The Radical, Militant Nostalgia of E.L. Doctorow

According to the New York Times, American author E.L. Doctorow died Tuesday of lung cancer at the age of 84. Described by critic John Leonard as a man of “measured merriment,” Doctorow leaves behind him a reputation as America’s preeminent and most consistent writer of iconoclastic historical fiction. He was also, as Leonard noted in the New York Review of Books, a “cultural anthropologist, a troubadour, a private eye, and a cost-benefit analyst of assimilation and upward mobility in the great American multiculture, as well as the chronicler of the death of fathers, the romance of money…” In other words: an irreplaceable cornerstone of American letters.

His work reflects what the filmmaker Thom Andersen has called a “militant nostalgia,” a willingness to intervene in the past in order to orient it toward a better, future world. (It is worth stating, too, that his politics is located here and not in some prescriptive doctrine.) In doing so, Doctorow could play fast and loose with history — a magician’s act he performed with glee in canonical novels like The Book of Daniel and World’s Fair. It was this formal quality that irked writers like John Updike, who, as the Times obituary notes, accused him of “playing with helpless dead puppets.” Against Updike, though, it can be said of Doctorow that his interference in the past afforded him a more clearsighted vision of the present, as when he opposed the Iraq War in a Hofstra University graduation lecture in 2004, for which he was reportedly booed. It also allowed him to prophesy freely and credibly about his future, to become the man whom Leonard called “the Prophet Edgar.”

In my own reading life, Doctorow was not so much a conduit to some alternate American identity as he was to a different literature altogether. Like many, I suspect, I came to The Book of Daniel and Ragtime through John Dos Passos, whose political about-face from Depression-era leftist to rightist fool I blame on a blow to the head. Doctorow made no such switch, but he did keep the cinematic elements (which he tried to parlay into a career in screenwriting). As I read his books in my early 20s, I sometimes thought that, one by one, he was simply adding new styles and narratives to an elaborated (probably better) version of the USA Trilogy. From there, I moved on to the European historical fictions of Peter Weiss and others.

It seemed easy for Doctorow, who claimed he had no style, to inhabit countless incarnations of the American psyche. It reminds me of Borges, who, in one of his fictions, had Shakespeare tell God: “I who have been so many men in vain want to be one man only, myself.” I somehow doubt Doctorow hoped for such a thing. He was too busy, as Leonard also put it, bringing his many avatars to his “redemptive mission.” A writer who negotiated the possibility of collective action through the power of singular imagination, he will be collectively, singularly missed.