The Faith of E.L. Doctorow

City of God,
by E.L. Doctorow.
Random House.  $25.00.

It has been forty years now since E.L. Doctorow made his debut as a novelist with an unorthodox Western called Welcome to Good Times, and twenty-five years since his number-one bestseller, Ragtime, established him as one of America’s most celebrated writers.  Over the course of the decades Doctorow has published eleven books, including eight novels.  At least since Ragtime, each of those novels has been welcomed in the book reviews and glossy press as a major literary event; and Doctorow himself, especially in recent years, has been routinely accorded by our arbiters of culture all the deference due a distinguished American author.  He has, as the dustjacket of his eighth novel and most recent book, City of God, helpfully reminds us, received a slew of awards over the years, including “the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal.”  Yet what exactly is the nature of the achievement that lies behind these honors?  Forty years along, what can the name of Edgar Lawrence Doctorow be said to stand for in the world of American letters?  Given that Doctorow has recently come out with City of God – which is, in some ways, the most ambitious single work in his entire oeuvre – there could hardly be a better time to consider this question.

        One might as well note at the outset that to read several of Doctorow’s novels in sequence is to observe one common thread: for all their topical and structural differences, the novels all reflect a tendentiously leftist view of American life and values.  Doctorow’s abiding preoccupation is with capitalism, which he consistently depicts as the inherently evil foundation of American society.  To be sure, Doctorow has often carried out the political program of his novels with considerable effectiveness.  Indeed, if we are to judge a novel like The Book of Daniel (1971) by the cleverness with which he conceives and executes in its pages a manifest political strategy, then we must deem it a brilliant success.  For by centering The Book of Daniel on the imaginary adult son of a fictional couple based on the post-World War Two atom-bomb traitors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and by focusing, furthermore, not on the proven crimes of the real-life Rosenbergs but rather on the effects of their fictive counterparts’ execution on the life of their sensitive and loving son (who is orphaned at just the right age to produce maximum sentimental impact), Doctorow does as splendid a job as would appear to be humanly possible to make the Rosenbergs sympathetic. While he endeavors to draw our attention to the earnestness of the fictional Daniel’s efforts to write a document (The Book of Daniel itself) that captures the emotional truth of his personal history and family relationships, Doctorow’s agenda here is an obviously political one: to obscure and relativize a thoroughly real and unambiguous historical fact – namely, the Rosenbergs’ act of criminal treason in the service of Stalinist Russia. Doctorow would appear to be willing to use whatever authorial sleight of hand is necessary to ensure that the reader of The Book of Daniel will come away from it feeling that the important thing about the Rosenberg case is not their crime, or the bloody reality of the Soviet tyranny they supported, but the humanitarian idealism that supposedly motivated them.  Plainly Doctorow’s own view is that, in the final analysis, the Rosenbergs were Good Guys, representative of the better side of America.  And the less attractive side?  That side is invariably embodied in Doctorow’s novels by rich, powerful, and ruthless figures, some of them imaginary and some drawn from history (J.P. Morgan in Ragtime, Boss Tweed in the 1994 novel The Waterworks), who are routinely identified with defining American institutions and with the American dream.  

        The title and setting of Doctorow’s new novel remind one that Doctorow’s political agenda has been furthered throughout his fiction by the recurring presence of New York City as both setting and symbol.  “The soul of the city,” reads a passage near the beginning of The Waterworks, “was always my subject, and it was a roiling soul, twisting and turning over on itself, forming and reforming, gathering into itself and opening out again like a blown cloud.”  The speaker here is, to be sure, not Doctorow but the narrator of The Waterworks, a nineteenth-century Manhattan newspaper editor named McIlvaine; yet one feels, on reading the passage, that Doctorow is here speaking for himself as well. New York figures also in Doctorow’s little-read second novel, Big as Life, a mythic tale about two giants in the city; in Ragtime and in Billy Bathgate (1989) and again in The Waterworks, the metropolis functions not merely as a locale but almost as a full-fledged character.  Yet has Doctorow, in any of his books, truly plumbed “the soul of the city”? When you get right down to it, not even his protagonists have very much of a human dimension, let alone anything that might go by the name of a soul.  They are, alas, too busy serving as one-dimensional symbols of righteous victimhood, on the one hand, or capitalist villainy, on the other, to develop much in the way of spiritual depth or moral complexity.  Generally speaking, in short, they are either sentimentalized or demonized. And the city? Has he, in any sense, plumbed its soul?  Yes, New York undeniably fascinates him; yet what fascinates him most about it, quite obviously, is its usefulness in his political morality plays as an emblem of socioeconomic extremes – of wealth and poverty, of plutocratic excess and underclass suffering.

        It is difficult, then, to speak convincingly of Doctorow’s novels as having a spiritual dimension, or as concerned in any serious way with matters of the soul. And yet from the beginning of his career, those novels have been characterized by more than the usual amount of religious-sounding language.  The very title of The Book of Daniel demands that the reader consider the novel in connection with the Hebrew scriptures.  The book’s first epigraph is drawn from the Old Testament book of the same name, and tells of people falling on their knees to worship a “golden image” set up by Nebuchadnezzar; clearly Doctorow intends here to link this idolatry with the supposed cupidity of twentieth-century Americans, and to imply that the latter shortcoming is in some way related, in turn, to the fate of the Rosenbergs.  The Daniel of the Bible, we are reminded later in The Book of Daniel, was a “Beacon of Faith in a Time of Persecution”: Doctorow patently means for us to see his own Daniel – and, again, by extension, the real-life Rosenbergs – as playing a similar role in relation to the “persecutions” of their own time. And by this, of course, Doctorow means not persecutions by Stalin but by the U.S. Government.  

        Just as Doctorow, then, has pressed historical figures and events into the service of his political ends, so has he borrowed religious language, images, and figures for the selfsame purposes.  Which brings us to the provocatively titled City of God.  Perhaps the first thing one should say about Doctorow’s latest effort is that it seems in some ways to present itself as a pendant to its immediate predecessor, The Waterworks.   The locale of both novels is Manhattan; The Waterworks takes place in late nineteenth century, whereas City of God is set in our own time.  Both books feature characters named Pemberton, and one naturally takes this as an invitation to consider the possibility that the two men are related, and that Doctorow intends, by implying this family connection, to suggest their two superficially quite different stories might share a closer thematic link than is immediately apparent.  Both books, moreover, are narrated – the earlier one, in its entirely; the later one, only in part – by writers engaged in an investigation.  In The Waterworks a newspaper editor named McIlvaine seeks to uncover the whereabouts of Martin Pemberton, a freelance journalist who, after claiming to have seen his supposedly dead father riding down Broadway in a stage coach, has disappeared mysteriously; in City of God, a novelist named Everett (whom one can hardly resist identifying with Doctorow himself, whose first name is Edgar) probes another bizarre disappearance.  In this case, what has disappeared is not a person but a cross – which, after vanishing from behind the altar of Saint Timothy’s, an old Episcopal church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has turned up on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, a Reform congregation on the Upper West Side.

        Structurally, The Waterworks and City of God diverge radically.  The Waterworks is an almost self-consciously conventional narrative, complete with period language, heavy gothic atmosphere, and tension that rises with genre-novel steadiness.  City of God, by contrast, is a slack grab-bag of elements, most of which, we are meant to understand, are drawn from Everett’s notes for the novel he intends to write about the mysterious disappearance of Saint Timothy’s cross.  This is hardly the first time that Doctorow has strayed from strict conventional narrative and employed a more mosaic-like structure (especially in his novel Loon Lake, the chief influence on his structural choices seemed to be John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy), but never before has he written a book that seemed more deserving of the word “mishmash.”  The sections here – which range in length from a few sentences to several pages long – can be divided into several categories.  The principal story line is conveyed largely in the form of Everett’s notes on his conversations with Pemberton (Pem), the amiable but troubled rector of tiny Saint Timothy’s; with the brilliant, energetic young Rabbi Joshua Gruen of the equally tiny Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism and his wife, Sarah (both of whom Doctorow sentimentalizes and idealizes beyond belief); and with Sarah’s father, a Holocaust survivor.  If Everett is investigating the movement of the cross, Joshua is engaged in his own quest – for a crate that contains the voluminous Holocaust diary of a long-dead Jewish community leader known by Sarah’s father in his youth, and that is now, according to the old man, located somewhere “in the earth of eastern Europe, in its rubble, in the wreckage and ruination and dust of its Christian tradition.”  But Joshua, while on the trail of the papers (which are expected to contain incriminating evidence against still-living war criminals), is killed in Vilnius – an event that not only happens offstage, as it were, but that is presented to us tacitly, in the course of a casual conversation between Pem and Everett.  It is Pem who ends up tracking down the archive – and who, after a decent interval, not only marries Sarah (who has taken over the rabbinate) but converts to Judaism.

       But these events constitute only a small part of City of God.  A good deal more of it consists of other material, such as Everett’s prose-poem memoirs (which are rather similar to, but far longer than, the prose poems in Loon Lake) about his New York Jewish boyhood and his father’s and brother’s service in the first and second world war respectively; brief accounts by him of his affair with a woman named Moira (who, in her superficiality and easy sexuality, forms a facile contrast with Sarah, the cerebral earth mother); and outlines by him of story and movie ideas.  More oddly, there are several long sections headed “The Midrash Jazz Quartet Plays the Standards,” under which are presented weird, vigorous prose-poem sermons (complete with thumbnail notes on congregational reaction: “indifferent applause”; “wild acclaim”) that take as their texts not biblical passages but the lyrics to such old popular songs as “Me and My Shadow” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  There are meditations, also presumably by Everett, on the earth and the universe and Einstein; among them are, in particular, many descriptions of birds. And there are passages in the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein, including a series of personal memories that are presented as a list of numbered propositions and that conclude with Wittgenstein’s famous observation that, “even if all the possible scientific questions are answered, our problem is still not touched at all.”

       City of God, then, attempts to encompass in some way the entire human race and indeed all of life, the world and cosmos, the twentieth century’s legacy of brutality as well as of scientific discovery.  Doctorow, author of several novels driven by narrow ideological motives, would appear to want this novel to be seen as rising above politics to take on nothing less than the eternal questions, those that lie far beyond all ideology.  Namely, what’s it all about?  Why are we here? Why were we given minds to think and hearts to feel?  Why is there evil in the world, and why is there love?  And is there or isn’t there a God?  These questions lie at the heart of all great literature, and are obviously of some real concern to Doctorow.  But to read this novel is to get the impression that he is, in the final analysis, incapable of shaping a main narrative whose real purpose is to draw us to the eternal questions.  For these questions, though present in City of God, feel utterly irrelevant to the moral thrust of the story at the novel’s center.  They are, structurally, window dressing.

       What, then, does lie at the moral heart of this novel?  I have mentioned one difference between City of God and The Waterworks.  Here is another: in The Waterworks Martin Pemberton’s sighting of his father and his own subsequent disappearance both seem at first to be possibly touched by the supernatural, but are ultimately explained by a conspiracy that, while farfetched and suitably gothic, partakes of no supernatural element whatsoever, and merely underscores, in predictable Doctorow fashion, the heartless, exploitative evil at the heart of American capitalism.  In City of God, by contrast, the transfer of the cross from church to synagogue is never explained.  Was some supernatural agency at work? Or was it simply a prank by some unknown mischief-maker?  Doctorow leaves this question open.  And by the end of the novel, the question doesn’t matter anymore, either to him or to Everett: what interests both the real author and his fictional alter ego is the symbolism of the thing.  And what, for Doctorow, is its symbolism?  

       In order to answer this question, we need to look at Doctorow’s treatment in these pages of the Episcopal Church, especially the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which, in Pem’s words, is noted for its “midtown showplaces of the pious rich and famous.”  The novel’s very first reference to the Episcopal Church comes in the form of an e-mail from Pem to Everett: “Hi, the answers to your questions, in order: The Book of Common Prayer; surplice; clerical collar with red shirt…”  And so forth.  From the beginning, then, the deliberate implication is that Everett is careful about his research, and wants to get all the details right; the further implication is that this is also the case with Doctorow.  Yet the picture painted here of the contemporary Episcopal Church and its workings is seriously off-base.  In the novel’s early pages, which find Pem comparing himself to Father Brown of G.K. Chesterton’s mystery novels and getting in hot water with his bishop, this Episcopalian reader kept getting the impression that Doctorow was thinking not of the Episcopal but of the Roman Catholic church; indeed his entire understanding of ecclesial polity, and of the way Episcopal clergy think and talk, seemed to be based on vague memories of old Bing Crosby movies in which the stern bishop calls Crosby, the impertinent young Roman Catholic priest, on the carpet.

       The errors are manifold: No Episcopal priest would refer to himself as “Reverend Pemberton.”  (It’s “The Reverend Thomas Pemberton.”)  Nor does Doctorow seem to understand that Episcopal congregations (mission parishes excepted) enjoy far more independence from their dioceses than do Roman Catholic congregations – and that Episcopal dioceses, in particular, don’t assign priests to parishes or cancel parish food programs.  Doctorow has Pem’s bishop refer to the church hierarchy as “the See” – a familiar term to Roman Catholics but one rarely used by Episcopalians – and has him talk about the Immaculate Conception in a way that makes it clear that Doctorow thinks this strictly Roman Catholic dogma (promulgated by the nineteenth-century Vatican) is an essential element of the Episcopal creeds.  Most importantly, Doctorow imports Roman Catholic doctrinal strictures into the Episcopal Diocese of New York.  Pem, who has playfully come to refer to himself as “Divinity Detective,” gets in trouble with the church for questioning literal interpretations of such matters as the Resurrection; Doctorow doesn’t seem to know that the nature of the Resurrection and the meaning of the Cross are at the center of Anglican theology (the Episcopal Church is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion) and that Pem’s views, as presented here, are hardly heretical in an Anglican context. Their crudity, alas, is another matter: “if you’re a religious guy like me,” says Pem (sounding for a moment less like an Episcopal priest than a Saul Bellow gangster), “and you’re not a fundamentalist, you’ve got trouble.  Do you turn the truths of your faith into a kind of edifying poetry?”  Doctorow just doesn’t understand Anglican belief – which is fine, but in that case he shouldn’t try to write about it.  It’s like a colorblind man writing about a rainbow.

       All this is important because Doctorow is intent in these pages on painting Pem as a “dissolving Christian.”  He puts the words into Pem’s mouth, but of course the words are Doctorow’s own, and there is a malice in them that this reader found offensive.  Imagine a gentile novelist writing about a “dissolving Jew” – a phrase which, especially in a novel as heavy with memories of the Holocaust as this one is, would be nothing less than chilling. Yet Doctorow has no idea what a “dissolving Christian” might be, because he is clueless about what a Christian really is – at least not a Christian in the Anglican tradition.  He doesn’t get it – he just doesn’t get it.  He keeps coming back, bemusedly, to the figure of Jesus, and makes it clear that the only way he has of understanding what it might mean to belong to the religion of Jesus is by way of comparison with the one faith he does understand – that is, the devotion to Marx, to Lenin, and to Stalin that gave meaning to the lives of the Rosenbergs and their kind.  (The difference, naturally, being that Doctorow finds the latter kind of faith far more attractive and congenial than the former.) When, toward the end of City of God, Pem converts to Judaism, he says “I feel liberated, restored to my mind, my intellect is being admitted into my faith.”  This is outrageous – far from feeling that the Episcopal Church fetters their intellects, many people (including this reviewer) have become Episcopalians because they found in the Episcopal Church a denomination in which, as it is widely said, “you don’t have to check your mind at the door.”  Pem congratulates himself for having found a faith “unattached to mythology.” Episcopal faith need not attach itself to mythology; Mystery, however, is something else again.  Many people in these times, Doctorow obviously included, just don’t understand a religion unless it’s all Mystery or all intellect; they can’t see that both Mystery and intellect, mythos and logos, have their respective places in religion, and that one test of a healthy religion is that it does have both, and that each knows its place. (I would advise Doctorow to ask his editor at Random House for a free copy of Karen Armstrong’s recent book from Knopf, The Battle for God, in which she writes very cogently about how the inability of educated modern people to understand mythos has led to varieties of religion – for example, some Unitarian and Reform Jewish congregations – that are all logos and other varieties of religion – generally known as fundamentalist – that have reacted against this modern surfeit of logos by being all mythos.)

       In the early pages of City of God, one keeps wondering: How could Doctorow have made so many elementary mistakes about the Episcopal Church, and in particular about the Episcopal Diocese of New York?  After all, he lives in New York; he must know a lot of Episcopalians; all he would have needed to do in order to eliminate most of his errors was to talk to a couple of them, attend a service or two, and run his manuscript by a helpful priest or layperson.  It is hard not to feel that a writer capable of making so many slipshod errors about a Church that plays so central a role in his novel is, by doing so, demonstrating a fundamental lack of respect for the Church itself (and this, moreover, in a novel that views factual accuracy in such matters as the tiniest details of Holocaust memories as a well-nigh religious value).  But then, as reads on, one begins to wonder: are these all mistakes?  Gradually, one comes to recognize that most of Doctorow’s distortions of the Episcopal Church are thoroughly deliberate – that he needed to turn the Episcopal Church into an authoritarian, dogma-bound, anti-intellectual institution in order to contrast it with the free-spirited, intellectually unfettered little synagogue run by the Gruens.  One comes to recognize, too, that if (as noted) Doctorow makes a point from the outset of Everett’s concern to get every little detail right, it is not simply because Doctorow wishes for the reader to think that he shares this commendable trait, but because he is eager to disguise the fact that he, unlike his fictive alter ego, is throughout the novel engaged in a malignant and programmatic distortion of the truth.  

       Doctorow accomplishes this, in fact, in quite an elegant fashion.  As the reader of City of God soon learns, Everett, in addition to planning a novel about St. Timothy’s cross, is also writing a Holocaust novel, derived partly from Sarah’s father’s memories.  When he meets Sarah to hear her reaction to the pages he has written (which of course are included in City of God, and which, telling the story of a Billy Bathgate-like boy of the Jewish ghetto, serve no purpose whatsoever in the novel other than to cynically appropriate the moral authority of the Holocaust and to offer up the suffering of the Jews with all the dignity of a crass poker player flourishing a winning hand), Everett is crushed to discover that he has gotten many small details wrong.  The point of this scene, however, is not that Everett makes mistakes (who doesn’t?) but that he is so terribly mortified to learn that he has done so.  Besides, as Sarah tells him: “It may be inaccurate, but it’s quite true.”  What Doctorow wants to impress upon us here, in other words, is (a) that Everett is deeply concerned to capture the truth, to get every little nuance right – and (b) that even a writer who gets some facts wrong may still, in a larger sense, be said to have captured a truth.  

       Doctorow has, let it be noted, played this game before: early in The Book of Daniel he makes it clear that the narrator, Daniel, is a professional scholar and thus deeply respectful of the truth; early in The Waterworks he goes to some pains to establish that the narrator, McIlvaine, is a journalist equally devoted to the truth.  In City of God, as in each of these earlier books, Doctorow employs the conceit that his fictional “author” has been powerfully touched by some event and is writing out of some deep-seated need to uncover the truth at the heart of it.  This representation of his narrators as bulwarks of truth serves, in turn, to make readers feel that he, too, is respectful of the truth – even as he is willfully engaged, in every moment, in bending the truth to his ideological purposes.  Of course, Doctorow is a novelist, not a scholar or journalist, and his Episcopal Church is a fictional construct that he has every right to depict however he wishes to.  Yet he cannot do this while at the same time pretending to be saying anything true and meaningful about that Church, or about America in our time, or (for that matter) about anything else under the sun.

       Why, one might ask, does Doctorow feel obliged to misrepresent the Episcopal Church, of all institutions?  If he needed an authoritarian, dogma-bound, and anti-intellectual church to serve as a contrast with the Gruens’ synagogue, why didn’t he just use the Roman Catholic Church – which, after all, is authoritarian, dogma-bound, and anti-intellectual?  Early in the novel, indeed, one has the impression that perhaps, at some stage in the novel’s development, Pem was a Roman Catholic priest – which would explain all the references to the Holy See and such – but that Doctorow later substituted the Episcopal Church, perhaps at the suggestion of editors worried about offending Roman Catholics.  But then one comes to realize that Doctorow picked the Episcopal Church on purpose.  After all, one remembers, this is E.L. Doctorow – class warrior, ally of the Marxist revolutionary, enemy of the American capitalist establishment.  In order to understand what he has done in this novel, one needs to think the way that he does: the Roman Catholic Church, for all its present-day dogmatism and autocracy, is historically the church of poor immigrants, and thus, like Stalinism, cannot be cast in a negative light. The Episcopal Church, however, for all its contemporary liberalism, is nonetheless historically the church of the American Establishment – the “Church of Presidents,” the religious home of most of the nineteenth-century plutocrats whom Doctorow has always depicted as emblematic of America at its most villainous.  Doctorow, you see, had no choice: he had to use the Episcopal Church in this novel, and since its current reality (like the reality of the Rosenbergs) was inconvenient to his purposes – was, indeed, utterly at odds with them – he needed to paint a dramatically distorted picture of it.

       One thing needs to be made clear here: historically speaking, Christianity is indeed, as Doctorow wishes to underscore, a branch of Judaism – or, more accurately, both Christianity and today’s Judaism of the synagogue are outgrowths of, and equally striking departures from, the biblical Judaism of the Temple.  This reviewer, for one, is not at all disturbed by the idea of an Episcopalian converting to Reform Judaism, if that path to God feels better suited to him.  Yet for a Jewish writer to conjure up the conversion scenario that Doctorow proffers in this novel does disturb me.  It is, quite simply, nasty and mischievous.  Ultimately, the story that Doctorow tells in City of God has no other purpose than to convey the notion that the social and political establishment of America – that is to say, the Protestant Christian establishment, or (more specifically) the historically Episcopalian establishment – is, in some deep, essential sense, morally illegitimate, and that if truth and virtue are alive and well anywhere in today’s America, the best places to look for them are in certain precincts of the New York Jewish community.  This is the symbolic reason for the removal of the cross to the synagogue, and it is the reason, too, why Pem, the good Episcopal priest, realizes that he must convert to Judaism.  

       In Doctorow’s previous novels, this categorical view of Christianity and Judaism has sometimes seemed to be in evidence, but it is only here that it has finally, after forty years, been so explicitly set forth.  Doctorow doubtless thinks that he has paid Reform Judaism a great compliment here, yet in fact he has used it almost as shabbily as he has used Episcopalianism; for Reform Judaism, like Episcopalianism, is at its best an ecumenical-minded institution, not only respectful of other faiths but alert to the fact that religious insularity is the enemy of true religion and of human hope generally and that people of different faiths can and must, in fact, learn much from one another.  There is, by contrast, nothing at all ecumenical about City of God.  Nor, though Doctorow would have us think of him as a liberal, is there anything at all genuinely liberal about the identity politics on display in these pages.  On the contrary, this is the book of a writer who, apparently incapable of shaking his decades-long preoccupation with politics and political categories, plainly feels that in an America suffering from the absence of a vigorous Marxist faith of the sort that animated the likes of the Rosenbergs, Reform congregations like the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism and “Beacons of Faith” like Joshua and Sarah Gruen are the best substitute we have.  That Doctorow fails to understand that such substitution is not the proper function of religion – Christian, Jewish, or otherwise – will probably not surprise any of his longtime readers, though it is responsible for the fact that City of God, perhaps the most ambitious of his novels, is at the same time his most abhorrent work and his most conspicuous failure.

THE HUDSON REVIEW,  Autumn 2000