E.L. Doctorow’s Masterful Manipulation of History

The novelist beautifully captured bygone eras despite an often cavalier attitude toward accuracy.

Mary Altaffer / AP

In the first chapter of his classic novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow memorably describes an afternoon shared by Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in early 1900s New York:

Their ultimate destination was Coney Island, a long way out of the city. They arrived in the late afternoon and immediately embarked on a tour of the three great amusement parks, beginning with Steeplechase and going on to Dreamland and finally late at night to the towers and domes, outlined in electric bulbs, of Luna Park. The dignified visitors rode the shoot-the-chutes and Freud and Jung took a boat together through the Tunnel of Love. The day came to a close only when Freud tired and had one of the fainting fits that had lately plagued him when in Jung’s presence.

The defining image of this passage—the two psychoanalysts sailing through a Tunnel of Love—is so delicious that it seems too good to be true. That’s because it is. Doctorow’s description of the expedition, by his own admission, sprung not from historical fact but rather from his imagination.

To his critics, who include John Updike, Doctorow’s fabrication in his “historical” novels made him something of a fraud. “[The inventions] smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets,” Updike wrote in The New Yorker. But to Doctorow, who died Tuesday at the age of 84, these inventions formed the essence of his craft. In a 2006 essay published in The Atlantic, he wrote:

Of course the writer has a responsibility, whether as solemn interpreter or satirist, to make a composition that serves a revealed truth. But we demand that of all creative artists, of whatever medium. Besides which a reader of fiction who finds, in a novel, a familiar public figure saying and doing things not reported elsewhere knows he is reading fiction. He knows the novelist hopes to lie his way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage. The novel is an aesthetic rendering that would portray a public figure interpretively no less than the portrait on an easel. The novel is not read as a newspaper is read; it is read as it is written, in the spirit of freedom.

There’s no greater sin in journalism—known colloquially as the “first draft of history”—than fabrication, as writers like Stephen Glass discovered. But in retrospect, the fudging of names and events can occasionally be forgiven if it serves a larger purpose. The longtime New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell became renowned for his intimate descriptions of New York City’s dispossessed. Only later did he admit that some of his characters didn’t actually exist. Today, Mitchell’s fabrications would be a career-killing offense, his name as sullied as Glass or Jayson Blair or Jonah Lehrer. But today, his work, inaccuracies and all, is regarded as a valuable examination into a bygone era.

Doctorow never claimed to be a journalist, exempting him from the standards attached to the craft. But far from apologizing for his inaccuracies, he defended them as being essential to his work. In a 1986 interview with George Plimpton at New York’s 92nd St. YMCA, republished in The Paris Review, Doctorow said:

History is a battlefield. It’s constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth. I meant it when I said everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J. P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography ... Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up.

Nevertheless, many of Doctorow’s signature novels were set well within his lifetime. Billy Bathgate, a novel depicting a boy’s relationship with an organized criminal, took place in 1930s New York. So too did World’s Fair, the closest thing that comes to a Doctorow autobiography. The more recent Homer & Langley, published in 2009, profiled two brothers whose inability to throw anything away led to their demise in 1947—an event that dominated newspaper headlines in New York during Doctorow’s teenage years.

But rather than observe the old dictum that writers should write about what they know, Doctorow thrived by doing the opposite.

“We’re supposed to be able to get into other skins,” he told Plimpton. “We’re supposed to be able to render experiences not our own and warrant times and places we haven’t seen. That’s one justification for art, isn’t it: to distribute the suffering?”