Critical Survey of Short Fiction, 4th ed.
E. L. Doctorow
Born: New York, New York; January 6, 1931
Principal Short Fiction
Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella, 1984
Sweet Land Stories, 2004
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories, 2011
Other Literary Forms
E. L. Doctorow (DAHK-tur-oh) is known primarily for his novels, from Welcome to Hard Times (1960) and Ragtime (1975) through Loon Lake (1980), World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The Waterworks (1994), to City of God (2000), The March (2005), and Homer and Langley (2009). He also has written plays (Drinks Before Dinner, 1978), and screenplays based on his books The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime, and Loon Lake, and he has several collections of essays.
E. L. Doctorow has been a major contributor to American literature for more than fifty years, and he has received a number of honors. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal at the White House in 1998; World's Fair won the National Book Award in 1985; and Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The March have all won National Book Critics Circle Awards. Doctorow is recognized as a prose stylist who rarely repeats himself, each novel exploring new territory. His first three novels, for example, belong to the genres of the Western, science fiction, and political-historical fiction, respectively. His short fiction has appeared in a number of national journals, often in The New Yorker. He also edited the annual Best American Short Stories in 2000.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born and raised in New York City, and he graduated from Kenyon College in 1952. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany 1954-1955, and he married Helen Seltzer while still in the service. They have three grown children. He worked as an editor in his early professional life, first at New American Library and then at Dial Press, where he became editor-in-chief. He left publishing in 1969 in order to write full time, and since then he has produced a book every three or four years. In addition to his writing, he has taught at several universities, including the University of California, Irvine; Sarah Lawrence College; and New York University, where in 1982 he became the Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters.
Although primarily known for his novels, E. L. Doctorow is also a major practitioner of short fiction, and his stories have appeared frequently in recent years in the leading venue for short fiction in the United States, The New Yorker. Doctorow's stories often involve innocent people learning about the world or misfits and outsiders working on the edges of society. Many characters pursue the American Dream, but it is often a dream tempered by the difficulties of social class. Realistic and often straightforward in narrative technique, Doctorow's stories are sometimes mysteries, stories that contain a haunting feeling reminiscent of the work of Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and other contemporary gothic writers.
Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella
The stories collected in 1984 in Lives of the Poets had first appeared in various magazines--The Atlantic, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The Paris Review--but the volume has much more coherence than most short-story collections. The six short stories that make up roughly the first half of the volume make sense only when filtered through the title novella, which concludes it. The first story, for example, "The Writer in the Family," is a coming-of-age story about a young boy, who, after his father's death, is forced by his family to write letters to his frail grandmother pretending the father is well and living in Arizona. The "writer" in the story, Jonathan, is the fifty-year-old author, struggling with his writing, who narrates the title novella.
In between these two authorial stories are five stories that make other connections and share recurrent ideas and images. "The Water Works" is a fragment that anticipates an incident in Doctorow's 1985 novel of that title."Willi" is another initiation story, in this case an Oedipal tale set in Galicia in 1910, in which a young boy betrays his mother when he reveals her affair with his tutor to his father. "The Hunter" is a disturbing tale about a young teacher in a poor upstate New York town, struggling with her isolation and sexual frustration. "The Foreign Legation" is a story about a recently separated husband (like Jonathan in the novella), waiting for something to happen, with a nightmare explosion at the end. "The Leather Man," like "The Water Works," is a fragment, this one about outsiders in society.
Critics understand that these first six stories are all connected to and extensions of the Doctorow persona, Jonathan, who is struggling to finish a novel in the concluding novella and wrestling with his isolation and the questions of his chosen profession. They are, in other words, products of Jonathan's imagination. Some critics even refer to The Lives of the Poets as fragments of a novel.
The novelist of the title novella is estranged from his wife and family in Connecticut, living in an apartment in New York City, and trying to understand his life and his work. The story is a monologue by a writer in a midlife crisis, trying to figure out the relationship between his private role and his public responsibility. The story concludes with the artist breaking out of his isolation and taking a refugee family into his apartment. The best stories in Lives of the Poet are "The Writer in the Family" and "Willi," and both initiation stories have been reprinted in other collections, "Willi" in American Short Story Masterpieces (1989) and "The Writer in the Family" in Early Sorrow: Ten Stories of Youth (1986).
Sweet Land Stories
Doctorow's second collection of short stories is less cohesive than the six stories and a novella linked together in Lives of the Poets, but it focuses more narrowly on misfits working on the American Dream. The collection comprises five stories, four of which first appeared in The New Yorker. The lead story, "A House on the Plains," selected for Best American Short Stories in 2002, combines gothic and historical elements. An accomplice son narrates the story of how his mother killed her husband for insurance money and then uses it to move them from Chicago to the title location, where she adopts three orphans and lures prospective partners to invest, kills them for their money, and ends up burning down the house and framing an alcoholic handyman for the dead people inside. What makes the story unique is the slightly comic tone maintained throughout this horrific tale.
"Baby Wilson," another New Yorker story selected for Best American Short Stories, is narrated by the shiftless Lester, who knows his girlfriend is crazy when she steals a baby from a hospital, but he flees with her, dropping the baby at a church and making an odyssey to Alaska. "Baby Wilson" is, like "A House on the Plains," a flawed American Dream tale.
"Jolene: A Life" concerns another working-class character, who narrates the story of her odyssey in search of the dream, only this one ends, after a series of losing relationships, with the narrator no better off than when she started.
"Walter John Harmon" is narrated by a lawyer, who is working in a cult (not unlike the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas, in 1993) run by the charismatic title character. When Harmon runs off with the narrator's wife and the commune's money, the narrator takes over to build a wall around the compound that seems to foreshadow military action.
The concluding story, "Child, Dead in the Rose Garden," differs in subject and tone from what precedes it in the collection, for it is a political mystery narrated by an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, trying to figure out how a dead child ended up on the White House lawn. He solves the puzzle in spite of political interference and amid vague environmental and class issues. Most of the works in Sweet Land Stories are gothic, in their violence and mystery, and most contain characters pursuing the American Dream, with violent and sometimes comic results.
Doctorow's later stories focus even more insistently on the seemingly opposed themes of isolation and the American Dream, of outside-inside. In "Wakefield," the title character, Howard Wakefield, becomes a hermit in the unused attic space over his garage, hiding for months from his wife and twin daughters and, like an animal, foraging for food at night in his suburban neighborhood. When he finally spies his wife entertaining an old beau, Wakefield cleans himself up, and the story ends with him reentering his house as if he had just returned from work. "Hello? I shouted. I'm home!" Like the title character in Nathaniel Hawthorne's gothic sketch "Wakefield" (from his Twice-Told Tales of 1837), who leaves his home and remains on a nearby street for twenty years and thus becomes "the Outcast of the Universe," before returning home, Doctorow's protagonist has dropped out of "the system" and then reenters the world. It is significant that the title story of Doctorow's third collection of short stories, All the Time in the World, focuses on another outcast, an exile running the crowded streets of Manhattan until the apocalyptic, science-fiction ending in an otherwise empty city.
If "Wakefield" explores the idea of becoming invisible to society, "Assimilation" is a complex tale of trying to get into that society and the American Dream it embodies. Mestizo Ramon is a busboy in a Brooklyn restaurant, who is promoted to waiter when the East European owners learn he is an American citizen and can help their niece emigrate to the United States by marrying her. Ramon's brother, a crime boss finishing a prison sentence, advises Ramon to be wary, and when the brother is released from prison, he helps Ramon and Jelena flee from the restaurant owners and their criminal gang. "Assimilation" thus plays with complex levels of entrance into the American Dream. Leon is successful in the United States, restaurant owner Borislav is a little further down the social scale, and Ramon and Jelena are two innocents caught between the criminal groups who hold the real power in society. As in "Jolene: A Life" and other early Doctorow stories, "Assimilation" plays with the ideas of making it in an America of powerful class differences.
Other Major Works
LONG FICTION: Welcome to Hard Times, 1960; Big as Life, 1966; The Book of Daniel, 1971; Ragtime, 1975; Loon Lake, 1980; World's Fair, 1985; Billy Bathgate, 1989; The Waterworks, 1994; City of God, 2000; The March, 2005; Homer and Langley, 2009.
PLAYS: Drinks Before Dinner, 1978.
SCREENPLAYS: Three Screenplays, 2003.
NONFICTION: Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992, 1993; Poets and Presidents, 1993; Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, 1999; Reporting the Universe, 2003; Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993-2006, 2006.
EDITED TEXT: The Best American Short Stories 2000.
MISCELLANEOUS: American Anthem, photographs by Jean-Claude Suares, 1982; Scenes and Sequences: Fifty-eight Monotypes, photographs by Eric Fischl, 1989; The People's Text: A Citizen Reads the Constitution, 1992; Lamentation 9/11, 2002 (photographs by David Finn).
Bloom, Harold, ed. E. L. Doctorow. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002. This volume collects the best previously published criticism, including that of John G. Parks, "Art and Memory: Lives of the Poets and World's Fair," and of Stephen Matterson, "Why Not Say What Happened? E. L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets."
Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Chapter 6 is devoted to the seven pieces that make up Lives of the Poets.
Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. E. L. Doctorow. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Chapter 6 of this study of the writer, "A Mind Looking for Its Own Geography," explores the interrelationships among the six stories and novella that make up Lives of the Poets.
Siegel, Ben, ed. Critical Essays on E. L. Doctorow. New York: G. K. Hall, 2000. Collection includes two reviews of Lives of the Poets and an essay, Susan Brienza's "Writing as Witnessing: The Many Voices of E. L. Doctorow," which discusses Lives of the Poets.
Ulin, David. "Pangs of an Aimless Existence." Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2011, p. E7. Review of the stories in All the Time in the World, which notes that Doctorow's short stories are set pieces to the symphonies of his novels. His themes are emotional exhaustion and the tension between longing and obligation.
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