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.”