E.L. Doctorow’s Novels About American History Changed the Future of Fiction


Jeet Heer in The New Republic:

E.L. Doctorow, who died yesterday, wrote historical novels that never ran the risk of being merely antiquarian. The past was never really dead for Doctorow, but always connected to present-day realities. Doctorow himself was more than a fiction writer. He was a bridge to an older America, one that shaped the modern world in ways that were often willfully forgotten.

In his 1991 book Postmodernism, the literary critic Fredric Jameson wrotethat “E. L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition: no one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present.”

A prime example of what Jameson had in mind was Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971), about a 1960s student activist researching his parents, executed spies loosely based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Book of Daniel is much more polarizing than other Doctorow’s other novels—former editor of the New York Times Book Review Sam Tanenhausdismissed it as “kitsch” on twitter yesterday—but it is central to his development as a writer. It was in The Book of Daniel that Doctorow discovered his great theme, the return of the repressed, the way the political movements that were crushed by McCarthyism in the early cold war came to the fore in other guises in the 1960s.

Doctorow’s historical vision was enormous in scope and bookended by two wars: the Civil War and the Vietnam War. His prime interest was the America that ran from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman, the America that crushed the Confederacy but left the problem of slavery unresolved, the America of mass immigration and industrialization, of labor unions and robber barons.

More here.