E.L. Doctorow died on July 21. He was the author of several novels, including the bestseller Ragtime. He was also an radical leftist who for decades provided financial support to the far-left weekly The Nation and contributed innumerable articles to it.
The important thing to know about Doctorow’s fiction is that he wasn’t the kind of novelist – which is to say, the greatest kind – who is motivated, above all, by a burning desire to capture the truths of the human heart and of human relationships. The kind of novelist, that is, for whom political convictions are secondary – are, as it were, windows into a character’s soul. No: for Doctorow the whole thing worked the other way around. He created characters to make political points. For him, the novel was not a mirror held up to the world but a vehicle for propaganda.
To put it bluntly, Doctorow was a useful stooge for Communism. In some novels this was more explicit than in others. It’s a measure of his own skill as a writer that this fact eluded so many critics and readers.
What Doctorow did in one novel after another was to take historical figures and twist the truths of their lives in such a way as to suit his ideology. In none of his novels was his ideological agenda more obvious than in The Book of Daniel (1971). The book was a shameless effort to win sympathy for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two members of the American Communist Party who were longtime Soviet spies in the U.S. and who helped pass the secrets of the atomic bomb on to the Kremlin, thus changing the world in a way that few if any other people have ever done. Thanks in large part to them, the U.S. lost the nuclear monopoly it had enjoyed for a few short years after World War II.
Note well: America could have used that postwar monopoly to bomb the Soviet Union into the Stone Age. It didn’t. But after the Rosenbergs, everything changed. The USSR became a superpower – presumably on a par with the U.S. – solely by virtue of its possession of a weapon whose secret had been handed to them by a gang of spies including this couple from New York.
The Rosenbergs were slavish acolytes of Stalin – mindless devotees of a murderous totalitarian regime. If they’d had their way, American freedom would’ve been crushed and replaced by show trials, mass executions, the Gulag. Yet for a generation of American on the extreme left, the Rosenbergs were heroes. Doctorow was one of those Americans. In The Book of Daniel, he plainly wanted Middle America to see them as heroes, too.
But how to do that? How to turn two real-life traitors into heroes? Doctorow happened upon a brilliant solution. The real-life Rosenbergs had two sons who were both small boys when their parents were executed for treason in 1953. Doctorow’s idea was to blend those two real-life children into one fictitious son and to make him the hero of the novel, and to present his parents in flashback – not objectively, as traitors, but through the eyes of the boy, to whom they were, of course, just his beloved Mommy and Daddy.
It was a stroke of genius. Who could be a more sympathetic protagonist, after all, than an innocent boy who had lost both his parents, on the same day, in an execution that made all the papers? How better to humanize his parents than to show them as loving parents, not as Stalin-loving traitors? But Doctorow does even more than that. Not only doesn’t he depict the Rosenbergs as traitors; he represents them as victims – as objects of persecution. Persecution, that is, by the U.S. government, which Doctorow invites us to view as supremely evil and oppressive for having taken the lives of this man and woman who were devoted to each other and their family. Meanwhile the fact that the Rosenbergs (who in the novel are called the Isaacsons) were servants of one of the world’s great mass-murdering dictators is dropped down the memory hole.
Anyway, that’s E.L. Doctorow’s legacy. The radical left has always been about prioritizing ideology over facts. What Doctorow did was turn the ideological twisting of reality into a literary art.