Essay: Julian Murpheton E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Floating Worlds’


Image of the New Rochelle community from the E.L. Doctorow Historical Archives and Digital Collections.

American author E.L. Doctorow died in July 2015. This paper was the keynote address at a recent University of Sydney symposium devoted to Doctorow’s work.

My first hunch in thinking about this paper was that Doctorow is perhaps the most relentlessly American of the great American novelists since Twain, that his spatial repertoire is, particularly in contrast with Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace, an exceptionally narrow one, dwelling almost exclusively within the continental United States, with two significant exceptions: Warren Penfield’s sojourn in 1920s Japan in Loon Lake, and the geographical outliers of Ragtime—Hamburg, Rome, Mexico, and the North Pole. These rare exceptions apart, indeed, Doctorow’s fiction cleaves stubbornly to the American landmass and compulsively re-maps those locales to which he was particularly drawn: the Bronx, Manhattan, and New Rochelle. His America, of course, extends to Los Angeles upon occasion (in Ragtime, Andrew’s Brain and The Book of Daniel), dips into the mid-West (in Loon Lake), sweeps through the South (in The March), and even attempts a vision of the South-West frontier in Welcome to Hard Times. But I cannot think of another major novelist of his generation who had less to say about the function of America as an imperium, and who so contentedly refused to offer cognitive maps of its guiding role in the forces of globalization.

Doctorow’s America was whatever was left of FDR’s New Deal, battered and parceled out and sold to the highest bidder; or it was what made the New Deal necessary in the first place: vicious corporate monopolies, union-bashing, tycoons, and so on. It was not the America of Pynchon and DeLillo: the global death cult of oil and commerce and world politics; and its map was correspondingly smaller, delimited to the spatial passions of a localism now and then capable of resisting the larger national abstractions. Like Coalhouse Walker, Jr., occupying J. P Morgan’s library and bringing a city to a standstill; that composite image out of Heinrich von Kleist and the Black Panther Party.

That is one way of putting things, and I don’t think it’s wrong—but finally it is not what interests me. Rather, what gripped me as I made my way through the oeuvre once again was a dialectic in Doctorow’s spatial imagination, that I can characterize no better than to describe it in terms of an alternation between patterns of belonging and trajectories of passage. There are whole novels devised to articulate and occupy a given space: Welcome to Hard Times, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, City of God, and Homer & Langley. These last five, indeed, mark Doctorow out fair as one of the greatest novelists of the greater New York metropolitan area, and their prodigious reconstructions of lost urban worlds demonstrate the virtuous fixity of his spatial understanding of the USA. He distills a national essence out of a square mile, or in the case of Homer & Langley, a single townhouse. Perhaps this last novel can stand as an allegory of the very principle here: a novel so enclosed upon itself that it is forced to express an entire episode of national history.

But then there are the novels which pull in precisely the opposite direction, away from spatial fixes, and toward a logic of sheer mobility and flux whose aesthetic exhilarations are unlike any other writer in my experience, above all Ragtime and The March, but also very much including the restlessness of The Book of Daniel and the drifting centre of gravity formed by Joe in Loon Lake, as well as the delightful spatial errancies of Andrew’s Brain. From the perspective created by this astonishing motility of the narrative engine, the previous emphasis on spatial rootedness appears deathly and entropic, condensed into the terrible figure of the starfish in The Book of Daniel:

Slowly her legs spread, her feet slide over the mattress and her toes hook into the crevice between the mattress and the spring. Her arms move outward; her hands curl over the edge of the mattress and find the same ledge. She holds her bed in her hands and by her ankles. … Today Susan is a starfish. Today she practices the silence of the starfish.

Here stillness amounts to a kind of death in life, an asymptotic approach to the horizon of the inorganic, a lowering of becoming into mere being. Against this limpet-like rictus of fixity, we have Daniel’s insatiable desire for movement at all costs, his traversal of the continent itself, in a quest for liberty understood as the negation of his parents’ imprisonment and electrocution.


So, I want to propose this tension between spatial arrest and agitated movement as a molar dialectic across Doctorow’s body of work; but it is implicit as well in the architecture of individual novels, as best seen in what I take to be the singular formal masterpiece of his career, namely Loon Lake, whose unique aesthetic success consists (on this reading) in its internalization of the dialectic at issue. For Loon Lake dramatizes the tension we have been considering, and goes a long way toward establishing it as perhaps the definitive alternating current of Doctorow’s fiction. Joe himself is precisely a drifter, an itinerant autodidact in the great Bildungs tradition of Doctorow’s voracious young narrators—his Billys, Edgars, and Daniels. Joe’s restless itinerary and association with the travelling show, his tendency to skate across the surface of things, meets its structurally opposing principle in the great estate of Loon Lake itself, landed property as a signature of capitalist success and the promise of its dynastic succession. Property is what translates the American drive into security and privilege, and insofar as it arrests the free-floating trajectory of Joe’s quest for experience, it infects his drive with the fantasy of its metamorphosis into fame—surely the most enduring thematic preoccupation of Doctorow’s novels. So the entire novel turns upon this structural antagonism between landedness and homelessness, wealth and freedom, an opposition undone by the fact that wherever he goes in corporate America, Joe invariably comes face to face again with F. W. Bennett, the great capitalist of Loon Lake, whose property extends in every direction and makes a mockery of movement. The breathtaking final page stages the fateful conversion of drift into duration, affiliative wandering into filiative persistence in place, that is so characteristic of Doctorow’s cynicism as a political writer. So many of his ‘capable boys’ turn into ruthless businessmen, captured by a principle of stillness that internalizes ‘restlessness’ as a kind of endless dynamic: the profit motive.

It is worth pointing out in passing that Doctorow’s signature women characters, Clara Lukacs, Drew Prescott, and Evelyn Nesbitt, are perfectly amoral animals of transcendental homelessness (Clara is a Lukacs for a reason). Like Poe’s quintessential figure of the Man in the Crowd, these women move hungrily from place to place to soak up the intensities of this or that cluster of people, this or that lover, before moving on once more. They personify the novels’ exceptional interest in what does not stay still, in what moves without a thought for duration or, indeed, character as such. And in that, they represent precisely money itself, that restless circulating medium of exchange that stays still at its own peril; as indeed Emma Goldman explicitly tells Evelyn Nesbitt in a crushing character analysis. But this means that they represent movement and circulation in a very different way from the young men, who are ambivalent figures of a metamorphic Bildung: their early transience finally transmogrifying into the terrible stasis and stature befitting a leader of men in the corporate state.

But now is a good time to insist that this dialectic between mobility and its opposite is everywhere being disrupted, not just by the representational principle of money and profit, but by a higher order opposition between property and rent. So the painstakingly recreated streetscapes of the Bronx in The Book of Daniel, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate carry within them a virus of instability and incipient eviction occasioned by the fact that neither the Isaacsons, the Altschulers nor the so-called “Bathgates” own property in the first place. As renters of modest lower-middle or working-class domiciles, these families are exposed to a logic of displacement and impermanence that affects the descriptive economy of the prose, always spring-loaded with a surcharge of nostalgia predicated on loss; and indeed the Isaacsons are removed to prison and their children serially displaced, the Altschulers (of World’s Fair) are forced by economic circumstances to relocate to a new apartment building in a less salubrious part of town, and the Bathgates await either the ruin or redemption that rewards Billy’s unsentimental education. It turns out that the best way to dwell in such a rental economy is by way of an existential internalization of the principle of drift itself: not to sink roots into the concrete jungle, but to flit through it like the homeless shadow you are always about to become. This discovery of the unheimlich within the heimlich receives no better treatment than in the extraordinary episode of the Hindenburg zeppelin as it floats grandly above Edgar Altschuler’s world on Mt. Eden Avenue:

My mouth dropped open. She sailed incredibly over the housetops, and came right toward me, just a few hundred feet in the air, and kept coming and kept coming and still no sight of the tail of her. She was tilted toward me as if she were an enormous animal leaping from the sky in monumental slow motion. … She did not make the harsh raspy snarl of an airplane, but seemed to whisper. She was indeed a ship, a real ship in the sky. She moved like an airship. The enormity of her was out of scale with everything, out of scale with the houses and the cars on the street and the people now shouting and pointing and looking up; she was like a scoop of sky come down to earth, or a floating building, or a populated cloud.

This, until the trip to the fair itself, is the signal event of the text of World’s Fair, a narrative book without a plot, and it raises the issue decisively: what if the novels of settled location, the books of Manhattan and the Bronx and New Rochelle, are secretly orchestrated by a hovering weightless logic of motion, peopled by a floating population of renters able, as here, to project their condition as a vision of sublimity, a state of limitless exception? To be adrift above the streets, to hover in motion as beneath you the buildings begin to look like so many anchors and chains, is this not the principle of freedom implicit in the anxiety of a rental economy? It is a utopian suggestion, to be sure, but one that seems in deep accord with the way these novels wage representational war against the nightmare vampirism of property, as in The Waterworks or J. P. Morgan’s library in Ragtime, or indeed Loon Lake itself. Even the world of Dutch Shultz, in Billy Bathgate, for all it is ringed round by vast amounts of money and includes somewhere (though only speculatively) actual property and real estate, is presented in this way: for the gang is permanently ‘on the lam’ with Dutch, moving from warehouse to hotel to brothel in an effort to escape detection; it is a movable feast of vulgar appetites and rash behavior, a lurid fantasy of working-class liberty that will not settle into place, will not become a property. The gang is itself a kind of doomed zeppelin, a spectacle of levitating rootless drift that the rubes and street kids gawp at with the same mixture of awe and dread. It is only Billy himself who, repeating the lesson of Loon Lake, finally transforms this principle of dislocation into the settled propriety of a respectable bourgeois.

But what of the novels that openly embrace and model their own formal apparatus upon the economy of movement? We think here of two novels in particular: Ragtime and The March, surely Doctorow’s most ambitious books and united in more ways than one at the formal level. They are fraternal volumes, twins even, in their giddy, kaleidoscopic applications of a narrative perpetual motion machine. Of Ragtime I only want to mention a couple of things, above all the sense throughout, evident in its breezy tone and paratactic delivery, of a novel built out of newspaper ephemerality, as though it were a scrapbook of illuminated vignettes arranged in loosely chronological sequence but with the sense that each page is a kind of centre in its own right. This democratic equivalence of the materials, at least until the Coalhouse Walker plot assumes dominance, is also a refusal to establish any base of operations: it is a resistance to the law of groundedness and a declaration of independence from propriety. Which is why this purported ‘historical novel’ is really a species of fantasia, whose fundamental formal principle is the Ovidian one that the Little Boy learns from his classicist grandfather, a protean logic of metamorphosis and metaphor—‘that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction’—whereby a bluebottle fly in your screen door can become a Model T car bearing the famous escape artist you’ve just been day-dreaming about to your very door. That is to say, the formal principle that orchestrates the various improbable meetings and transitions between the locations and characters of this text is essentially the Freudian one of oneiric wish-fulfillment: every conjunction that can be imagined is duly effected by the book’s fantastical dreamwork. Ragtime’s method is that of magical realism, its giddy phantasmagoria of the historical déjà-vu a prodigious evasion of the reality principle. And that makes it the literary equivalent of crack cocaine, an utterly addictive satisfaction of the narrative erogenous zones.


If Ragtime achieves its miraculous narrative momentum on the basis of an economy of the dream-work, how does The March, its closest relative in the canon, manage its own formidable onward drive? The answer to that is for once squarely located in the material itself, since this is Doctorow’s ‘war novel’ and we are plunged helplessly into General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous military campaign to end the Civil War by sweeping through Georgia and up into the Carolinas. This means that the book is at liberty fully to indulge Doctorow’s formal attraction to ceaseless narrative movement without either the resort to wish-fulfillment or the corrective impulse of a restraint in property and real estate. For in the context of the great march, property has been annulled: there is only strategy, the military genius of flanking, feinting, amassing, possessing, consuming, discarding, and moving forward. Ancestral mansions and warehouses alike are treated as temporary billets, churches become field hospitals, bridges are burned, and the emancipated slaves are drawn into the vortex created by the army’s rapid progress like a river of landless humanity. Although from the outside it looks like one of the great anomalies of Doctorow’s career, situated so far from the familiar haunts of the Five Boroughs, in fact The March serves as something like a summum of everything that animates this oeuvre with dynamism and drive. And as if in confirmation of this unique status, the book offers us the first and only signs of something like an all-embracing Balzacian or Faulknerian textual universe in Doctorow’s fiction: for here is the father of Coalhouse Walker, falling in love on the march and founding the family that will bring the stalwart hero of Ragtime into the world; and here is Wrede Sartorius, immigrant medical genius and central character of The Waterworks, beginning his American career as a member of the great collective cast of this book. The March is a kind of origin myth for the entire Doctorow canon, the Civil War as that fault-line in national space whence the whole effort emerges to map the American experiment as a tension between the freedom to roam, and the proprietary subsumption of such “primitive accumulation” in the legalisms of capital. But it also the only novel from which capital itself has been summarily banished. There is no money in this book; exchange value has been reverse engineered into barter and the economy of the gift. Property is reimagined as what you have to give to the ex-slaves in order to get them off your back: forty acres and a mule. And free at last from having to factor in what capital does to human relations, the narrative can openly declare its author’s abiding passion, which is to say, movement and transformation as such.

Savannah, we read, ‘was alive with the movement of men and animals, so that it seemed as if the streets themselves were moving, that the city in its dimensions had come apart from the land and was fluttering loose in the blow’. In such a space, there is no further distinction between the city and the zeppelin that sails above it: the city has been raised to the status of what floats. Land is movement. In the early dialogue between Dr. Sartorius and Emily Thornton, things are clarified further:

I confess I no longer find it strange to have no habitation, to wake up each morning in a different place, he said. To march and camp and march again. To meet resistance at a river or a hamlet and engage in combat. And then to bury our dead and resume the march.

You carry your world with you, Emily said.

Yes, we have everything that defines a civilization, Wrede said. We have engineers, quartermasters, commissary, cooks, musicians, doctors, carpenters, servants, and guns. You are impressed?

I don’t know what to think. I’ve lost everything to this war. And I see steadfastness not in the rooted mansions of a city but in what has no roots, what is itinerant. A floating world.

It dominates, Wrede said.


And in its midst you are secure.

Yes, Emily whispered, feeling at this moment that she had revealed something terribly intimate about herself.

And something terribly intimate, we might feel, about the author himself, who here reveals his hand most completely. For what has his life’s work been but a protracted effort to discover such ‘floating worlds’ within the cracks left by those ‘rooted mansions’ that anchor a civilization down in chains of property? There is security, we learn, in the experience of being uprooted, set adrift in space, which now shines with meaning, the significance of the encounter; when “you carry your world with you,” you discover the steadfastness of a community completely transparent to itself, even as it constantly loses old cells and acquires new ones. But when it all begins to wind down, the campaign over because successful, the old world begins to stabilize once more, and the transient utopia of a world of Huck Finns, a floating world of trekking Jack Londons, dissipates, in the key of melancholy. Here is Sherman himself musing on what must now come to an end, which is to say, radiant spatial meaning as such:

Though this march is done, and well accomplished, I think of it now, God help me, with longing—not for its blood and death but for the bestowal of meaning to the very ground trod upon, how it made every field and swamp and river and road into something of moral consequence, whereas now, as the march dissolves so does the meaning, the army strewing itself into the isolated intentions of diffuse private life, and the terrain thereby left blank and also diffuse, and ineffable, a thing once again, and victoriously, without reason, and, whether diurnally lit and darkened, or sere and fruitful, or raging or calm, completely insensible and without any purpose of its own.

There are few moments as powerful as this in Doctorow’s work. It is the novelist posing as the great military strategist, mourning that we are not constantly at war, which is to say, writing novels, making glorious meanings out of the insensible territories of a “diffuse private life.” Against that dull re-establishment of the reality principle, he proposes the art of forgetting what is proper to you, and lighting into the territory. Here at the novel’s end is Stephen Walsh comforting little Pearl, whom Doctorow has reimagined from The Scarlet Letter as an emancipated child slave possessed of an innate nobility:

He touched her face and brushed the tears. Nothing stays the same, he said. Not David, not Sartorius, not the army on the march, not the land it trods, not the living, and not even the dead. It’s always now, Stephen said with a sad smile for poor Albion Simms [the man with the spike in his head who loses all short- and long-term memory].

In the Ovidian space where everything becomes something else, there is no history, it is always now. The spatial becomings that define the art of E. L. Doctorow advocate the utopian amnesia of all radical transformations. On the march, provisional alliances are incessantly made and broken, love blooms and withers, care and responsibility are passed from one to the next, people assume new guises and forms, nothing is stable or permanent. So it is at last with all Doctorow’s fiction, which promises (however distantly) the jubilee of a collective metamorphosis that cancels all debts and renews all relations.