Reporting the Universe

by E.L. Doctorow '52, Harvard University Press

Anyone who has read such Doctorow novels as The Book of Daniel and City of God knows that this master fictionist delves avidly into troubling issues posed by history, religion, American culture, and philosophy. If Doctorow is a natural storyteller, he is also an incisive, articulate, and provocative thinker-and one who is a pleasure to read, as amply demonstrated by this slender volume of fourteen essays, based on a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard.

There is, as might be expected, a good deal of reflection about literature here. In "The Little Bang," he explores inspiration, the "capacitating" gift (and discipline) that endows writers with godlike creativity. In "Childhood of a Writer," he weaves memories of his boyhood reading with family stories and observations on the "universal capacity for storytelling."

Particularly powerful are several essays that ponder the dangers of religious fundamentalism. Doctorow unabashedly sings a "secular humanist canticle," as he puts it in an essay titled "The Politics of God." He writes that "there has always been something about the organized attention to God that is wrongly proprietary, with a sharp murderous edge to it." While acknowledging the ills and injustices of secular modernity, he asserts that "the rare moral advances of the human race have come not of religious but of secular institutions."

Or, as he puts it in "Paradise Lost": "Doubt, the constantly debated and flexible inner condition of theological uncertainty . . . seems to have held people in thrall to ethical behavior, while the true believers of whatever stamp, religious or religious statist, have done the murdering. The impulse to exclude, satanize, eradicate, is a religious impulse."

One must recommend this book especially to a Kenyon audience because of the essay called, simply, "Kenyon." It is a tribute, but not a nostalgic one, by the son of immigrant Jewish New Yorkers who pursued his undergraduate education in a strange intellectual haven at a time when history (the Holocaust, the Cold War, McCarthyism) insisted on issues which that haven seemed ill-equipped to face. Doctorow has praise for Gordon Chalmers, John Crowe Ransom, and Phillip Blair Rice, whose inspired courses in metaphysics and aesthetics convinced the future writer to become a philosophy major. But the focus is on his identification with a minority intellectual subculture on a campus that was (in his view) dominated by fraternities, drinking, and parties, including Dance Weekends that had "achieved notoriety as far east as Smith and Vassar."

Doctorow's crowd was the group of Independents who lived in Middle Kenyon-Jews, Catholics, and two black students, along with "poor country boys like my friend James Wright the poet, a sprinkling of gays, some foreign nationals, a long-haired premature Hippie or two, and a few boys given to social afflictions like shyness or acne." After the Old Kenyon fire (all nine dead were from Middle Kenyon), the Independent survivors lived apart, in the Alumni House, and "set about making an alternative college of our own."

Looking back, Doctorow faults his teachers-"honest, dedicated scholars"-for uncritically affirming a view of literature and modernity that neglected the political; that explored, for example, T.S. Eliot's "Anglo-Catholic medievalist ideals but not their anti-Semitic adornments." His own response was a struggle "to connect everything, from the genial, passionately well meant denominational education given me at Kenyon to my childhood's dark image of European Christianity."

The struggle, he concludes, confirmed the skepticism with which he had grown up. It is an outlook that informs his fiction and that makes these essays so engaging to read.

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