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20 December 2006

Creationists by E.L. Doctorow - Summary - Houston Chronicle

Blogaulaire has not read Creationists, E. L. Doctorow's recent book of essays reviewed below. I am still in the middle of his early 1970s novel, "The Book of Daniel" and thoroughly enjoying it. (By the way, in his own writing, E.L.D. portrays the black janitor who lives in the basement of the family's apartment building in a stereotypical vein, very close to what he deplores in Mark Twain's early work. Just between you and me . . . )


"From Welcome to Hard Times to The March, and especially in such novels as The Book of Daniel, Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, Doctorow's own creativity has been fired by American history, by the West, the Civil War, the Cold War, by gangsters and rebels and immigrants. So some of the most provocative things he has to say are about the writer's relationship to America — or in the case of Franz Kafka, to Amerika, a novel that foundered because the immensity of the country stymied Kafka's claustrophobic Old World imagination. As Doctorow says, Kafka 'held his book together as long as he'd ignored the true scale of the American continent,' but 'the minute he tried to fold our vast openness into his conceit he was finished.'

But even American writers come to grief. Harriet Beecher Stowe may have touched the American conscience with Uncle Tom's Cabin, but Doctorow faults the book for 'the implicit racism of Stowe's stereotypes' of black people. 'It is an indication of how tortuous is the moral progress of a culture where even the religiously driven protest, the aesthetically organized act of moral intellect, assumes the biases of the system it would overthrow.'
And Stowe is not the only transgressor when it comes to racial stereotyping that ironically works against the author's message. Doctorow faults Mark Twain for letting Tom Sawyer take over the latter part of Huckleberry Finn — this is 'terrible for American literature,' he says, not only because it turns a grown-up book into juvenile fiction but also because it weakens the rapport between Huck and Jim.

And the portrayal of Jim troubles him as much as Stowe's stereotyping. Huck, Doctorow notes, 'struggles against the white mores of his time to help the black man, Jim, escape from slavery, but it is Huck's progenitor" — Twain himself — "who portrays Jim, in minstrelese, as a gullible black child-man led by white children."

Doctorow rejects Hemingway's famous assertion that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." Instead, he says, "It begins with Moby-Dick, the book that swallowed European civilization whole."

Blogaulaire agrees with the Doctorow deconstruction the Houston reviewer described in the quote. In poetry, nearly every poet who went to Mayan Mexico and 'wrote back' displays the shallow cultural imperialism Kafka stumbled through. Even Lorca waxes racists in his notes and poems from New York City as he trembles before Black Harlem.

For many years Charles Matthews was books editor for the San Jose Mercury-News. He lives in Mountain View, Calif.

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