Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow’s chronicles of the American century

Liesl Schillinger with E. L. Doctorow
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Liesl Schillinger’s tribute to E. L. Doctorow. Schillinger is a journalist, literary critic, and translator based in New York. Her translation of the novel Every Day, Every Hour, by Nataša Dragnić, was published in May by Viking.
Before I begin speaking about the man I’m here to induct tonight into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame—the matchless E. L. Doctorow—I would like to piggyback on the marvelous anecdotes that Sidney Offit just now gave us about his best friend, the late writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut came from Indiana, and so do I. My high school in West Lafayette offered a course on Vonnegut—so proud were they of his Hoosier roots—and I took that course when I was 12. Fifteen years later, by which time I was living in New York and working at The New Yorker, I met Vonnegut at a book party in the Hamptons for Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty. He was standing by the pool, away from the rest of the guests, smoking. I went up to him, reverently and a little fearfully, hoping he would let me stand next to him and smoke a companionable cigarette. He did. I told him I was afraid to tell him that I, too, was a Hoosier; because I knew from his book Cat’s Cradle how he hated it when people exaggerated the coincidence of mass affiliations—like being “Hoosiers,” or Cubs fans. (He had nicknamed such fake groups in Cat’s Cradle: “granfalloons.”) Looking not at me, but up into the sky, he mournfully said, “We are all lost animals, looking for a herd.” Looking around this room: seeing the great E. L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison and Pete Hamill, along with scores of people who have come here to celebrate these remarkable authors, and who uphold the continuing importance of the written word, I’m now thinking: this is my herd.

I first encountered E. L. Doctorow’s writing as a child in the 1970s and ’80s, pulling his novels from my parents’ shelves. I began with Ragtime, and was captivated by the flowing way Doctorow integrated historic events, the changing roles of women and African Americans, and—I’ll admit—raciness, into his storytelling. I was hungry for clues to what adults cared about; and to what being an American meant. His writing informed my understanding, and has stayed with me. The 20th century is over; but the American century lives on, and will endure in Doctorow’s magnificent body of work.

Ed Doctorow was born in New York, in the Bronx, in 1931. As a boy, he was fascinated by the 1939 World’s Fair, which was set up not far from the Bronx, in Flushing Meadows. More than half a century later he captured the grit and excitement of that era in his novel World’s Fair, which won the National Book Award in 1986. The following year, when I was a brash, hopeful college student, he allowed me to interview him for my campus literary magazine. With incredible generosity, he set aside three hours for that interview, which was published in The Yale Vernacular. In our conversation, I asked him if he had intentionally set out to make his books serve as a chronicle of our country’s history. “No,” he said. “Someone showed me that it is possible to put together four of my novels and get a unitary vision of the last hundred years of American life. That you can start with Welcome to Hard Times, then read Ragtime, and then Loon Lake, and then The Book of Daniel, and then you have it. But if that’s true it didn’t come of any plan or scheme on my part.” As a worshipful cub in the presence of this literary lion, I was far too cowed to contradict him; to say, “Methinks he doth protest too much . . .” and I’m still too cowed today!

Nevertheless, in the last quarter century, Doctorow has steadily continued writing and mentoring young writers, producing seven more books of fiction and non-fiction along the way. I was delighted to have the privilege of reviewing his most recent novel, Homer and Langley, in 2009, for The New York Times Book Review. In that book, Doctorow imagined the rich back story—and the inventive forward story—of the notorious Collier brothers, Homer and Langley. He let their fictionalized lives unroll like a newsreel of our shared American experience. The Collier brothers—in case you didn’t know—lived in an enormous townhouse on the Upper East Side, in which they piled stacks of old newspapers and magazines from the floors to ceilings —until their towering museum of text collapsed and crushed them. And I thought: how lucky it is that those of us who wish to revisit the most significant touchpoints of our national history may do so not by hoarding towers of text, but by inhabiting the evocative world Doctorow has conjured in his indelible novels.

Tonight, I am honored to pay tribute to E. L. Doctorow’s gift to American letters and national memory by inducting him into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Also of interest
In a previous Reader's Almanac post, Liesl Schillinger recommended a number of books to re-read during the summer

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Eleanor Bergstein on Joyce Carol Oates
Elizabeth Bradley on Washington Irving
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

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