The Taste of Peapods

Matthew Reynolds

  • Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
    Little, Brown, 224 pp, £11.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 1 4087 0215 4

The American historical novelist E.L. Doctorow has spoken of the adventure of his process of composition, of the excitement of not knowing where he is going to end up. For a reader, too, the feeling of being searchingly led forward is one of the pleasures offered by his fiction. But another impression it gives is that the environment being explored comes ready structured. In the work of Dos Passos, historical circumstances tend to stifle human potential; in DeLillo they tend to gasify into all-permeating media representations; but in Doctorow they create a network of defining possibilities along which characters can advance.

Of course (in Billy Bathgate) a bright-eyed boy juggling on street corners in the Bronx in the 1930s is going to be noticed by the passing gangster boss Dutch Schultz and get drawn into his orbit; of course (in The Book of Daniel) the son of a Communist couple sent to the electric chair for espionage – like the Rosenbergs in 1953 – will grow up troubled and sadistic, have an ambivalent relationship to the New Left, and struggle to assert his parents’ innocence. The trajectories of historical figures can – correspondingly – be altered to follow not what actually happened, but what ought to have done. Surely (in Ragtime) John Pierpont Morgan might have invited Henry Ford to lunch to talk about reincarnation; and why wouldn’t the anarchist Emma Goldman have given a full-body massage to the society divorcée Evelyn Nesbit (accompanied by a lecture on sexual politics)?

These lines of life have a strange affinity with the routes taken by means of mechanised transport. In Loon Lake, a runaway is woken by a passing train and sets off doggedly in pursuit. In World’s Fair, a youngster hurries along in the track of the Hindenburg as it passes whisperingly overhead. In Billy Bathgate, that bright-eyed, juggling boy soon finds himself in the Boss’s Packard, being chauffeured in a way that shows the difference ‘between driving a car and running it with the authority of a professional’. In The Book of Daniel, the son of the Communists obeys the dictates of his trauma by conducting a miniature, mobile electrocution of his own, burning his Volvo’s electric lighter into his wife’s buttocks as they drive along the Massachusetts Turnpike, in convoy with his adoptive parents, in the rain.

Ragtime (1975), Doctorow’s most enjoyable, most successful and still best book, is also the one in which most miles are covered in most machines at highest speed. There is the black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout in which Harry Houdini makes his first appearance, and the ‘new Voisin biplane’ in which he attracts the notice of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (who travels by Daimler). There is the ‘electric hansom’ in which Evelyn Nesbit cruises the Lower East Side, a trajectory which leads to that exciting encounter with Emma Goldman. There is the Model T Ford with the ‘custom pantasote roof’ that belongs to the black pianist Coalhouse Walker; its racially motivated violation by firemen points inexorably towards a violent conclusion. There is the elevated railway, known for short by Doctorow’s own initials as the ‘El’, and there are also ‘long-distance locomotive railroads and interurban electric railroads and street railways’: ‘Tracks! Tracks! … all laying their steel stripes on the land, criss-crossing like the texture of an indefatigable civilisation.’

When Tateh, a poor immigrant, flees New York with his little daughter, they go by streetcar because back then ‘one could travel great distances on hard rush seats or wooden benches by taking each line to its terminus and transferring to the next.’ The father and child reach Lawrence, Massachusetts, which feels like the end of the line: ‘Tateh stood in front of a loom for 56 hours a week.’ But the violent strike of 1912 gets them back on the rails, this time to Philadelphia, where (after some wandering) they halt in front of the shop window of the Franklin Novelty Company. Here, Tateh sees the possibility of a different kind of departure, for he has just discovered for himself the principle of flick-book animation (flick books had in fact been around since the mid-19th century). The Franklin Novelty Company will publish his books ‘and add them to its line’. He turns out to have boarded an express train to early Hollywood: ‘thus’ – we are told – ‘did the artist point his life along the lines of flow of American energy.’

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