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.
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
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede