Ode to E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow: Writer. Teacher. Historical Novelist. He died of lung cancer today; I am sad.

As a television interview producer, I have met many authors: Maya Angelou. David McCullough. Salman Rushdie.

I never met him. I am sad about that.

But he — more than most — affected my life.

He taught me about New York and the Civil War and humanity. He made me ask questions about politics and history and… humanity.

My favorite teachers were Ragtime and The March – I’ll read them again now. There are surely more lessons inside.

Mostly, E.L. taught me that historical fiction does not have to be handcuffed to the past. It lives in the past, breathes in the past, FEELS in the past, but it is not imprisoned by that past. Historical fiction is free from the past in a way history is not.

The historian will tell you what happened.
The novelist will tell you what it felt like.
-E.L. Doctorow

I write by the lessons he gave me. I write to feel, empathize, and explore a human reaction to an epic moment. I want to write history as it was — a moment in time experienced by people. Flawed, beautiful people.

I write to let history roam in the imagination.

I don’t write like him. I cannot ever hope to write that well. But I write historical fiction, in part, because he taught me to.

As an art and poetry lover, I can think of no better tribute to E.L. Doctorow than Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. I don’t know why this feels appropriate — maybe it’s something about how the rest of us will fade away, but his words will remain long after he — and we — are gone. Or maybe this poem feels right because somehow — and none of us know how — truth is beauty and beauty is truth and in a time of grief, that is all we have.

Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,

                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.


Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

                Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

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