E.L. Doctorow on the Role of Writers in Society

  • submit to reddit

For over five decades, the FBI kept intelligence files on dozens of American writers. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pearl Buck, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norman Mailer, and many others had come under suspicion of subversion, espionage or immorality. Yet not one was ever convicted of a crime. In this episode of World of Ideas, novelist E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime and the Book of Daniel, comments that the best writers are a nuisance to society because, he says, they prefer the uncomfortable truth to the comfortable lie. Never reluctant to address the controversial issues, Doctorow has searched for meaning in modern American history, mingling reality and myth to reveal hidden corners of the American experience.



BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. The news broke just last year; for over five decades the FBI had been keeping intelligence files on dozens of American writers. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pearl Buck, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norman Mailer, and many others, it turned out, had come under suspicion of subversion, espionage or immorality. Yet not one was ever convicted of a crime. My guest tonight thinks there are worse things than rattling the authorities. The best writers are a nuisance to authority because, he says, they prefer the uncomfortable truth to the comfortable lie. Join me for a conversation with E.L. Doctorow.

[voice-over] E.L. Doctorow has been conducting a long meditation on the meaning of modern American history. In his novel, truth emerges from the shadows. Reality and myth mingle to reveal a history once hidden. Ragtime, his bestselling novel which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and became a movie by the same name, evokes America at the beginning of the century when progress was divorced from justice. In Book of Daniel, which also became a movie, Doctorow used the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to explore the radical imagination the conflict of personal vision and public orthodoxy. Whether in his novels — his new one will be published next year — or in essays, articles and speeches, E.L. Doctorow has been addressing controversial issues in American life. I talked with E.L. Doctorow at his home in Sag Harbor, New York on the very day he completed his new novel.

[interviewing] Do you still think as you did a couple of years ago that our literary life is quiet compared to earlier periods of this century?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, I think we tend today to be more Miniaturists than we used to be.

BILL MOYERS: Miniaturists? Writing in small strokes about small —

E.L. DOCTOROW: Yes, we’ve constricted our lens. We’ve come in the house, closed the door, pulled the shade, reporting on what’s going on in the bedroom, the kitchen, but forgetting the street outside and the town and the highway.

BILL MOYERS: The big story — you once said that our writers are less and less inclined to take on the big story. What is the big story?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Oh, what is the big Story? Well, I think that the national soul is always the big story; who we are, what we’re trying to be, what our fate is, where we will stand in the moral universe when these things are reckoned. That’s always the big story. I think of the novelists of the past who came up out of journalism — out of your profession — who worked in newspapers. Dreiser was a newspaperman. Hemingway, of course, worked for the Toronto Star. They got to see an awful lot of what was going on.

BILL MOYERS: Well, of course, a lot was going on then. I mean, so many of those novelists were engaged with the great issues of the twenties and thirties when society was literally falling apart. It seemed that America was no longer nourishing life.

E.L. DOCTOROW: That’s the other thing — the passion they had. Things seemed to be falling apart and getting very bad; rising tyrannies in Europe and the collapse of the American economy, the immense poverty of the Depression. Writers connected with this. They began to talk about it. They were coming up with their own solutions and they wanted to report on what they saw and the misery around them. They had this passionate involvement with their lives whether they were on the Right or the Left; whether they were Marxists; whether they were Agrarians, southern Agrarians; whether they believed in the past or the future. They were all vitally connected to the crisis which everyone recognized. I’m not so sure that our crisis today is something that we recognize as writers or that we have any particular passion for.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the political passion in fiction seems to be coming from abroad. From people like Nadine Gordimer in South Africa, from Günter Grass in Europe, from Gabriel Marquez in Latin America, that’s where the passion about politics is.

E.L. DOCTOROW: That’s true. That’s true.

BILL MOYERS: Why is that?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, I as a practicing writer, of course, have to put some of the blame on the critics, right? I feel that there’s no critical fraternity today that has that much regard for the political novel in America. It’s almost as if we’re too good to need political novels in this country. It’s something of the same sort President Reagan feels about trade unions. He likes them as long as they’re in Poland.

BILL MOYERS: So, we like political criticism —

E.L. DOCTOROW: We like our political novels as long as they don’t come out of this country. We have always had a bias against proselytizing, against preaching, in our art and —

BILL MOYERS: I think it has some validity. I mean are writers the best ones to deal with the great political themes or shouldn’t they stick with what you once so elegantly described as “the moral immensity of the single soul”?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Ah, now I don’t think the artist is immune to his life and times and to a certain extent he has to be conditioned by them — has to overcome them — but they are there. I mean, Ireland was always in Joyce even though he left and he wandered around and you saw that when you read his work. I think it’s not just the writers today although you would expect more of them if you’re a writer, if you’re an artist, but, it’s everybody. We seem to be living in some sort of state of mind that’s controlling us as a nation that we haven’t quite defined yet — some sort of national point of view, or ideology, that’s invisible to us because we’re inside it.

BILL MOYERS: And fiction is judged by an ideological standard, not by the measure of truth.

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, yes, I think so. But, the whole idea of dissent has been sort of discounted. The value of dissent is no longer seen, I think, generally by the average American — people who say things that you don’t want to hear; people who point out things you’d rather not have pointed out; the people who nag and say this isn’t good enough, that’s not good enough, try this, try that. This kind of thing, this kind of dialogue, to use that term — this kind of discourse is very discounted today. It has no real value.

BILL MOYERS: You’re not talking about the writer as a critic of this or that program of a particular administration, you’re talking about the writer whose works challenge the prevailing mythology of society — who challenge the underlying belief system of the rulers.

E.L. DOCTOROW: The key thing is mythology. When ideas go unexamined and unchallenged for a long enough time, certain things happen. They become mythological and they become very, very powerful. They create conformity. They intimidate. They coerce. The person who sets himself up and says, “Wait, just a minute,” is going to find himself in a very uncomfortable position.

BILL MOYERS: Well, this is an important point. The novelist of the ’30s wrote about the failure of America to nourish life but today that’s considered in many quarters an unpatriotic theme and those who do take on those themes — as you have said — get roundly criticized by the orthodox intellectuals who are defending the prevailing myths.

E.L. DOCTOROW: It seems to be the case that there is a disinclination of critics to accept the authority of the individual witness, namely the writer.

BILL MOYERS: Who challenges the state.

E.L. DOCTOROW: Who challenges the current orthodoxy.

BILL MOYERS: Is it the duty of the intellectual always to be only against, or does the intellectual also have the privilege of serving the people in power?

E.L. DOCTOROW: I think the writer, for instance, his ultimate — or her ultimate — responsibility is to the idea of witness. This is what I see. This is what I feel. This is the way I think things are. And not to corrupt that point of view and not to be fearful of it — not to self-censor it. So, there’s a certain dogged kind of, sometimes, foolish connection to the ideal of just telling the truth. Now, if you do that, you’re going to get in trouble both ways. You’re going to get in trouble by being against something or for something. I mean, the writer who stakes out a very remote place for himself and doesn’t see anybody and doesn’t do anything, just sits in the woods and is a recluse, that can be a very self-satisfying and essentially corrupting position to assume, just as it’s dangerous for the writer to hang around rich people — as some of our writers do — and attach themselves to power and feel that they like to be patted on the head by power every once in a while just to know that they’re writers. All these things are dangerous. A very difficult profession — it really is.

BILL MOYERS: You say the role of the writer is to witness, it’s not to save society, is it?

E.L. DOCTOROW: No. I don’t think he can’t have that kind of self-aggrandizing view of himself. You’d like to feel that somehow somewhere along you might inch things along a little bit in a good way toward civility, toward enlightenment, toward diminishing of suffering. But, you don’t want to get too pompous about that. You know, really what you do is you distribute the suffering so that it can be borne. That’s what writers do. That’s what artists do.

BILL MOYERS: Distribute the suffering?


BILL MOYERS: How does a writer do that?

E.L. DOCTOROW: If you or I read a book and we learn about someone else’s life and torment to the extent that that book is effective and good, we will be participating in that character’s suffering, torment. And, presumably, when we close the book., it gives us an enlarged understanding of people, perhaps, we don’t think of looking at, people we wouldn’t have to dinner. I mean, look at Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, if we spend a long time with him and get to know him, we wouldn’t want him to have dinner in our house. So, fiction really enlarges humanity, poetry shares the perception of what life is and raises someone’s awareness of other people who might otherwise be unsympathetic. Political diction and aesthetic diction are always antithetical.


E.L. DOCTOROW: Because the politician usually to get elected, or to do what he wants to do, has to appeal to prejudices, symbols, biases, fears — all the ways we have of not thinking — in order to effect his desires or his programs. The artist is always dealing and saying, “Wait, this is too simple. This is over-simple. This is a lie. This is an untruth. This is a fraud.” And his diction is more like the texture of real life. Politics scants reality. That’s the problem with political discord. It scants reality. It diminishes it. It makes it small.

BILL MOYERS: You once said that the mind of the writer has to be a democratic mind. What did you mean by that?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, you know, when I was younger and would go to see some production play by George Bernard Shaw, or I’d read Shaw, I was always very impressed by how he gave the best lines to the people he disagreed with. That touches on the idea — to do justice to all your characters and all their points of view and all the sources of them, to give them all honor. That requires a rather democratic mind.

BILL MOYERS: Every truth has an answering truth.

E.L. DOCTOROW: Exactly. The democratic mind of the writer is also a sign of the great chaos of his mind, the openness of it, that will only find order in the work that’s created. Out of the chaos of that mind somehow will come an orderly piece of work and, yet, if the writer knows what he feels before he writes; and knows what’s right and knows what’s wrong; and who’s good and who’s bad; and this politics is the only politics; and this religion is the only — is going to write worthless stuff. He’s going to stamp his ideas out on the work as if he had this sort of cookie cutter.

BILL MOYERS: A minute ago you used a word I let pass because I wanted to go on to another point. But, you used the word crisis and it brings to mind something you wrote a couple of years ago. You said that “in our withdrawal” — the withdrawal of artists — “in our non-political pragmatic vision we may be expressing the general crisis of the age.” What do you take that crisis to be?

E.L. DOCTOROW: The sort of loss of our identity as a democratic nation with constitutional ideals. I seem to be sensitive to that as a crisis, but not as this sudden clap of thunder kind of laws, but as a slow kind of, almost invisible transformation of ourselves under the pressures of our history and our time and our ideologies. I’m reminded of de Tocqueville’s remark, when tyranny comes to the United States, he said, it would be very very quiet and it would be the sleep that comes over, the somnolence that comes over, quiet, pacific, industrial animals. He’s comparing us to sheep out in the meadow, and I think that’s true; just to forget who we are and what a ridiculous bunch we used to be, so outspoken, so aware of the dangers to freedom. I don’t know if we’re that aware of them these days.

BILL MOYERS: You think. we are becoming a passive society?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, it seems to be so easy to intimidate, to coerce people — and I keep using those two words. The vulnerability, for instance, of people to television so that polls taken to express favor or disfavor of political actions of politicians are directly connected to the amount of exposure the politicians have on the air. That’s dangerous. That’s frightening. It means something is happening to our thinking. Something is happening to the debate we should be conducting at the most serious levels.

BILL MOYERS: It is very to easy to turn the argument without presenting a reasoned case, the right commercial will do it; the right sound bite will do it; the right emotional manipulation will do it so that the opinion gets turned of the public, or a constituency within the public, without a debate.

E.L. DOCTOROW: Exactly. Wilhelm Reich said that the average man’s mind is structured for fascism, now, for authoritarianism, for dominance, for power. Attaches itself to power. It respects power. It defers to power greater than its own. It uses power on individuals’ minds weaker than its own. If that’s true then it’s very much easier for the Right to win an election in this country than it is for the Left because it has such a little way to go to tap into to the worst instincts of all of us. Whereas, the true Democrat who wants to enjoin us as a society to be better than we are has to go a way to find some sort of connection. It’s a longer haul for him to reach and connect with the voter.

BILL MOYERS: But, the instinct for order in a chaotic world is not to be denied. The instinct for tradition in a time when, as Gabriel said in Green Pastures, “everything that’s tied down is coming loose” is not to be rejected. There is something in the need of Americans for authority, for order, that comes out of this century; which has been a violent century, a genocidal century, a century of enormous evils. So, don’t you have some feeling for those people who have an impulse toward orthodoxy, toward conformity?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, I would say the violence and the evil came out of order. I mean, fascism was order; communism was order. The Holocaust was performed in a monstrously orderly way. I think there’s a difference between the social order that creates civility and certain shared values of decency and understanding. That’s one kind of order. But, the order that convicts people who think a little differently, wear their hair a little differently, or worship God a little differently, the order that wants everything to be the same everywhere, and all people to think the same way and look the same way and speak the same way and come from the same background, that is the kind of order that we must — we have to resist.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see this tendency to that kind of order prevalent in America?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, I’m certainly aware that the power of government has increased in a malign way in this country in the past 40 years. It seems to me the great problem that any country, any nation ever has is to deal with its enemies without becoming its enemies. I’m not so sure that we’re managing to do that

BILL MOYERS: In the crush of the Cold War, in the competition of the Cold War, we take the techniques of the Communists to defeat the Communists and that changes us?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, we begin to scant on our own strengths. We begin to cut into our democratic sense of ourself. We begin to condone secrecy and deception and assassination and all sorts of un-American things. We condone defending democracy by attacking people who ran the world who don’t do it the way we want it done. There’s a contradiction there. You can’t maintain yourself as a power without — for any length of time, it seems to me — without corrupting yourself. After all, the bomb; first it was our weapon, then it became our diplomacy, then it became our economy. And now, if what some of the things we’ve been saying about American culture have any validity, it’s become our culture, too. We’re becoming people of the bomb, people of our military dominance.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think writing changes anything? Has literature changed that empirical world out there, that observable world?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, it’s very inefficient. The poet, W.H. Auden, said that none of the anti-Fascist poems of the 1930s stopped Hitler. That’s undeniable but maybe the answer is the poems weren’t good enough. Sometimes works are written that serve no apparent social utility but which predict, are predictive, and become recognized later on. There are all sorts of weird ways consciousness is changed by literature. Certainly, I can’t imagine my mind, or the mind of any of us, without Chekhov being in it; that Joyce, that D.H. Lawrence, that all the writers I’ve ever read or admired somehow constitute my brain in part, or deliver me to some point in civilization that I wouldn’t have reached otherwise. I have to assume that that’s true of most people.

BILL MOYERS: Are you ever tempted to follow the example of Tolstoy. Tolstoy at the age of 50, as you yourself have pointed out, abandoned the writing of novels and he became a prophet for justice. He began to preach Christian non-violence. He began to teach the peasants how to write. He decided to do something about the condition of the world instead of simply describe it. Are you ever tempted to follow that example?

E.L. DOCTOROW: Well, I can’t imagine not writing. I’m too weak to abandon it. I love language. I love to be in it. I love to have my mind, sort of, flowing its way through sentences and making discoveries that I hadn’t anticipated. It’s really very selfish. You want to make something that’s good and true and something That didn’t exist before and hope it will last, that’s all. That’s all, but it’s everything. II’s a monumentally arrogant wish and desire, but it’s also very simple. Just out of your own inadequate mind to make something that stands, and holds, and becomes something that someone else will use to walk us another bit further toward whatever it is our destiny might be; enlightenment, one hopes, salvation, redemption, all those things.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From his home in Sag Harbor, New York, this has been a conversation with E.L. Doctorow. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 30, 2015.

  • submit to reddit