Good novelists often make fine essayists, and Doctorow is no exception. This collection of his occasional pieces reprinted from The Nation, the New York Times Book Review, Harper's and elsewhere, moves between literary criticism, historical reflection, political invective, and even autobiography.
The book opens with eloquent and perceptive pieces on London, Dreiser, and Hemingway. These essays are beautifully crafted and perfectly capture the artistic genius of these writers as well as the moral tension that gives significance to their work.
These are followed by "Orwell's 1984," published "on the eve of the Orwellian year of judgment," "James Wright at Kenyon," a moving account of Doctorow's friendship with the late poet during their college years, and "A Citizen Reads the Constitution," a remarkable look at America's most "sacred" document.
Doctorow is often pegged a "political" or "historical" novelist and this is also reflected here. "False Documents," for instance, is an elegant defense of his concept of history as imagery and therefore a great resource for writing. In "The Beliefs of Writers," on the other hand, he complains that contemporary fiction "suffers from a reduced authority" and that today's writers "want to take on less and less of the world." Borrowing Shelley's phrase, he refers to writers as the "unacknowledged legislators of the world."
But his call for a return to the literature of engagement seems forced, even pretentious. This is especially evident in his political essays which are cantankerous and generally mediocre. In "The Character of Presidents," for instance, he issues a venomous attack on "the old deaf actor" Ronald Reagan that stops just short of ideological bombast.
In his controversial commencement address at Brandeis University, also included here, he warned his audience that "something poisonous" has been set loose in America and that soon "only fascists will be in the mainstream."
Doctorow says he laments the "ideological warfare" of so much contemporary political discourse, but seems not only willing but compelled to add his voice to the din. It's a shame, for a handful of these pieces substantially weaken what is otherwise an essay collection of the first rank.
This review appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of the Antioch Review
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.