In the spring of 1998, I read E.L. Doctorow for the first time, Ragtime being one of the books assigned for my Postwar American Lit class at Colorado State University. At the time, American Lit wasn't really my thing; I loved the big, fat novels of 18th and 19th century England, novels by Jane Austen and Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. At the time, I didn't think too much about why this might have been, but in thinking about it now, maybe it was because I still saw literature as an escape from reality, rather than a means artfully illustrating reality and all of its magnificent follies. Doctorow once said that, in writing Ragtime, an historical fiction novel that takes place at the turn of the 20th century, he wanted to tell "how it felt" rather than just "how it was."
Ragtime touched me not only as a reader and student of literature, but also as a writer. It opened my eyes and my mind to the possibilities and powers of fiction. Part history, part make-believe, part social novel, Ragtime was a novel of truths, truths that were only partially rooted in fact. In weaving together "made up" characters like Younger Brother, Mother, Father, and historical characters like JP Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Houdini, Doctorow illustrated the politics, mores, and social crises that comprised this point in history. And I was blown away.
Tonight I went to see Doctorow speak at Western New England College in Springfield, MA. He's a speaker who makes you pay attention; he is soft-spoken, but each sentence is dense, so that you have to strain to hear, and then take a few seconds to process. He spoke on the topic of "Texts that Are Sacred, and Texts that Are Not." In the last few years, Doctorow has sparked some controversy by criticizing President Bush in print and at certain college commencement ceremonies. Doctorow has responded by saying that he wants to mix "celebration and joy with responsible citizenship." In tonight's lecture, he questioned writers who attribute their "gifts" to divine inspiration, implying that such a statement is presumptious; true writers are "non-sectarian" and have faith in an inner power (I'm not doing Doctorow's fine speech any justice here). As he concluded, he spoke again of our President, wondering at his presumptious "alliance" with God, at the awesome power this assumes. I'm hoping the text will be available in print some time soon.
As I was standing in line to buy a book, I looked over and saw a somewhat familiar face. I couldn't place it at first, but then I realized it was the professor from my class at Colorado State, the one who had first introduced me to Doctorow. By some strange coincidence, he's now the head of the English Department at Western New England College. Small world.
Doctorow has just published a book of essays called "Creationists," which I'm hoping to read soon.