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THE WRITING LIFE

An American tale

September 24, 2006|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

E .L. DOCTOROW spends his summers in Sag Harbor, a former whaling town on the eastern end of Long Island now best known as a seasonal resort. His house is square and orderly, on a side street in the village, which is the kind of place where, he notes in his new book "Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993-2006" (Random House: 178 pp., $24.95), "ordinary seamen left their families when they went to sea." For Doctorow, Sag Harbor is an emblematic landscape, just a couple of hours from New York City, where he was born in 1931 and still lives, a town with connections both to the 19th century and the elusive paradoxes of the present day. Sitting in his backyard on an August afternoon, he laughs as a helicopter buzzes overhead. "It's Steven Spielberg," he speculates, referring to the director who also has a summer home here, a notion that clearly leaves the author ambivalent. Listening to him, you get the sense that he's inhabiting a different Sag Harbor altogether, a territory threaded through with history, where, he writes, "for some years in the nineteenth century with the whaling industry booming, its denizens had reason to believe that someday, with its deep-water harbor, it would rival New York as a major port."

"Creationists" is Doctorow's third volume of nonfiction, an inquiry into literature that has more than a little in common with his 2003 collection "Reporting the Universe." Opening with a piece on the Book of Genesis and closing with essays on Einstein and the atom bomb, the book explores the question of narrative, and what value it may have in a world fragmented by the complexities of contemporary life. "Storytelling lost its authority when the enlightenment came on," Doctorow explains, speaking slowly, carefully, his voice still bearing a breath of the Bronx, where he was raised. "Suddenly, to make something true, you had to prove it. You had to observe it, demonstrate it, see that it worked again and again. Whereas in the old days, the presumption behind telling a story was that it was true because stories were all people had." Yet even now, as he writes in his introduction, "[s]tories, whether written as novels or scripted as plays, are revelatory structures of facts. They connect the visible with the invisible, the present with the past. They propose life as something of moral consequence. They distribute the suffering so that it can be borne.... The storyteller practices the ancient way of knowing, the total discourse that antedates all the special vocabularies of modern intelligence."

It's interesting because Doctorow is not generally thought of as an essayist, and "Creationists" is slight in places, made up as it is of speeches, introductions and occasional pieces composed over the last 14 years. What holds the book together are his reflections on a dozen or so writers -- Poe, Melville, Twain, Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos, whose "U.S.A." trilogy remains, for Doctorow, an elemental touchstone. In that sense, "Creationists" might best be read as an analogue to Doctorow's fiction, a set of context clues.

Of course, when it comes to context, that list of writers is doubly instructive, for it suggests the company in which Doctorow belongs. At 75, he is a literary elder statesman, author of 17 books, including 10 novels, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Book Award. His latest novel, "The March" -- which reimagines Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's relentless trek through Georgia and the Carolinas -- won a PEN/Faulkner Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

More to the point, Doctorow may be our most broadly American author, writing novels that operate as what he calls "immense social documents," taking on the messy ambiguities of the national mythosphere. "Ragtime," which 31 years after its initial publication remains his best-known work, weaves historical figures such as architect Stanford White, his lover Evelyn Nesbit, and anarchist Emma Goldman into the fabric of its fiction to create a three-dimensional pastiche of turn-of-20th-century America. His 1971 novel "The Book of Daniel" re-creates, from the point of view of one of their adult children, the story of a Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-like couple executed at the height of the Cold War as atomic spies. If part of the appeal here has to do with Doctorow's ability to look beyond his experience, equally important is his sense of history as personal, as something with an inner life. "When you use a historical character like Sherman," he says, "it's your Sherman. You're doing what a painter does when he paints a portrait. It's a rendering. And there's nothing wrong with that, even if the man is a public figure. Writers do that with characters composed of their own family members. Whether the character is publicly known or not publicly known, you're doing the same thing."

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