E L Doctorow and the limits of historical fiction

What do J P Morgan, Sigmund Freud and Kim Kardashian all have in common with E L Doctorow? A hazy relationship between fact and fiction, that's what.

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“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.”

-EL Doctorow in conversation with The Paris Review (1989)

E L Doctorow died this week in hospital, an event that marked a major loss on the American literary scene. The acute awareness of history that Doctorow harbored stretches far beyond this interview with The Paris Review, and permeated the heart of his writing.

Ragtime, one of Doctorow’s best-known novels, is written in the grey area between history and fiction. The characters are easily recognisable as crucial figures in American history: Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Evelyn Nesbitt, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud and Archduke Franz Ferdinand all feature.

Even before picking up the novel, we know them. We know them from the TV, from history books, from the radio, from newspapers. These are characters that come with baggage.

Yet it doesn’t quite add up.

With historical fiction, there is an expectation that the author sticks to events as we know them. But what Doctorow does is take history, and “writes it anew”, making characters interact in ways that don’t align to fact. Evelyn Nesbitt, the notoriously beautiful New York socialite, becomes the accomplice of revolutionary Emma Goldman. Even more disorientating is when she becomes the lover of a strictly fictional character – Mother’s Younger Brother.

Fiction, unlike history, explores what might have happened, not what actually has happened. “Doctorow's way with historical characters is in line with this idea,” says Matthew Reynolds, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Oxford University. “He gets to know Henry Ford or Emma Goldman through their recorded actions and then wonders what those characters might have done in a fictional situation.”

“I think my vision of J P Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography,” Doctorow tells The Paris Review.

This is similar to what Zadie Smith has done with her recent short story “Escape from New York”. It was published in the New Yorker in June, and tells the story of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando as they escape from the city on the day of 9/11. The story is based on a rumour (that was even reported in the Guardian), but that is now generally accepted to have been made up.

In much the same way as Doctorow, Smith is able to use her knowledge of the characters from TV and newspapers to fuel her fiction in a way that feels inventive and fresh.  

“The joy of ‘Escape from New York’, for me,” she says, “was exactly that I didn’t need to do the hours of fact-checking and biographical accuracy the Profile required: I could just work like a fiction writer again. This involved asking myself totally irresponsible questions like, “Well, what do you imagine Brando was like?” And then answering such questions to my own satisfaction.”

Smith’s characterisation is extremely funny. Liz Taylor whines along to Les Miserables in the back seat. Michael Jackson has an emotional moment in the fast food joint they stop at. Marlon Brando, that gorgeous beast, spouts poetry and eats chicken wings.

Both Doctorow and Smith use history in a way that feels jarring. They challenge our expectations of this broad and slippery genre of “historical fiction”, mixing fact and fiction in a way that feels both scandalous and highly inventive.

The experience of reading historical fiction works in a similar way to that of watching reality TV shows. Where historical fiction mixes fact and fiction in the past, reality TV does much the same thing in the present.

Shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians invite you to believe that these are real people. But behind it all, it is difficult to shake the sense that there are writers plotting the script and the storylines at every moment. There are times when the stories become so contrived that our belief is broken, and the fiction blares through.

The very premise of reality TV lies in this no man’s land between fact and fiction. It is real enough to be fascinating, but with enough fiction to drive stories and series to their bitter end.

Both reality TV and historical fiction work on a kind of suspended belief. They demand an audience that is prepared to accept any artistic liscence. By working in this grey area between the true and false, they operate in a way that is as disloating as it is entertaining.