My hero: EL Doctorow by Michael Schmidt
If there was a Great American Novel it would be Doctorow’s Ragtime, that melting pot of historical presences and common people
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow’s relation to the American novel was radical, contrary and corrective. He respected his readers, and was a literal-minded, unillusioned patriot at odds with those who exploit patriotism. If there was a Great American Novel it would be Ragtime to , to , the jazz trumpeter to the disenfranchised worker, resurrected with all their bodily functions functioning, in a world so vividly imagined that it breathes something more than oxygen back into their lungs.
Doctorow writes as a grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who understands the world of outsiders. All of his novels cross, back and forth, the border between history and fiction, and feed historical understanding – of the civil war, the birth of the American century, the Depression, the McCarthy era. They are alive to social inequality and racial injustice, exploring that moral innocence which issues in the cruel, creative, reductive self-interest of the political, business and criminal worlds. He evokes the full spectrum, from American dream to American nightmare. John Updike loved his “information-rich prose“ and how his “impertinent imagination holds fast to the reality of history even as he paints it in heightened colours“.
Doctorow’s novels grow out of earlier novels as well as history. Billy BathgateHuckleberry FinnWelcome to Hard Times(1960) is an anti-western, “playing against the music already in the reader’s head”. There is not, as with Mailer or Roth or Bellow, a sense of oeuvre. Each of his novels starts from scratch. This worked against the recognition of his stature and his legacy, a library of freestanding books that belong equally on the history and literature shelves, that engage and memorably inform. But literature, he wrote, “gives to the reader something more than information. Complex understandings – indirect, intuitive and nonverbal – arise from the words of the story”. The reader lives the book.
• Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is published by Harvard.