E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at the age of 84, was not only a personal pal; he was a supporter of, investor in, and contributor to this magazine and, as the world knows, a gifted, original, and über-relevant novelist.
I first met Edgar in the late 1960s, when he was editor in chief of Dial Press, where his authors included James Baldwin and Norman Mailer. At the time, I was editing and publishing Monocle, a small journal of political satire.
We had an idea for a book that became Report From Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace. Its premise was that the US government had commissioned a special study group to plan the transition from a war economy to a peace economy—but the group, which met in secret, found that without war or the threat of it, the economy would collapse, so it quashed the report. The book was written by Leonard Lewin, with input from economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Monocle editors Marvin Kitman and Richard Lingeman (later executive editor of The Nation), and yours truly.
Although all of its footnotes were to real sources, the report itself was, of course, a hoax. But we wanted a publisher who would list it as nonfiction and not let the sales force know otherwise. In Edgar Doctorow, along with Dial Press publisher Richard Baron, we found the perfect coconspirators. When a reporter from The New York Times called to ask whether it was a real, government-commissioned study, Doctorow advised him: If you don’t believe it, check out the footnotes. And when the reporter called the Johnson White House, the officials—not knowing whether or not the Kennedy administration had commissioned it—simply responded, “No comment.” The Times ran a front-page story saying this was possibly a hoax and possibly a secret government document, and the book ended up on the Times bestseller list!
Little did we know that this episode, exploiting the complicated line between fact and fiction, was to prefigure Doctorow’s remarkable career as he went on to write, among other works raising critical historical, political, and cultural questions, The Book of Daniel (inspired by the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The March.
All of this is a matter of public record. What is not generally known, however, is Edgar’s unique contribution to this magazine. I am not only talking about the 22 extraordinary articles, essays, meditations, and speeches by him that we were privileged to publish, commencing in 1978, but we can start there. They ranged from his thoughts on “The Rise of Ronald Reagan,” and why it was wrong for the writers group PEN (on whose board he sat) to invite Secretary of State George Shultz to address its annual gathering, to his meditations “The State of Mind of the Union” (1986) and “A Citizen Reads the Constitution” (1987), not to mention his subversive reflections on “Why We Are Infidels” (2003).