Thursday, November 10, 2011

E. L. Doctorow and the Postmodern Era

Here is a sample of my essay on Doctorow in my soon to be released collection entitled The Moving Finger Writes: 

The Stylistic Freedom of E. L. Doctorow
The postmodern agenda has been described as a revolt against the Moderns, a departure from order, Enlightenment, reason, unity and system, while it embraces fragmentation, depthlessness, indeterminacy and chaos, to name only a few of its most frustrating characteristics. The postmodern world in general favors a creation-centered, spirituality over the "God is Dead" alienation of the Moderns and the anthropic principle over the accidental universe. In aesthetics, the search by the Moderns for meaning and transcendence from alienation has been discarded like yesterdays newspapers to be recycled into a "New Age" cosmic consciousness, whose superficiality discourages the need for interpretation. Much of the writing (Marquez, Borges and Pynchon, notwithstanding) is self-indulgent and cathartic, exemplified by the poetry of Adrienne Rich, or deliberately vague and flaccid as in much of John Ashbery, or it rests haphazardly within the category of the absurd; it becomes carnavalesque, anti-form and diegetic as in Robert Coover's work. There is a very superficial tip of the hat, if indeed there is any acknowledgment at all, to serious issues, with which the Moderns at least attempted to grapple.

E. L. Doctorow is one of the few writers today who is eager to embrace the larger political and social issues of our time, believing it to be not only the writer's responsibility, but "the passion of our calling…the belief that writing matters, that there is salvation in witness and moral assignment" (qtd in Harter 12). However, in portraying the social issues of the past and present, Doctorow combines an impelling synthesis of authorial devices; he is neither a realist in the modernist tradition, nor depthless and ludic' in the postmodern sense, yet his work embraces many of the techniques of both worlds, resulting in an historical view which he has described as slightly off center. "Somehow I was the kind of writer who had to put myself though prisms to find the right light--I had to filter myself from my imagination in order to write" (Trenner 34). It is this distorted view of history, the juxtaposition of imaginary historical characters with real ones, all of whom are implanted into altered historical situations, which is the focus of much poststructuralist criticism today and indeed occupies several paragraphs in Fredric Jameson's often quoted essay, "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." While discussing Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, Jameson states, "This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only 'represent' our ideas and stereotypes about the past (which thereby at once becomes 'pop history')" (69). "Re¬presentation" is a major tenet of postmodernism and a valued tool in Doctorow; it is "simulacrum," the exact copy for which there is no original.

That Jameson admires Doctorow is clear, once referring to him as, "…one of the few serious and innovative Left novelist's at work in the United States today…" (68), a sentiment which is echoed by others perhaps less knowledgeable than Jameson, who read into Doctorow's work a political message that is both simplistic and reductive. Still others are outraged by Doctorow's manipulation of historical facts, regarding them as mis-representations rather than representations. Nevertheless, in most of the criticism reviewed, it is the content of Doctorow's social comment that fires the debate today rather than his treatment of it. The focus of this essay will be Doctorow's techniques, many of which I believe fall well within the postmodern paradigm: the revision of history, which is evident in all his works, the almost cinematic structure of his prose as seen in The Book of Daniel, his early and perhaps greatest novel, and his voice--the symbiosis of author and character--evident not only in The Book of Daniel, but more recently in the novella and collection of six short stories, Lives of the Poets.

To be continued . . .


  1. Your article -- your first paragraph in particular -- is written with such limpid precision that I'm driven by your voice alone. I agree with you that "much of the [postmodern] writing ... is self-indulgent and cathartic" -- yet I do not quite agree with your assessment of E.L. Doctorow's place in American literature. Still, you write so well that you're an absolute pleasure to read.

    Just incidentally, did you know that E. L. Doctorow was Ayn Rand's editor (at Random House) for her novel The Fountainhead? I'm not sure why I find that so strange, but I do.

  2. Ray, thank you for those words of appreciation. I am re-reading "City of God" before continuing with the Doctorow essay, as I believe it to be his most provocative work. No, I did not know he edited Ayn Rand's Fountainhead; an interesting tid bit. More later and thanks for visiting my site. sm