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Doctorow

I picked up a first edition of E. L. Doctorow’s Lives of the Poets last summer in a small town in northern Michigan. I had followed a sign pointing to a bookstore—a bookstore that turned out to be a room in someone’s house. I spent so much time browsing that I felt I had to buy something, and Doctorow’s handsome hardcover seemed like the best choice. But I didn’t read the collection until this past week.

I’m not a Doctorow completist by any stretch—but in high school I read Welcome to Hard Times, and in grad school I wrote a paper on The Book of Daniel, and in 1994 I reviewed The Waterworks. (The file of the review is so ancient that Word won’t let me open it.) I started reading Lives of the Poets last Wednesday, as news of Doctorow’s death began to circulate. The author’s voice was coming from my radio (the Diane Rehm Show replayed a 2009 interview) and, soon, from the pages of the collection: six stories, plus a novella. I’m hearing it still.

David Lynn has already posted a lovely “In Memoriam” piece on Doctorow, noting the author’s Kenyon College ties and his generosity to this journal. There’s a moment late in “Lives of the Poets” (the novella that gives the collection its title) that nods in Gambier’s direction. The narrator is recalling a friend named Arlington, a big man, “built like a nose tackle,” whose “idea of conversation was to recite poems.”

Ah, this poet, just to show you what a memory he had: We were classmates at Kenyon. There were lots of poets on campus, poetry was what we did at Kenyon, the way at Ohio State they played football. . . . [Arlington] remembered our lines for us all—we were the misfits, the outcasts, the pariahs of that campus, and he gathered us around him and gave us our pride, our edge—he remembered for us the lines and routines by which we sought his appreciation. All right, and thirty years go by, and he is a famous poet, he lives with the helpless intensity, and raging submission to poetry, of the doomed.

Arlington—a barely veiled version of Doctorow’s friend and classmate, James Arlington Wright—comes down with a sore throat that turns out to be cancerous. The real James Wright died of throat cancer at fifty-two. The novella’s last glimpse of Arlington places him in a hospital, his mouth packed “with some sort of medicated batting” that prevents him from speaking. Nonetheless, he scrawls a joke on a clipboard, a joke that takes the narrator back across that thirty-year distance.

Stories, like jokes, play with time. They stretch it out; they collapse it. Doctorow knew how to manipulate narrative; the seemingly discrete pieces in Lives of the Poets grow to something of great constancy by the final pages of the collection. He also, of course, cared deeply about precise language, about getting the words right. In his 2009 interview with Diane Rehm, he said that he didn’t like to read fiction while working on his own fiction; he preferred to read “books on science and history and lately, on cognitive science.” Rehm asked why. Doctorow answered, “Well, you don’t want to, it’s sort of, a kind of static gets into your mind and—” at which point Rehm tried to complete his thought: “You don’t want to contaminate your thinking?” Doctorow responded, “Well, I wouldn’t use the word contaminate. It’s just a sense of distraction, really.”

Get the words right: in radio interviews and on the page. Doctorow did that, for decades.

Doctorow