Gangsterdom of the Spirit” (October 2, 1989).
Pedants be warned: If you invited E.L. Doctorow to speak to your graduates, he was liable to tell them what he honestly thought—as he did the Class of ’83 at Sarah Lawrence. “Propelled by the ethic of pragmatic selfishness,” he said, “we have rushed headlong into private life and shut the door.”
And he certainly did that when he spoke to readers of The Nation. In his Nation essays, we glimpse multiple Doctorows. In addition to Citizen Doctorow, the Constitution reader, there is Citizen Doctorow of the Republic of Letters, such as when he took issue with the American PEN Center’s decision to invite Secretary of State George Shultz to speak at the 48th International PEN Congress in New York City in 1986, observing that artists shouldn’t “need [political leaders’] imprimatur in order to get together to talk and eat and drink.” Or when he defended National Endowment for the Humanities grants to writers by meshing progressive and artistic values in a democratic vision: “People everywhere have been put in the position of fighting piecemeal for this or that social program while the assault against all of them proceeds across a broad front. The truth is, if you’re going to take away the lunches of schoolchildren, the pensions of miners who’ve contracted black lung, the storefront legal services of the poor who are otherwise stunned into insensibility by the magnitude of their troubles, you might as well get rid of poets, artists and musicians.” Or when paying homage to a literary ancestor, as in his tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald on the occasion of his centennial. Or when celebrating art as “a natural resource as critical to us and our identity and our survival as are our oil, our coal, our timber.” Or when questioning the role of religion in a pluralistic society: “Our pluralism has to be a profound offense to the fundamentalist, who by definition is an absolutist intolerant of all forms of belief but his own, all stories but his own.”
Just as he fiercely defended the integrity of his own work and values, Edgar Doctorow championed the droit moral—not only artists’ legal right to preserve the integrity of their work but also artistic freedom as a universal human right. The Nation and the nation were lucky to have known him and to have been inspired by and given courage by his words.