studying with e.l. doctorow

It took me a few months’ grieving to get over the fact that I’d never have the chance to learn directly from E. L. Doctorow, at least not as an MFA student. His work, which I came to rather late, still teaches by example, if only to show how poetry can sit quietly on the page, without intruding.

So when I came across a battered copy of his acclaimed historical fantasia Ragtime, the 1975 book so many of my colleagues at LAGCC used as the spine of entire composition classes, I thought: now’s the time. And like many readers before me, I first ate it up with a spoon, laughing and gaping as people I long knew in other contexts —Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Stanford White (who designed the late lamented Pennsylvania Station) — turned up as full-throated characters. I thought of Tony Kushner’s Ethel when I read of Emma, too – I want to ask him if he did.

And I was jealous, as always, of the ability of fiction writers to create composites, make up dialogue, and weave events whose plots match their themes. Of course, turns out he was jealous himself, as he told the New York Times in 2005: it was 1974, the world was abuzz with New Journalism, and “My feeling was ‘if they want facts, I’ll give ’em facts like they’ve never had before.’ ”

Now, I’m reading the book again, and wondering if there are lessons I can draw from it without crossing over into making shit up (as he acknowledges having done again in The March) or even crossing the line into “creative nonfiction,” a la John Edgar Wideman or Terry Tempest Williams (both of whom my admiration threatens to cross that borderline into worship).

But I’m looking at a few things Doctorow does, and wondering if I can echo them. First, he summarizes a period by accumulations of detail like these, doubtless swiped from someone’s memory:

Patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900’s. Teddy Roosevelt was President. The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meetings halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms. There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants. On Sunday afternoon, after dinner, Father and Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door.

Might there be some use for paragraphs like that, especially when there are so few scenes I can paint? Or is each of those sentences so steeped in what the Foucalt crowd calls “subjectivity” that I lose my authority?Second, at first Doctorow ends each chapter with a scene that hints at the themes of the one to come, which may at first seem unrelated but then opens up similar subject matter with new complexity. I’m not sure if that’s possible in Ain’t Marching, but the idea holds me.

Third, there’s this small rant about a war made by chicken hawk Woodrow Wilson that I can’t emulate, but makes me think about how better to offer poetic glimpses of other figures:

Teddy Roosevelt accused Wilson of finding war abhorrent. He thought Wilson had the prim renunciatory mouth of someone who had eaten fish with bones in it. But the new President was giving the Marines practice by having them land at Vera Cruz. He was giving the army practice by sending it across the border to chase Pancho Villa. He wore rimless glasses and held moral views. When the Great War came he would wage it with the fury of the affronted. Neither Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin, who was to die in a dogfight over France, nor the old Bull Moose himself would survive Wilson’s abhorrence of war.

More as I keep re-reading. The book reminds me that I am as determined to hold onto the book’s intense, novelistic style as I am to strive for scholarly rigor and loyalty to facts. The dance may leave me with even more vertigo than usual.


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