The Book of Doctorow

Linked with Robert Louis Heilbroner – USA (1919 – 2005).

Published on Valley Advocate, by Andrew Varnon, April 03, 2008.

2 excerpts: “If I’m a leftist, it’s because, as I think of them, the Ten Commandments is a very left dogma. What is just? What is unjust? That’s where it all begins for me,” novelist E.L. Doctorow told the New York Times in 1985. “But I tend not to accept any modification of the word novelist. So if you ask, am I a historical novelist, I say no. Am I a political novelist? No. Am I an ethnic novelist? No. I’m a novelist.”

Early on in my pursuit of this story, I was told I could not interview Doctorow. That he had made it known he would do no press in the lead-up to his April 8 appearance in the Valley. But perhaps that is appropriate. If this story were a Doctorow novel, I would fearlessly appropriate the real Doctorow and fictionalize things for him to say and do, based upon my feeling of the spirit of the age. And it would be brilliant.


Perhaps I’d imagine him standing behind the podium at Hofstra University on Long Island, giving the commencement address in 2004. Perhaps I’d catch him in the midst of his speech on that September day, taking President George W. Bush to task for the dishonest stories he told to get us into war. Perhaps I’d try to fill in the blanks of what he must have been thinking at that moment, looking out into the crowd of future accountants and communications professionals and their beaming parents, Miami businesspeople or retired New York City cops. What goes through his head when the roar of boos forces him to pause, while the university’s president beseeches the audience to let him speak?

Who is this 70-something native New Yorker, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who went off to Kenyon College, studied with John Crowe Ransom, and quit a career in publishing to become a novelist in the 1970s with the breakthrough novels The Book of Daniel and Ragtime? But this is not a Doctorow novel. This is a story for a free weekly, the kind of paper that Doctorow’s narrator in City of God, a novelist, conveniently scratches out and replaces with the Times as he composes the events around him into his novel.

So it is perhaps appropriate that this story won’t have any real-live Doctorow for you. You’ll have to come to Western New England College on April 8 for that …

… When I met Meeropol for lunch later, he remembered the very first Lecture Day at WNEC in 1975, when the author Robert Heilbroner came to campus to talk about his book, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect.

Meeropol called Doctorow “the most outstanding novelist of the second half of the 20th century.” He said that over the years, he and Doctorow have become friends, talking by phone and email. That all happened after The Book of Daniel had been published. He said his goal for Lecture Day was simple: “If one student reads one novel that they wouldn’t have read absent this, then we’ve done our job.”

Meeropol said that the opportunity to talk about The Book of Daniel, to talk about the Old Left and the New Left, was a liberating one for him. He said he doesn’t often discuss politics and history in his life as an economics professor. He mostly keeps to economics.

“My public advocacy is almost exclusively economics,” he said. “I haven’t done the other kind for over 30 years. I enjoyed the opportunity” … (still full long text).

(Andrew Varnon is a former Advocate staffer and is teaching three classes at WNEC this spring).

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