He had no problem giving us an utterly pompous Booker T Washington in Ragtime. Coates had no problem with that either, and I asked if he would allow other writers—conservative revisionists, say, or stone-cold racists— the same licence to make the Great Educator look like something of a fool. Let them do it. Morgan, and still not be able to imagine what the guy was actually like. But Doctorow puts him on the page, and I can see him right there in front of me.
While we have you...
He could conjure the past. He could take you to that place. It was a spectral thing, but he made it feel real. In the last years of his life, Doctorow expressed a growing fear of American atavism, a return to the social conditions that prevailed before the New Deal. He had been raised under the presidential polestar of Franklin D. Well into the twenty-first century, he warned that the United States was again coming to resemble its nineteenth-century self in terms of violence, poverty, inequity and plutocratic rule.
- Profound as Coalhouse walker's story might be, Ragtime is about far more.!
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It recreates the New York of for the purposes of a weird Gothic detective story, in which obscenely wealthy Civil War profiteers fake their own deaths to be kept alive like revenants in the underground laboratory of a genius ex-army surgeon. Their conspiracy touches on the real-world corruption of Boss Tweed and his ring of thieves at Tammany Hall—painted into the background of the story as early incarnations of the rich, white boardroom ghouls who recur to take power at every phase of the American timeline, not least in our present.
And murderous. All the qualities of men who prevail in our Republic.
That book was apparently inspired by a time slip that Doctorow experienced one morning when he looked out the window of his apartment on the Upper East Side—fog was rolling down over the skyline, blanking out every building newer and taller than the iron-fronts and brownstones of the Industrial Age. Some democratic impulse makes McIlvaine—or Doctorow—reluctant to privilege the central characters over the surrounding crowds of shopkeepers, beggars, millenarians, factory workers, and ubiquitous street children.
There was nothing quaint or colorful about us. For all the solid information he imparts about the past, there remains a persistent sense of mystery, a nagging suspicion that history works in us or upon us through some strange animating force, as phantasmic and ungraspable as human consciousness itself. The nominal villain of The Waterworks , the putative mad scientist, turns out to be unnervingly sane.
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But even he comes undone when confronted with Abraham Lincoln. A younger, slightly warmer Sartorius runs a mobile field hospital in the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman, then fighting its final battles through Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas, trailed by a growing procession of freed slaves. Coalhouse Walker Sr. To explain how bad he looked, the public care on his brow, you would have to account for more than an inherited syndrome. A proper diagnosis was not within the realm of science.
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Rereading that passage not long ago, it brought to mind the greying of Obama through his years in office. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld—as semi-satirical caricatures in an atypical, experimental meditation on the recent past and imminent future. Always cosmically curious about the human condition, about our place in the universe of Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he now seemed deeply worried that microgenetics might finally reveal what makes us tick—and destroy us in the process.
He never would have been such an unrealist to think it could happen. If he were alive to see this cartoon villain running the show, this travesty of the American system, I think he might have been silenced by it. They had been married for sixty years at the time of his death, having met as drama students at Columbia University in the early s.
Doctorow made a strong impression on her in a rehearsal for Henry V, when he delivered a soliloquy while leaning against a proscenium arch and smoking a cigarette. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who cites Doctorow as a major influence, admits he has never read Doctorow's essays. She had lately been sifting through old papers, and unearthed the love letters from their early courtship. I asked if this had been painful. Its framers, he wrote, could not have foreseen or endorsed the national military state that would derive its authority from their choice of words, some years on.
He was not a grumpy guy, she assured me, even in the midst of composition—he never once turned away any of their three kids when they interrupted him. Helen said her own favorite was The Book Of Daniel. In that novel, Doctorow had extended the natural lifespan of the Collyer brothers, those infamous pack-rats and shut-ins who filled their vast Manhattan townhouse with mountains of accumulated junk, from scrap metal and faded newspapers to pianos and vintage cars.
Their bodies were found inside in , but Doctorow had their fictional selves live decades longer, outlasting Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and enduring through the Vietnam War. What if someone did the same for the author himself? He is now a part of history and surely no less of a character than those who populated his fiction.
And if I understand his philosophy, there is nothing to stop me telling a story in which Doctorow lives on into the present. As an exercise in wish fulfillment, it goes something like this: the writer is duly appalled by the election of November , but he is very far from silenced.
That implies a sensibility attuned to the immense moral consequence of every human life [and] perhaps even a sense of tragedy that would not let him sleep. But others cheer him on, recording his lectures and uploading them to YouTube. Doctorow is in the news, his books climbing the Amazon lists.
Times are desperate, he tells one reporter. The survival of the Republic depends on a collective act of awakening and remembering. In order to reclaim our society, we need the words to find it. Young leftists hear this and recognize the truth of it. Doctorow becomes, in his dotage, the voice of a movement.
This is nothing that the author would want for himself. He is not a political animal, and professionally speaking, he defers to a rising generation of writers like Coates, who have read his work and taken it to heart. Their sense of historical identity proceeds from the bone-deep knowledge that the United States has never been great, or not yet anyway, and accepting this must be the first step toward making it so. A delegation asks him to come out and say a few words to the crowd on the corner. The author obliges, remembering his old acquaintance Abbie Hoffman—the brilliant, insufferable shaman of American radicalism in the s, whom he thinly fictionalized in The Book Of Daniel.
Hoffman once had his followers form a ring around the Pentagon and attempted to make the building levitate with their prayers and incantations.
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Doctorow wonders if he should suggest trying this with Trump Tower, but that is not really his way. Instead, he draws upon a speech he once gave to graduates of Brandeis University. At his age, he can be excused for repeating himself. The President, in his tower, watches some of this on TV and some from his window. He looks at Doctorow in close-up via cable news feed, and stares down at his distant figure in the mass below.
He alternates between rage and disquiet. This elderly writer is calling him out, and he feels oddly frightened.
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