News & Articles
Doctorow's Warring Histories
2011-2012, Volume 6
by The March Research Associate Shannon Fitzsimons
Language is war by other means. —E.L. Doctorow.
Near the conclusion of E.L. Doctorow’s novel The March, General William Tecumseh Sherman reflects how the desperate, bloody and all-too-physical realities of four years of battle have been transformed into an abstracted war of words as Union and Confederate representatives negotiate a treaty of peace. E.L. Doctorow—in giving voice to Sherman and scores of other character—wages another war of words, against our established notions of history and its privileged claims to truth.
“History is created by all of us, and perhaps least of all by the historians. I think the important point is that the uses of history are not only various in our country and necessary but also widespread. The novelist is always recognized to be inventing history; the others—the historians, social scientists, journalists—are not. We seem to have been isolated as the one profession that lies and is forced to admit that it lies. Perhaps that’s the reason to trust us all the more.”
Doctorow’s work deliberately blurs boundaries between fact and fiction in order to highlight the selective and inherently political process of history making. For Doctorow, fact and fiction are both “narratives,” each to be considered with a critical eye for what is told and what is left untold.
Taken together, many of Doctorow’s novels constitute a loose, idiosyncratic and profoundly democratic people’s history of the United States across the past 150 years: The Waterworks is a nightmarish exploration of political corruption in 1870s New York, inspired by Doctorow’s namesake, Edgar Allen Poe; Ragtime dramatizes the final years of the Gilded Age before World War I; Billy Bathgate delves into the world of 1930s organized crime; The Book of Daniel reconstructs the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from the perspective of their son. Numerous intertextual ties exist between the novels, particularly The March. While the freed slave Coalhouse Walker, Sr. plays a supporting role in The March, his son Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the pianist-turned revolutionary, is a central figure in Ragtime. The army surgeon Colonel Sartorius is the villain of The Waterworks.
Doctorow’s historical narratives cut a rich cross-section of humanity at times of national unrest and transformation. His characters traverse boundaries of class, race, gender and national origin, and their personal evolutions reflect the larger shifts in American culture. Historical figures play supporting roles in the lives of ordinary men and women who populate the novels, upending accepted hierarchies of historical importance.
While writing, Doctorow creates characters or incorporates historical figures into his narrative that speak to him as “images” of their age. Personal resonance carries more weight than historical significance; this is why, for example, J.P. Morgan appears in Ragtime rather than his fellow robber baron Andrew Carnegie. Doctorow deliberately maintains critical distance from his characters, borrowing techniques from journalism and works of history in order to heighten the sense of verisimilitude. The narratives themselves take on the syntax and rhythm of the age they depict: the syncopation of Ragtime, the intricate formalities of nineteenth-century prose in The Waterworks. Doctorow’s carefully drawn portraits, his “images” of American lives from every corner of society, merge to create a panorama that fuses myth and history.
Although Doctorow sets his work in the past, he writes—and we read—with knowledge of what has come to pass in the years since. In the final lines of The March, Doctorow writes of the objects left behind in the wake of war: a boot, scraps of uniform, cartridge shells. These humble objects stand in for the many lives that will be lost to history—some of them the lives of people we have come to know, to deeply care for in the course of the novel. Doctorow makes these objects, those lives, a part of our memory. Suggesting, perhaps, that history and fiction wage a war against forgetting.
Shannon Fitzsimons is pursuing an Interdisciplinary Ph.D in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University