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.