The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left

E.L. Doctorow, one of our important left novelists—and for a long time one of my favorite American authors— died this past week. He was 84.

Over the course of his career, Doctorow accomplished a rare feat, not only weaving pronounced radical and historical themes into innovative contemporary fiction, but managing to win both popular success and mainstream critical accolades in the process.

Doctorow published twelve novels, including Book of Daniel (1971), the widely acclaimed Ragtime (1975), Worlds Fair (1985), and the best-selling Billy Bathgate (1989), in addition to several books of short stories and essays. More recently Doctorow produced City of God (2000), Homer and Langley (2009), and The March (2005), about Sherman’s infamous march to the sea during the US Civil War, a book which won Doctorow his third National Book Critics Circle Award.[i] In what may have been a first for a living writer of the left, Doctorow’s Ragtime was transformed not only into a film but also a major Broadway musical, garnering four Tony Awards (thirteen nominations) in 1998, though it ‘lost’ Best Musical to Disney’s The Lion King.[ii]

Such mainstream success can blunt a writer’s radical edge, even as it buoys book sales and gets one’s picture in the paper. More than most, Doctorow was aware that what gets plastered on the front page, or passed down as Truth in textbooks, is determined not just by what actually happened, but by who the tellers are and what their interests are. His work was attentive to the history of American political repression, to the way it is the ‘winners’ who get to tell the tale, as well as to the fact that, whether we are dealing with the victors or with the victims, the histories we inherit are often a far cry from the messy reality of the matter.

While Doctorow consistently and publicly rejected the label “political novelist”—or even “historical novelist”—preferring just the term “novelist,” political and historical themes figure prominently in all his books.[iii] His collected work represents a prolonged attempt—itself spanning a half century—to explore the undersides of modern US history and its relationship to the present, from a generally radical perspective, one attentive to class, race, and the violence and corruption of both state and unchecked private power. His was a project committed to humanizing and demythologizing both the victors and the victims of American history.

His debut novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), was a dark send-up of the type of cliched Westerns which he spent several years reading in Hollywood, while his final short novel Andrews Brain (2014) brought Doctorow’s survey of the long 20th century up to the present, offering us the self-reflexive musings of a contemporary neuroscientist. The March (2005), a collective novel following a diverse mix of characters, extended his view back to the Civil War and into the US South, while Waterworks (1994) explored the poverty and corruption of 1870s New York City, unravelling the story of a secret medical research clinic that depends on abducted poor street urchins for its lab rats.

Ragtime (1975), his popular mainstream breakthrough, explores the milieu of early 20th century American celebrity and radicalism, weaving fictionalized accounts of actual historical figures, from Sigmund Freud to Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan to Emma Goldman, alongside the stories of three paralleled archetypal families: a well-to-do Anglo-American family, which has prospered by selling fireworks to satisfy the market for patriotic explosions, a family of working-class Latvian immigrants, and a Black family, centered around the proud militant musician, Coalhouse Walker. Ragtime playfully and irreverently weaves together webs of historical events (actual and invented), from the Lawrence textile ‘Bread and Roses’ strike to Houdini’s escape acts, and further explores the emergence of modern mass culture, from Hollywood film to ragtime music, forms which, in Doctorow’s account, often emerge from the crucible of social struggles that have been long forgotten. In a way, Ragtime suggests that even an American radicalism which has been defeated has left an indelible mark on this society at the level of culture. (The immigrant father and protagonist, Tateh, for instance, picks up the pieces of defeated labor struggles to help found motion pictures in Hollywood.)

Perhaps it is this arc of Ragtime that enables The New Yorker’s George Saunders to write that Doctorow “role-models a hopeful stance toward what can be a terrifying world,” adding that his “awareness of darkness vibrated alongside a deep optimism, a fascination with the beauty and genius of the American experiment” (emphasis added).[iv] Such a glib and ‘hopeful’ reading of Doctorow’s work is to be resisted, despite its moorings in some of the lighter, Broadway-esque moments.

Consider one of Doctorow’s last major public speeches, delivered at the 2013 National Book Festival, upon receipt of that organization’s lifetime achievement award. In keeping with his half-century meditation on shifts in media and their effects on human experience, Doctorow focused his remarks on the Internet, cautioning against nostalgic lament for any lost good old days of the typewriter, but closing with an unmistakable rally call. Citing a recent Penn study[v] that shows how many writers today are engaging in self-censorship in fear of government surveillance or reprisal, Doctorow declared that “The struggle has begun as to who will rule the webbing of the world. Government data-miners and the corporations in league with them? Or everyone else? We’ll have to take a deep breath, gather ourselves, and, reluctantly or not, join that struggle.”[vi] Not much hopeful optimism here.

During the Reagan 1980s, Doctorow turned his attention to the period of the Great Depression. His 1980 novel Loon Lake—a book whose devastating final page alone sets fire to the idea of Doctorow as ‘hopeful optimist’—not only explores social class divisions and criminality in the Adirondacks, but provocatively suggests how this prior moment lays roots for later US imperialist barbarism. The Depression era shapes also two of Doctorow’s New York City classics, Worlds Fair (1985) and Billy Bathgate (1989), both richly textured, vividly voiced coming-of-age stories. Winner of the 1989 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, the 1990 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and runner-up for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the 1989 National Book Award, Billy Bathgate explores the Prohibition-era underworld through the eyes of a talented fifteen-year-old recruit to the criminal syndicate of gangster Dutch Schultz. In public comments, Doctorow mused that in some ways the book was nostalgic, returning to an era when you knew who the criminals were—as opposed to current days, when criminality infused the ‘mainstream’ of business and government alike.

In my view, however, it is The Book of Daniel (1971) that stands out as Doctorow’s most remarkable achievement—the most innovative aesthetically, the most convincing historically, the most radical politically. (If you read only one book by Doctorow, don’t read Ragtime, read this.) Set at the cusp of the erupting New Left moment, the novel powerfully reimagines the rise and fall of a prior moment of American radicalism, retelling the story of the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Thoroughly fictionalizing the characters involved—it is the story of the Isaacsons, not the Rosenbergs, and Doctorow imagines their orphaned children as a brother and a sister, rather than two brothers[vii]— the book nonetheless richly and convincingly brings into vivid focus the social, cultural, and political milieux of the 1930 through the 1960s, placing Old Left and New in provocative relief.

Of particular interest is the way that Doctorow juxtaposes snapshots of Old Left and New Left attitudes towards popular culture. Doctorow pays homage to the political passion of the red-led movement—the moment of Paul Robeson— while at the same time exploring the contradictions of Communism as “Twentieth Century Americanism.” He then contrasts such views sharply with the cultural insurrectionary attitudes of Artie Sternlicht, an Abby Hoffman-esque character in 1967.[viii] How many American novelists sympathetically but unsentimentally set before us both the Popular Front aesthetics of the CPUSA and the guerrilla anarchism of the Yippies?

Told through the vulgar, irreverent, brilliant, yet disturbed self-conscious narration of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson’s surviving son, Daniel—a struggling graduate student and a self-described “criminal of perception”— the book is an electric experiment with narrative technique, a serious exploration of American political repression, a critique of the standard history of the Cold War, as well as an edgy and unsentimental exploration of children struggling to cope with the traumatic legacies that an older generation has left to them. It is a book that shockingly insists that we accept the complications of personal, sexual, and family life, even as we construct a shared structural understanding of social injustice and the imperative to struggle collectively against it. It is a book that suggests one need not be a “sympathetic character” to contribute to that struggle, a book that shows it is possible to keep fidelity to our predecessors’ struggles for emancipation without sentimentalizing their humanity into cold, compensatory myth. Daniel confronts us with the vulgarity and obscenity of growing up un-American in America, suggesting that is only by embracing ugly truths about both self and society that a kind of redemption—individual or collective—becomes possible.

In the penultimate scene of Book of Daniel, Daniel flies out to California to have a meeting with Selig Mindish, the family dentist who cooperated with the US government’s prosecution of his parents, fingering them in atomic conspiracy and thus helping to send them to the electric chair. Jarringly, their daytime meeting takes place in Disneyland, a site that allows Daniel (and Doctorow himself) to display his considerable skill of radical cultural critique, while suggesting the cultural forces that the Left is up against to this day. Reflecting on the literary and historical adaptations represented by Disney cartoons and Disney theme-park rides, Daniel muses that “it is possible to understand the aesthetics of cartoon adaptation as totalitarian in nature”:

It is clear that few of the children who ride in the Mad Hatter’s Teacup have read or even will read Alice, let alone the works of Mark Twain. Most of them will only know Alice’s story through the Disney film, if at all. And that suggests a separation of two ontological degrees between the Disneyland customer and the cultural artifacts he is presumed upon to treasure in his visit…what is being offered does not suggest the resonance of the original work, but is only a sentimental compression of something that is itself already a lie.

We find this radical process of reduction occurring too with regard to the nature of                historical reality. The life and life-style of slave-trading America on the Mississippi River in the 19th century is compressed into a technologically faithful steamboat ride of five or ten minutes…The intermediary between us and this historical experience, the writer Mark Twain, author of Life on the Mississippi, is now no more than the name of the boat (Book of Daniel, 287-290).

In offering us such meta-critical reflection on the obliterative force of compounded cultural commodification, but also by leaving us vividly imagined counter-narratives that radically demystify the pretty pictures of the American past, Doctorow has left us better armed to contend with the forces of Disneyfication, which continue their creep to this day.

If there is a basis for hope expressed in the work of Doctorow, we can hardly call it American optimism. The hope here is in the call to refuse and resist the polished paving over of the past, the way Doctorow makes delicious mince meat of facile optimism. The hope is in the way, after reading him, Disneyland and American History alike will never look the same.

In his book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1992), Marxist critic Fredric Jameson described E.L. Doctorow as “the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past, of the suppression of older traditions and moments of the American radical tradition.” As he put it, “No one with left sympathies can read these splendid novels without a poignant distress that is an authentic way of confronting our own current political dilemmas in the present” (24-25).

It is thus with vigilance as well as sadness that we must mourn the passing of a writer who kept that sense of distress—that concrete awareness of a subversive gap between actual and alleged history—alive in a way that reached millions.

Alongside Mark Twain we must now add the name E.L. Doctorow to the list to be defended from the Disneyfiers.


[i] Ragtime and Billy Bathgate also snagged the prize. Worlds Fair won the National Book Award in 1986.

[ii] The musical won for both Best Score and Best Book. Doctorow was intimately involved with the production, offering hundreds of pages of notes.

[iii] Indeed, it is tempting to see his apolitical statements as a kind of a adaptation from a career built mostly during the Cold War.

[iv] George Saunders, “The Bravery of E.L. Doctorow.” The New Yorker. July 23, 2015.

[v] You can read the study online. “Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor”

[vi] You can find the speech online at:

[vii] The actual sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Michael and Robert Meeropol have expressed complex and evolving thoughts about Doctorow’s fictionalizing of their life story, ranging from anger and public criticisms, to a growing sense of appreciation and even admiration for Book of Daniel and Doctorow’s work as a whole. See for instance the brothers’ responses to this recent showing of Daniel—the under-appreciated and quite faithful—film based on Doctorow’s novel:‘daniel’-screening

[viii]         “So how do you bring change to something this powerful [as American corporate                            liberalism]? the same way a skinny little judo freak throws a cat three times his size.                   You don’t preach. You don’t talk about poverty and injustice and imperialism and racism. that’s like trying to make people read Shakespeare, it can’t be done. Look there, what do you see? Little blue squares in every window. Everyone digging the commercials. That is today’s school, man. In less than a minute a TV commercial can carry you through a lifetime. It tells the story from the date to the wedding. It shows you the baby, the home, the car, the graduation…Commercials are learning units. So like when the brothers walk into the draft board down in Baltimore and pour blood all over the induction   records—that’s the lesson….You dig? Society is a put-on so we put on the put-on.  Authority is momentum. Break the momentum. Legitimacy is illegitimate Make it show material…Do something and be a celebrity….Were gonna overthrow the United States                         with images!” (139-140).

This piece originally appeared at Red Wedge Magazine.