E. L. Doctorow’s Postmodernist Style

October 9, 2015   •   By Adam Kelly

THE RECENT DEATH of E. L. Doctorow, on July 21, 2015, at the age of 84, provoked a notably warm and widespread response. Lengthy obituaries were printed in all the major newspapers, and tributes flowed in from a stellar array of younger authors testifying to the inspiration gained from the older writer’s work. Michael Chabon wrote of the encouragement Doctorow’s novel Ragtime (1975) had offered him when embarking upon his career-making The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Donald Margulies likewise acknowledged the electrifying impact Ragtime had on his work as a young playwright. Short story writer George Saunders responded to Doctorow’s passing by acknowledging the “tremendous sense of gratitude” he felt for the “bravery” of the latter’s work. Saunders quoted similar tributes by Don DeLillo and Jennifer Egan, written when the three authors chose Doctorow as the 2014 recipient of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Poet and critic Michael Schmidt wrote a piece simply titled “My Hero: EL Doctorow.” Fiction and screenplay writer Amy Bloom went so far as to name Doctorow “the great American novelist of the last 100 years.”

Reading this stream of glowing praise, scholars of American literature might have stopped to ask themselves when it was that they last read an academic essay devoted to Doctorow’s fiction. The answer is likely to be: not recently. For if the MLA International Bibliography is to be believed, only one monograph or essay collection on Doctorow has been published since the turn of the 21st century. Over that same period, a number of Doctorow’s generational contemporaries have received copious attention. There have been 13 books solely devoted to Thomas Pynchon, 14 on Philip Roth, 26 on Toni Morrison, nine on Don DeLillo, and 18 on Cormac McCarthy, as well as numerous other monographs and collections with one or more of these authors’ names in the title. In addition, all of these novelists — born, like Doctorow, in the 1930s — have literary societies and (with the exception of DeLillo) academic journals devoted exclusively to their work. Thomas Pynchon has two such journals. Yet there is no E. L. Doctorow Society, no Doctorow Review or Doctorow Notes. Even a contemporary like John Updike, who one might expect to offer less theoretical interest than Doctorow, has merited seven recent monographs, a literary society, and a scholarly journal.

Doctorow likewise receives scant attention in some of the major scholarly surveys of American literature published over recent years. The Cambridge History of the American Novel (2011) includes a handful of mentions of one Doctorow novel, The Book of Daniel (1971), but finds no space in its 1,272 pages for any sustained engagement with his fiction. Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) does not mention Doctorow, despite the author having taught creative writing at various institutions from the 1970s on. In Lawrence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel (2014), there is only a single sentence devoted to Doctorow, this time to Ragtime; yet we find Michael Schmidt contending in his tribute essay that “if there was a great American novel it would be Ragtime.” Schmidt himself certainly gives ample space to Doctorow in his recent The Novel: A Biography (2014), but this is avowedly a popular survey rather than a scholarly one.

I suspect my case for academic neglect has been made. How then to explain it? Whence the disparity between a plethora of writerly and popular interest in E. L. Doctorow’s fiction on the one hand — testified to by consistent sales, widespread reviews, and numerous prizes, even before this outpouring on the occasion of his passing — and a seeming lack of scholarly interest on the other? There may be many answers, but I’ll hypothesize one in particular: that the root of this disparity lies in Doctorow’s style.

We can approach the question of style by looking back a quarter century to a time when Doctorow’s work was much more popular with scholars of American literature than it is today. The high point of academic interest in Doctorow was the period from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, when a number of conferences, monographs, and essay collections were devoted to his work. This was also, not coincidentally, the high point of the postmodernism debates in the Anglo-American academy. Ragtime played a central role in those debates, first as an important American example of “historiographic metafiction” in Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988), and then as the primary literary case study in the final version of Fredric Jameson’s celebrated essay “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” collected in 1991 in his book of the same name. Responding to Hutcheon’s characterization of Ragtime as a politically progressive text — “an extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power” — Jameson made noises of appreciation but then administered one of his trademark dialectical reversals: “Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact.” What it means for Ragtime to be a “postmodern artifact” is that, as Jameson puts it, “the novel not only resists interpretation, it is organized systematically and formally to short-circuit an older type of social and historical interpretation which it perpetually holds out and withdraws.”

How does the novel resist traditional forms of interpretation? Primarily, says Jameson, through its style: “Doctorow has somehow deliberately built this very tension, this very contradiction, into the flow of his sentences.” Yet this is not a tension or contradiction that can be exemplified through the usual literary-critical method of closely reading individual sentences, or even whole passages. Instead, what Doctorow does in Ragtime, according to Jameson, is something uncanny: he produces “the sense of some profound subterranean violence done to American English, which cannot, however, be detected empirically in any of the perfectly grammatical sentences with which this work is formed.” Key to this stylistic effect, what makes it uncanny, is that it is impersonal — and this is also, for Jameson, what makes it postmodern. The example of Ragtime allows us, writes Jameson, “to distinguish the moderns’ elaboration of a personal style from this new kind of linguistic innovation, which is no longer personal at all but has its family kinship rather with what Barthes long ago called ‘white writing.’” “White writing,” as Jameson explains elsewhere, aims at the elimination of literary signals, at “a kind of ‘zero degree’ of literary language in which neither author nor public could be felt present, in which an austere neutrality and stylistic asceticism would be charged with the absolution of the guilt inherent in the practice of literature.” I’ll return below to assess the precise applicability of this idea of “white writing” to Doctorow, but for now will simply note that for Jameson such writing characterizes genuine postmodernism at the level of style.

What would it mean to take this reading of Doctorow and postmodernist style seriously? Can we push it beyond a reading of Ragtime alone? Doing so, I suggest, might lead us to realign our received literary categories, and to revise our ideas about which American novelists of the late 20th century should be taken as most exemplary of the category of the postmodern. For it is the case, I’d argue, that the writers we turn to most often in order to exemplify postmodernism — Pynchon and DeLillo, sometimes Morrison and Roth, sometimes even McCarthy — are in fact best understood as continuing the modernist project of cultivating a singular style, “as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body,” in Jameson’s memorable formulation. Pynchon, DeLillo, Morrison, Roth, McCarthy: reading a few sentences or a page of one of their books, one would rarely be hard-pressed to identify it as the work of its author. Doctorow, on the other hand, does not cultivate a singular literary style in this manner.

Which is not to say that Doctorow is not a stylist. Indeed, as George Saunders remarks in his tribute piece, “Doctorow was, first and foremost, a master stylist.” But what being a stylist means in this case is not that a reader will always readily be able to identify a Doctorow novel from the language of his books; rather that “each book created and sustained its own unique and necessary language,” as Saunders puts it. Michael Schmidt says something similar about Doctorow’s work: “There is not, as with Mailer or Roth or Bellow, a sense of oeuvre. Each of his novels starts from scratch.” And Doctorow himself appeared to agree. “I don’t have a style, but the books do,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “Each demands its own method of presentation, and I like that.”

Of course stylistic variety alone does not qualify Doctorow as a postmodernist: writers before the postmodern period could equally differ in style from book to book. James Joyce, to take one obvious example, wrote four epochal books ­— Dubliners (1914), The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939) — each of which differs markedly in style. But Joyce was innovating identifiably at the level of style, making discoveries about modes of narration — free indirect discourse, interior monologue, stream of consciousness — and experimenting with literary conceits — language as a branch of music, the play script as a novelistic form, the possibility of writing in an entirely new heteroglot language — that helped to move the art of prose writing forward into a new age. This is not the kind of innovation that marks Doctorow’s fiction. Yet if his books are stylistically various, and difficult to identify with a singular authorial presence, then how do we explain how his work differs from earlier writers?

Jameson’s answer, another of the key ways he distinguishes modernism from postmodernism, is by identifying parody with the former and pastiche with the latter. Parody, exemplified by a piece of writing like the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses, is defined by Jameson as “the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language.” Pastiche shares these characteristics, but is distinctive in being “a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared with which what is being imitated is rather comic.” This distinction is certainly useful, and at least some of his generational contemporaries — Pynchon and DeLillo in particular — clearly join Doctorow in making pastiche central to their writing. But this clarification nonetheless fails to distinguish between those writers whose style persists from novel to novel, and those, like Doctorow, who “start from scratch” again each time.

To make sense of this distinction, we need another term to supplement style: namely, genre. In his willingness to inhabit particular genre forms, to work within the rules and generative constraints of genre, Doctorow points ahead to later developments in American fiction. By genre I’m not referring primarily to the novel, the poem, or the drama, nor do I mean certain celebrated genres within the novel itself, such as the bildungsroman, the realist novel, or the historical novel. These latter genres are usually taken to characterize high literary art, to offer a home for true aesthetic insight and sensibility, whereas the genres Doctorow takes up are often of the more traditionally disreputable kind. His first two novels, Welcome to Hard Times (1960) and Big as Life (1966) belong, fairly indisputably, to the genres of the western and the sci-fi novel. Moreover, both were written during a time when, as an editor at a major press, Doctorow was instrumental in helping to bring the underground icons Batman and Superman to the mainstream, by publishing their origin stories in The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965). As his career as a writer developed from this point, Doctorow’s own engagement with genre forms became more readily identifiable in some novels — his crime thriller Billy Bathgate (1989), for instance, or his pastiche of the 19th-century detective story, The Waterworks (1994) — than in others — his Holocaust novel City of God (2000), for example, or his Civil War novel The March (2005). But the fact that these latter two books can themselves be given categories, just as the former two can, indicates that the point here would not be to distinguish between Doctorow’s “art” books and his “genre” books. It would instead be to grasp how Doctorow inhabits genre as a kind of art and inhabits art as a kind of genre. From this perspective, his third novel The Book of Daniel, which many consider his best, could be seen less as a late modernist novel, as many critics read it, than as a postmodern inhabitation of the modernist novel. That is, Doctorow treats the modernist novel itself as a genre.

The difference between these two readings may be subtle, but it is important, because modernism has classically been understood to stand in opposition to genre in favor of some purer form of literary expression and autonomy. Since the very first discussions of US postmodernism in the 1960s by critics like Leslie Fiedler and Irving Howe, and as set out most fully in Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide (1986), part of the purview of postmodernism has been its leveling of high and low culture. Yet when Pynchon, DeLillo, Roth, or McCarthy engage in genre slumming, they do so at no expense to their trademark style. Reading The Names (1982), we are in no doubt that we are reading DeLillo; ditto Pynchon with The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Roth with The Plot Against America (2004), and McCarthy with No Country for Old Men (2005). These books can be described as “meta-genre fiction,” in Mark McGurl’s formulation in The Program Era, because in each of them “a popular genre — romance, western, science fiction, fantasy and detective fiction — is both instantiated and ironized to the point of becoming dysfunctional in the production of its conventional pleasures.” With Doctorow, by contrast, many of his books read initially like particularly finely written versions of standard genre tales, before one realizes that Doctorow is using genre conventions to achieve structural effects and insights into broader non-generic subject matter that wouldn’t be possible in the same way by ignoring those conventions. Yet in Doctorow’s hands, no genre ever becomes “dysfunctional in the production of its conventional pleasures.” Rather, the books can have their genre cake and eat it too.

I call Doctorow forward looking because, as Andrew Hoberek has observed, younger American authors including Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Colson Whitehead have recently begun pushing back against what he calls “the widespread and persistent prejudice against genre fiction” that marks the age of the creative writing program in America. According to Hoberek, in any critical attempt to protect literary fiction from genre fiction, “irony generates the crucial distance between genre convention and its valorized opposite number, individual authorial style.” But writers such as Chabon, Lethem, and Whitehead have grown up with popular forms and do not inevitably consider them of lesser artistic value than so-called “literary fiction” (itself having now mutated, tellingly, into a genre). It is notable that Chabon cites Doctorow as the key influence in his writing of Kavalier & Clay, a book that Hoberek pinpoints as the shift from the early “literary” Chabon of the late-’80s and ’90s to the more genre-friendly novels of the 2000s. While there is no doubt that Doctorow’s fiction is literary — his sentences are as finely crafted as any in postwar American writing — he understood early on the value of a range of non-canonical genres, helping younger writers to develop this understanding too.

In part because of its brevity, accessibility, and critical exemplarity, Ragtime is likely to remain Doctorow’s most widely read work, and the one most regularly included on university syllabi. In this respect, it stands in the author’s wider oeuvre as The Crying of Lot 49 and White Noise (1985) stand for Pynchon and DeLillo. Yet the latter two books are now the novels most widely taught to exemplify literary postmodernism, and this has the effect of masking the ways that postmodernism really does differ from modernist writing at the level of style. That said, if we return to Jameson’s description of Doctorow’s style in Ragtime as “white writing,” something unsatisfactory remains. For Barthes the key exemplar of “white writing” is Albert Camus; for Jameson, it is Alain Robbe-Grillet. Does Ragtime display “austere neutrality and stylistic ascetism” in the manner of these two French writers? I’d suggest not, yet I would argue nonetheless that we can revise the notion of “white writing” to appreciate something more specific (and more specifically American) about Doctorow’s style in this novel.

Consider the following sentences from Ragtime’s opening paragraph. They foreground some of what Jameson says about the novel’s uncanniness at the level of grammar and American English, but they also show how this uncanny quality can be connected to a major subject in much of Doctorow’s writing, the subject of race:

Patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900’s. Teddy Roosevelt was President. The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms. There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.

Rather than austere and ascetic, this passage is rich and exuberant, while retaining an ironic consciousness that is subtle but significant. The declarative nature of the first few sentences — where the voice of historical accounting seems as reliable as the sentiment of patriotism being described — becomes slowly inflected over the final lines by a conjoined emphasis on whiteness and on style, almost as if the style of the passage itself can be associated with whiteness. The narrator’s emphasis on lifestyle as whitestyle (“Everyone wore white in summer”) prepares the ground for the final two sentences, which will stop a reader short who has been lulled into trusting this smooth and seemingly authoritative voice of history. The blatant counterfactuals that now arrive — “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants” — raise the specter of ideological whitewashing, as if history itself can be whitened while retaining its omniscient sheen. Reading these ironies through Jameson’s definition of “white writing,” we can find at least one point of connection. Doctorow’s narrative consciousness appears to recognize and play on the need for “absolution of the guilt inherent in the practice of literature,” while extending this recognition to the whitened practice of history-writing too.

The understated but perceptible power of Doctorow’s postmodernism is evident in this passage. By inhabiting a style of writing while asking us to pay close attention to its features, Doctorow can demonstrate the ideological operations of language and narrative in a different manner than can the more singular personalized sentences of Pynchon, DeLillo, Roth, Morrison, and McCarthy. By losing his authorial presence in the kind of declarative prose that claims to represent authoritative truth uninflected by any perspective (“Teddy Roosevelt was President”), Doctorow urges his reader to question such declarative authority (“There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants”). In Doctorow’s fiction, we might say, language always does the talking in this manner, something his fellow writers evidently recognize and appreciate.

That scholars, by contrast, have tended to neglect Doctorow and undervalue his achievement says something significant about the present prejudices of literary scholarship. Despite decades of theory (including Barthes’s own “death of the author”), scholars still prefer the modernist figure of the demiurge-creator to postmodern exponents of genre writing and less attention-grabbing forms of stylistic experimentation. But that need not be the case. With Doctorow’s passing likely to herald a period of rereading and reassessment of his work, it is time to learn the subtle lessons he teaches and appreciate the influence his example wields.


Adam Kelly is a lecturer in American literature at the University of York, UK.