E.L. Doctorow Has His Splendid Crow's-Nest

Julia Keller
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

When it comes to beholding America, E.L. Doctorow always wants the masthead seat. And makes the most of it.

Up and up and up they inched, the sailors climbing to the ship's mastheads, because as every good whale-hunter knew, the masthead was the center of the world. "If, after a three, four, or five years' voyage she is drawing nigh home with anything empty in her -- say, an empty vial even," wrote Herman Melville, "her mast-heads are kept manned to the last." What waited at the top was a "thought-engendering altitude," he added in Moby-Dick.

The small Long Island community of Sag Harbor, NY, where E.L. Doctorow lives for large parts of the year, once was a major whaling port. It shows up in Melville's masterpiece. And it seems altogether fitting that Doctorow should reside at this extreme eastern limit of the United States, so close to the ocean's edge that the constant, astonished complaints of the sea gulls rend the air, as the birds make their endless pivots in the gray sky, wings tense with umbrage.

From a modest frame house near Upper Sag Harbor Cove, Doctorow gets a 21st century version of the view those sailors attained. He sees everything he needs to see. From this perch, he can, in theory, look out across America and take it all in, every twitch and contradiction and nuance, the churn and the burn, its gangsters and its fools and its saints and its soldiers, its crackpots and its poets, all 3.7 million square miles and 231 nervous years of it, of the nation's exceedingly complex and extraordinarily simple story, because Doctorow's imagination beats any spyglass, any history book, hands down.

"The big story is always the national soul," he told an interviewer in 1990. "Who we are, what we are trying to be, what is our fate, where we will stand in the moral universe when these things are reckoned."

Doctorow has lived here for more than three decades now, angling himself against the country's outermost margin. He can't take a chance on missing anything. He needs to keep the whole thing alive in his sights, all at once, a guaranteed panorama. "There you stand," Melville wrote, "a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea ..."

When it comes to beholding America, Doctorow always wants the masthead seat. And makes the most of it.

Every famous author has The Book: The one that everybody, even people who don't read many books, has heard of. Melville had the aforementioned Moby-Dick. F. Scott Fitzgerald had The Great Gatsby. Toni Morrison has Beloved. Philip Roth has Portnoy's Complaint. For E.L. Doctorow, who will receive the 2007 Chicago Tribune Literary Award on Nov. 4, The Book is Ragtime.

But there is so much more. There is The March (2005), a solemn, ominous chronicle of Sherman's flying wedge of destruction through the South at the tail end of the Civil War. There is Loon Lake (1979), a poetical and punch-drunk ramble through Depression-era America. There is City of God (2000), his eerily prescient look at the catastrophic necessity of religious fervor. Or The Waterworks (1994), a moody tale of 1870s New York, a place where rich men can buy their way out of anything -- including their own mortality.

Not that Ragtime (1974), Doctorow's energetic reverie of America at the cusp of the 20th century, a book in which fact and fiction blend as deliciously and perilously as rye and ginger ale in a highball glass, isn't significant, isn't fully worthy of its massive sales, of its transfer into an admired film and hit musical, of its iconic status as The Book.

You can start there, but you can't stop there. To appreciate Doctorow, maybe you need to do what he did: Seek the astringency of distance, move to the furthermost edge and let the entirety blossom beneath your gaze. That's perhaps the only sure way to grasp his achievement, to stretch your mind across it -- until, like the author himself, you attain the clarifying perspective of withdrawal. From that spot, you can see all, understand all.

He hates talking about himself. Secretly, you would be disappointed if the 76-year-old novelist were any other way, if he were as jabberingly self-confessional as a rock star just out of rehab.

"I don't usually talk about my personal life. I'm a little shy about that," Doctorow says. He is sitting at the big wooden rectangular table in the square kitchen of that Sag Harbor home on a recent morning, hands folded, voice low, manner genial. "I have no problem talking about the work or about ideas or anything, but I like to keep my private life private." Just outside the back screen door, a small garden unfurls like a soft green rug, and beyond that, the scalloped waters of the cove shift and toss. The sea gulls add their two cents' worth.

The only thing Doctorow hates more than talking about himself, however, is being rude, so when it comes to the personal questions, a jury-rigged compromise emerges: You inquire, he replies -- but he employs a conversational version of the literary technique known as minimalism, saying no more than is absolutely necessary, pausing before each reluctantly deployed sentence, so that you end up feeling slightly grubby and ashamed, as tawdry as a tabloid snoop. But you have to ask, and the first thing you want to know is: Why the reticence about personal matters? It is not as if some black secret lurks in his past, some shameful scandal. ... Right?

"For all you know," he says, "there may be."

He's kidding. Isn't he?

The truth is, for E.L. Doctorow, there's no place to hide. He is far too successful for that. Do the math: two National Book Critics Circle Awards; one National Book Award; one National Humanities Medal; a sackful of honorary degrees and fellowships and visiting professorships. The March was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He holds an endowed chair in American letters at New York University. He is among a half-dozen or so contemporary novelists who have earned immense and glittering international reputations, whose works have an excellent shot at being remembered long past their lifetimes. Each novel is unique. His output is steady. The quality is unremittingly spectacular.

And he has done it without flamboyance or bombast, without mistreating lovers or diving into drunken brawls or losing his temper on TV talk shows or becoming the subject of tell-all memoirs or punching people in the nose.

"He's very soft-spoken, very sophisticated. He doesn't self-promote," notes Kate Medina, executive vice president, associate publisher and executive editorial director at Random House, Doctorow's publisher, in an interview. "He keeps all his energy inside -- for the books."

But might that serenity and grace and self-effacement have worked against him, as well, all these years? Because with Doctorow there is, unmistakably, a sense that for all of his achievements, for all of the reverence in which he is held by critics and readers, for all of the passionate admiration he elicits, he still does not garner quite the same amount of attention as do some of his more self-aggrandizing -- and, to many observers, less deserving -- contemporaries: Roth and Norman Mailer, for instance, the naughty boys of literature, the ones bountifully endowed with surly personas and put-up-your-dukes pomposity.

Doctorow accepts the point with a curt nod. "There is an invisibility character to this, to the way I've managed things, but I believe in that. I think that for some writers -- Mailer, for instance, who is the example of the opposite way to manage one's writing life -- it's going to take years after they pass on for people to dig out the good stuff, and separate that from the personality. On the other hand, people do have a certain disposition." He pauses. "Not to be too grandiose about it, but the most invisible writer in the world is Shakespeare.

"It would be nice to have some sort of scandal to get off the book page and into the bold type," he says, then adds archly, "but I can't think of anything to do."

Let's have some personal details, then, but can we get this part over quickly, please, while he's still in the mood? He was born in 1931 in New York City, to parents he has described as lower middle-class. David and Rose Lenin Doctorow, both of Russian-Jewish origin, named their second son Edgar Lawrence; the "Edgar" was for Edgar Allan Poe.

It was a nice choice of nomenclature, and a perversely fortuitous one. Not only did young Ed Doctorow become a writer but he seems to have become one in direct opposition to the kind of writer Poe was. As Doctorow notes in Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006 (2006), his most recent published work, Poe "lived in such a narcissistic cocoon of torment as to be all but blind to the booming American nation around him." Poe ignored the world. Doctorow wouldn't be able to take his eyes off it.

And what a world it was for a clever young boy growing up in 1930s and '40s in a family that cherished him. It was a colorful and hectic and soul-stirring place, thronged with wonders. In "World's Fair" (1985), Doctorow's magical novel about the same kind of upbringing he had, the narrator channels that childhood effervescence: "I felt my heart banging and understood life as something that lived itself in you, an irresistible animating power that was mindless enough to go out of control, like the spring in a windup toy that without warning would run amok and bust itself to pieces."

He was a city boy, through and through, quickly learning his way around subways and fire escapes, getting savvy about shortcuts. He played in the streets, played in that fierce, single-minded way of the young, when play is as serious an undertaking as work. And he figured out, within the pleasant chaos of those days, that he wanted to be a writer.

"I was a great reader as a kid," Doctorow recalls. From his seat at the table in his Sag Harbor kitchen, his mind -- despite his stated distaste for such journeys -- happily glides back, back to the days when a skinny kid with an attentive eye and a burgeoning intelligence first began to be bewitched by words, to realize their cool incantatory power.

"At 9, I decided I was a writer. For years afterward, I didn't feel it was actually necessary to write anything to have claimed (the label)." He laughs gently at the outrageous presumption of his younger self. "Somewhere along the line, I identified with the people I was reading about. I was reading not only to find out what would happen next, but thinking, `How is this done? How do I see these things in my mind, from these little marks on the page? Isn't that interesting?' I had that kind of identification with the role of the author, at a very early period of time."

Yet he wasn't immune to the spell of science, which filled the air in mid-20th century America with its promises of technological marvels. "I diverged briefly, when I decided I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer." He laughs again. Doctorow's laugh is a cross between a chuckle and a growl; it's a low, understated sound that seems to reveal a more authentic delight than would a chandelier-rattling honk of amusement. "My older brother said, `You don't want to be an aeronautical engineer; you just like the sound of the words.' I do. I love that: `aeronautical engineer.'"

In fact, at Bronx High School of Science, Doctorow fled as fast as he could from algebra and chemistry and all the rest of it -- all the subjects for which that legendary public high school, cradle of Nobel Prize winners, was famous -- and straight into the offices of the literary magazine, titled Dynamo.

Graduating in 1948, he made the decision that changed the course of his life. He enrolled at Kenyon College in the tiny central Ohio town of Gambier, a region that, until Doctorow saw it with his own startled eyes, was purely hypothetical: the world beyond the streets of New York.

A high school guidance counselor, noting Doctorow's love for the poems of John Crowe Ransom, had suggested that he go to where Ransom was: Kenyon, home to a hotbed of poets and critics who were shaking up the status quo. Ransom and others had founded the Kenyon Review, the foremost literary magazine of the day. As Doctorow was to write years later, in a 1984 short story called "Lives of the Poets": "Poetry was what we did at Kenyon, the way at Ohio State they played football."

Doctorow's gratitude to the school is profound: "Getting on a train at Penn Station and going to Ohio at the age of 16 -- it was a great thing in my life." It was the place where he probably began formulating crucial portions of the Doctorow Doctrine -- i.e., the studied reluctance to discuss his personal life in any great detail, believing it ultimately detracts from a consideration of his work.

That attitude lived in the air at Kenyon. Ransom and his colleagues were passionate about what was known as the New Criticism: the belief that all you need to learn about a literary work is what's on the page. Anything else -- especially the writer's biography -- is irrelevant, distracting. In subsequent years, that view would be eclipsed by its opposite, by a kind of hyper-biographical criticism in which everything is interpreted in light of authors' private lives, from their marriages to their mortgages to their hemorrhoids, but in the 1940s and '50s, New Criticism was the rage. The less you knew about the hand wielding the pen, the better.

At Kenyon, Doctorow also made a lasting bond with poet James Wright. Wright, later to win a Pulitzer Prize for his verses, was four years older than Doctorow; he had served in the Army after graduating from high school in the blue-collar town of Martin's Ferry, Ohio.

Wright and Doctorow were linked by their love of words and music and "horsing around," as Doctorow calls it. Even then, Wright was a handful; his mood swings -- later to be diagnosed as bipolar disorder -- and his budding alcoholism tested everyone's patience. But there never was a more brilliant mind or captivating companion, Doctorow says. "We'd be walking across campus, and we'd see a pile of leaves, and we'd kick at them and say, `The leaves are falling! The leaves are falling!' It was our way of making fun of the bad poets on campus."

In later years, the business of life affected Wright like a bad rash. There were prizes, there were praises, but there were also tumultuous periods of mental illness and emotional torment. The man who could write a poem such as "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio" (1963), with its vivid evocation of the children of Ohio Valley steelworkers on the football field -- "Their sons grow suicidally beautiful/At the beginning of October,/And gallop terribly against each others' bodies" -- was also the man who could, years after college graduation, visit Doctorow and his young family and, for breakfast each morning, pour himself a giant tumbler of liquor, the first of many.

Other Kenyon acquaintances were memorable in less tragic ways. Doctorow had entertained ideas of being an actor, but as a freshman, he somehow wasn't able to nab any substantial roles.

"And then, in my sophomore year, I did get a few," he recalls, "because a senior named Paul Newman had graduated."

It took Doctorow eight years -- 1952 to 1960 -- from the time he left Kenyon with a degree in philosophy until he wrote his first novel, a brief, sarcastic Western titled Welcome to Hard Times. And what an eventful span it was: He attended graduate school at Columbia University, studying drama; met and married fellow Columbia student Helen Henslee; served in the U.S. Army in Frankfurt, Germany, from 1953 to 1955; and, from 1955 to 1959, worked as a reservations clerk at LaGuardia Airport and as a script reader for CBS and Columbia Studios. Wincing at a succession of sub-par scripts, he has said, initially inspired him to try his hand at a novel. "At a certain point," he said in a 1978 interview, "I decided that I could lie better than the screenwriters I was reading."

Thus, at last, he was a published writer, the dream of his youth, but he was also a husband and, soon, a father. He and Helen had three children: Jenny, Caroline and Richard. Serious responsibilities ensued. Doctorow took a job as an editor at the New American Library. By the mid-1960s, he had switched to Dial Press, where his title was editor-in-chief.

"I loved that job. I loved editing," Doctorow recalls. "It was the best wage I had ever made in my life."

But he wanted to write. Words wouldn't leave him be. Sentences, scenes, characters, nipped at his thoughts. He had begun a new novel. He felt pulled in two directions, between his day job and the novel he was writing at night, between the life he had and the one he wanted. He had a decision to make, a momentous one. It was like being at Penn Station all over again, 16 years old, suitcase in hand: Should he board that train and leave behind everything he knows, taking a wild chance? Or turn around and go back to what's familiar and safe and comfortable?

"I had started writing The Book of Daniel and I realized it was either the book or the job," Doctorow says. He had been offered a one-year appointment as a visiting professor at the University of California at Irvine. Quitting the Dial Press and heading West would mean upending his entire life -- and the lives of his wife and children -- on behalf of the misty figures who still resided solely in his imagination, on the fragile back of his outlandish ambition.

"So we packed everyone up, rented our house (in New York) and I taught there for a year," Doctorow says. "It was a kind of reckless thing to do. But I did finish The Book of Daniel out there." Published in 1971, that novel alerted the world to the presence of a serious new writer, one willing to take on the complicated burden of America's political past. The Book of Daniel is a fictionalized version of the lives of the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed for treason during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.

"The book was well-received critically," Doctorow remembers. "It was a modest success in terms of sales, but on the basis of the critical response, I got another book contract. With the contract, and with a part-time job at Sarah Lawrence, I was able to finish my next book -- which turned out to be Ragtime. After that, I didn't have to teach anymore."

Because Ragtime was a fabulous success. Critically, commercially -- measure it any way you like -- Ragtime ruled. It revealed to Americans their own country, but it was a view they'd rarely beheld: It was America with its corset unhooked. It was America hip-deep in hypocrisy. The muckraking, though, was done gently, almost bashfully; it was accomplished with supple, subtle prose, not with self-righteously hectoring paragraphs.

Set just after the turn of the 20th Century, Ragtime is about race and class and baseball and murder and magic; actual historical characters such as Harry Houdini and J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud rub elbows with fictional folks. The genuine intersects with the fake. Everything is tied up with the bright red thread of Doctorow's starkly gorgeous prose: "A storm had risen and the sky glowed with the green light. Lightning broke the sky as if it were a cracking shell." In the brand new century, America's promise was looking a little threadbare; the rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting restless.

"In Ragtime," Doctorow told an interviewer in 1978, "I'm satisfied that everything I made up about Morgan and Ford is true, whether it happened or not. Perhaps truer because it didn't happen."

Yet truth, in its pure and unambiguous form, is a passion. Thus Doctorow, for all of his diffidence and hesitation in speaking on personal matters, has been outspoken on political affairs -- or, as he puts it, with the rueful chuckle of a born troublemaker, "I do shoot my mouth off from time to time. When I'm offered a forum, I usually take it."

During the 2004 presidential election, he was asked to speak at a fundraiser for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer, at the home of a Sag Harbor neighbor. "I wrote something out an hour beforehand, delivered it and they were all very impressed. I thought, `Well, sure, they're for Kerry.'" It was an angry, eloquent indictment of what Doctorow sees as President Bush's indifference to the suffering caused by the Iraq war.

"But the publisher of the local paper (the Sag Harbor Express) was there," the author continues. "She called and said, `Can we publish it?' I said, `Why not?' They put a title on it -- `The Unfeeling President.' The next thing I knew, it was all over the Internet. Thousands and thousands of Web sites were running this thing. It was a revelation to me." Suddenly, people who might not have known Doctorow, the award-winning novelist, were aware of Doctorow, the fiery citizen who dared to take on the commander in chief.

Novelist Jayne Anne Phillips, author of books such as Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1994) and MotherKind (2000), who met Doctorow when she was a visiting professor at New York University last year, says: "I've always said that writers comprise the conscience of a culture. Doctorow is also our guide and instructor. He seems to believe that ... we can, in fact, learn from history.

"Doctorow is our Twain, in his abiding mastery and consideration of this American century, and our Melville, in his understanding of the depths of our dark American dreams and the events they inspire."

And he is exceedingly generous to other writers, both living and dead. In his latest book, Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, Doctorow muses over the authors who most intrigue him: Melville, Poe, Twain. "Stories ... are revelatory structures of facts. They connect the visible with the invisible, the present with the past. They propose life as something of moral consequence. They distribute the suffering so that it can be borne." He has set a good example of how to live a creative and accomplished -- and emotionally fulfilling -- life. Two of his three children followed him into the arts: His son, Richard, is a TV writer; daughter Caroline is a singer-songwriter. Another daughter, Jenny, is a physical therapist.

Novelist Elizabeth Cox, who is the author of books such as The Slow Moon (2006) and who taught creative writing for many years at Duke University, counts Doctorow among the chief influences in her own work. She met him at a writing conference in the late 1970s, she recalls. "We were sitting outside at a picnic table, and he explained both what he liked about my story and what the story needed. As he talked, a chipmunk began to gnaw on my sandal and toe, but the moment of praise was so unexpected that I dared not interrupt him. I made a firm decision at that moment to sacrifice a toe."

The conference was brief, but crucial, Cox says, "not because of the encouragement, or the excitement that comes with talking with a writer you admire, or even the deliberate willing of my mind to ignore a small animal biting my toe -- but the willingness of an admired and established writer to include a new writer into a way of looking seriously and unflinchingly at a piece of writing."

Doctorow's imagination has roved across our national past, alighting here and there on singular moments, like a restless firefly. "He zooms in and illuminates American history," says Medina. "We realized he had done that."

The result of that realization: Random House recently re-issued seven of Doctorow's past works, from Welcome to Hard Times through The March, in handsome, uniform paperback editions. Put on a shelf, these books constitute a kind of alternative American history, a version of events as convincing as, but different from, the events as they actually happened: The Civil War; the settling of the West; the Gilded Age; the Depression; the McCarthy era in the 1950s; and, in his 2000 novel City of God, the residue of religious obsession.

Doctorow wrote the book before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but his artist's mind had already begun assembling certain irregularly shaped chunks of world history that were shortly to coalesce into real-life catastrophe. A voice in the book notes that "the financial skyline of lower Manhattan (is) sunlit into an island cathedral, a religioplex." The plot chronicles what a character calls "our wrecked romance with God." And within its multiple perspectives and shifts in tone, Doctorow tells the story of a stolen cross, a beautiful rabbi, and a world in which the urgent search for religious transcendence can devolve into violence. "I threw everything I knew into that book," Doctorow says.

The fact that he followed City of God with The March (2005) proves his contention that every book is a separate reality, possessing, as he says, "its own identity, its own integrity." He continues, "The book determines the style in which you write. You, as the writer, do not force yourself on it." The frantic, complex, densely woven prose of City of God is utterly distinct from the lean, exhausted cadences of The March. In his books, "the writing always precedes any intention," Doctorow says. "Something comes to you and you just listen to it."

His stylistic versatility looks effortless. Thus for him, the act of writing is similar to his description of juggling in Billy Bathgate (1989), a dazzling novel about a young man's enthrallment with the criminal underworld inhabited by the Dutch Schultz gang: "... I stood across the narrow street in the weeds and rocks overlooking the tracks and demonstrated my latest accomplishment, the juggling of a set of objects of unequal weight, a Galilean maneuver involving two rubber balls, a navel orange, an egg and a black stone ... maintaining the apogee from a kind of rhythm of compensating throws, and it is a trick of such consummate discipline that the better it is done the easier and less remarkable it looks to the uninitiated."

He never intended to create an all-encompassing American saga, Doctorow declares. "I am told that if you arrange these books in a certain order, you have 150 years of American life -- but I didn't write them that way. I had no plan."

Says Medina, "Over time, you really see what a writer is all about. A lot of people start with Ragtime -- but then they discover everything else he's done. The way he writes is unmistakable. There aren't any tricks in Doctorow. He doesn't take any cheap shots. He does his own thinking. He is very careful about his work. You feel like you're involved in something serious and important.

"I wouldn't have liked to have died," she adds, "without reading Doctorow or Melville."

He won't say what he's working on now. It's a novel: That is all he will reveal. "I can't talk about it. I don't even show it to my editor until I'm satisfied. I will mention it to my wife, when I have a general idea of what I'm doing, but apart from that, I really keep it to myself.

"If you talk about a book you're working on," he continues, "you're kind of writing it. So the idea is to write the book only when you're at your desk. You sort of learn that. It's kind of a betrayal of the book to talk about it before it's done."

When the novel is ready, Doctorow will send it forth into the world. Having been at this game a good long while, having garnered most of the awards out there, do reviews affect him anymore?

"I would be lying if I said I didn't suffer from a bad review," he confesses. "It hurts. A good review makes you feel good for about five minutes. A bad review can last a lot longer than that, emotionally.

"You don't publish a book until you're satisfied it is as good as it can possibly be," he says. "You just go on and do what you do. But you do live in society, and there's always a feeling that you would like people to read what you write. I always like to take the position that I don't read reviews, have never attended to them, don't care about them." He pauses. He smiles: This is an honest man. "But that wouldn't be true."

Doctorow looks a good deal younger than his 76 years -- thanks, perhaps, to the tennis games that are a regular part of his schedule and to a lot of walking. Walking, he says, is really just another word for thinking. But he does most of his walking not here but in New York, where he and his wife keep an apartment. In City of God, he refers to "the human need to walk among strangers."

So New York is the place he walks, while Sag Harbor is the place he works. The latter, cross-hatched by quiet streets -- except in the high summer season -- and ringed by a self-conscious quaintness, is known for the many writers who have called it home, from James Fenimore Cooper to John Steinbeck, from Betty Friedan to Nelson Algren. The lavish second homes of authors and editors are tucked throughout the eastern end of Long Island, but Sag Harbor is the least pretentious of these communities, the one closest to the working-class, whale-hunting roots of America's original shoreline.

Yet for all of its history and picturesqueness, Sag Harbor is still a small town, and the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean doesn't allow for much leg room. "After a while," Doctorow notes, "all this peace and quiet drives you crazy. There's an old story that Arthur Miller used to tell. (Playwright) Paddy Chayefsky was visiting Arthur in the country, in his place up in Connecticut, a woodsy place. They were standing on the back porch and looking at the woods and Paddy said, `You live here, huh?' and Miller says, `Yeah," and Chayefsky says, `What do you do when you want to go for a walk?'"

Doctorow knew Miller. He knew Algren. The past tense, after a while, must penetrate his mood. So many of his contemporaries, it seems, so many individuals in that sacred pantheon of truly great American writers of which he is a ranking member, have died in the past few years or are seriously ailing. Miller and Saul Bellow are gone. So is Kurt Vonnegut. There is an autumnal air to Doctorow's conversation when he talks about his generation of writers, the men and women who changed the world's conception of American literature, who gave the national canon a hefty philosophical weight and distinctive moral dimension, its lusty vigor and its peculiar, headstrong certainty.

Doctorow remembers visiting his good friend James Wright in the hospital in 1980, shortly before Wright's death from cancer. The disease had eaten away at Wright's esophagus and had left him unable to speak. But when Doctorow arrived, Wright's wife handed her husband a notebook and pen. He was a poet; he had to communicate.

"And what he wrote," Doctorow says, "was, `The leaves are falling.'"

Doctorow is quiet for a moment. He looks you straight in the eye, but you know that what he is seeing is not you, but his friend James -- frail, perishable, perishing, and the past, too, all those long-ago Midwestern mornings when the sun wildly illuminated the world, spotlighting a couple of word-drunk undergraduates as they hammed it up on a campus in rural Ohio, as they scampered and hooted, as they declaimed their Wordsworth, and were so gloriously, uproariously sure of themselves, and of the power of language, and of the beauty of life, and of tomorrow.

"He never forgot anything," Doctorow says of Wright, and he says it softly. The kitchen suddenly feels full of ghosts, and you find yourself wondering if the voices of those ghosts have somehow transmuted themselves into the endless lament of the sea gulls, the ones that weave their way over Upper Sag Harbor Cove, circling and circling, as if scouring the earth for something essential they have lost.

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