“There was nothing more to be said on the subject of the future and their different destinies, for those words, uttered with complete calm and conviction, had done what every inspired melody does: condense a welter of emotions into an unconflicted clarity that one can instantly recall and call upon. Like a hierogram.”—Kris Saknussemm, Enigmatic Pilot
As I anticipate this year’s upcoming Virginia Writers Symposium in Charlottesville, I was stopped the other day when I read of the passing of E. L. Doctorow, to me a sacred symbol of a writer who had mastered his craft and had so much to teach all the rest of us who marveled at his creativity and innovative ways. If there was ever a “hierogram” of writers, Doctorow would have to be at the top of my list.
Based on Greek etymology, the word comes from “hieros” meaning sacred and “gramma,” “a thing written.” From my reading of Doctorow, I think the word “heirogram” fits him to the proverbial T. In a most informative obituary in The New York Times on 21 July, Bruce Weber wrote about him in more than just the usual respectful tone due to an influential person of accomplishment and considerable note.
As Weber described him, Doctorow was “the author of a dozen novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama, as well as essays and commentary on literature and politics . . .widely lauded for the originality, versatility and audacity of his imagination.” He goes on to say that Doctorow “consistently upended expectations with a cocktail of fiction and fact, remixed in book after book; with clever and substantive manipulations of popular genres like the Western and the detective story; and with his myriad storytelling strategies. Deploying, in different books, the unreliable narrator, the stream-of-consciousness narrator, the omniscient narrator and multiple narrators, Mr. Doctorow was one of contemporary fiction’s most restless experimenters.”
I am not a writer of fiction. I’ve tried and failed miserably. From my feeble efforts, though, I have gained respect over the years for the person who can do so effectively and in felicitous prose that holds your attention and anticipation. Such a man was Doctorow.
If I share any links with this man, it’s in his attention to the past and how it informs the present, and how the present has evolved from the past, to borrow words from Weber. What I rank near the top of Doctorow’s themes is his wry humor. In his 1975 book Ragtime he reaches into the past just prior to WWI to create a series of droll glimpses from both history and his imagination to flesh out his story. At one point in the book Freud and Jung, visiting New York at the same time, take an amusement park ride together through the tunnel of love. As the ad says, “Priceless.” Doctorow adds another funny observation to the event, “ . . . a few professionals understood Freud’s importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things.”
Weber’s obituary also quotes the critic Peter S. Prescott who wrote in Newsweek in 1984: “The distinguished characteristic of E. L. Doctorow’s work is its double vision. In each of his books he experiments with the forms of fiction, working for effects that others haven’t already achieved; in each he develops a tone, a structure and a texture that he hasn’t used before. At the same time, he’s a deeply traditional writer, reworking American history, American literary archetypes, even exhausted subliterary genres.”
Named after Edgar Allen Poe, Doctorow remembered asking his mother in her old age, “Do you and Dad know you named me after a drug-addicted, alcoholic delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?” In response, his mother chided him, “Edgar, that’s not funny.” When he wasn’t teasing out answers about himself from his elderly mother, he could be inscrutable himself. In writing a novel, he once said that it was his technique to stand at a remove, to invent a voice and let the voice speak, “to create the artist and let the artist do the work.”
In a New York Times Magazine interview in 1985, he said, “The image I like is the one from cartoons. You see the artist’s hand drawing a little mouse. It colors in the jacket and the pants, and then it gives him a little goose, and the mouse scoots away down the road.
“Well,” he said, “the hand is drawn, too.”
We will all miss that famous hand that served as the conduit where his magic prose coursed through on its journey from his imagination to the printed page. At the top of his game, there were few who could do better in condensing a welter of emotions into an unconflicted clarity.