Creationists: Selected Essays: 1993-2006 Hardcover – Sep 19 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In 16 essays adapted from reviews, book introductions and public lectures, Doctorow explores the theme of literary and scientific creation, considering how creators shape, and are shaped by, the culture that surrounds them. Most of the essays focus on American writers: Doctorow incisively considers the "American consciousness" of Edgar Allan Poe, laments the paradoxical racism of Uncle Tom's Cabin, revels in the Shakespearean riffs of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and pinpoints the "conflicting visions of the same past" in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Doctorow usefully contrasts Ernest Hemingway's distinctly American treatment of the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls with that of his French contemporary André Malraux, and he commends Arthur Miller's moral seriousness. Ranging outside of literature, Doctorow praises the comic genius of his childhood idol, Harpo Marx, tracing his anarchic clowning to a childhood of poverty spent outwitting the urban forces arrayed against him. He examines soberly the national and institutional climate in which the atom bomb's creators were immersed: the bomb's "components were either uranium isotopes or plutonium... and a dread of the malignant war-machined sociopathy of Adolf Hitler." Brilliantly written, Doctorow's cultural and literary analysis abounds in acute literary characterizations and mordant observations. (Sept. 19)
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Doctorow follows his resounding novel, The March (2005), Booklist's Top of the List, with his third illuminating essay collection. The "creationists" are those who create, including the Marx Brothers and Einstein, although Doctorow's primary focus is on writers who understand that "the story is a system of knowledge." A profoundly literary and moral thinker, and a master of arresting metaphors and images, Doctorow is as dynamic and discerning a reader as he is a writer, whether he's offering a fluent exegesis of Genesis or fresh and galvanizing inquiries into the foundational works of American literature, indeed, of the American conscience. His candid take on Edgar Allen Poe is exhilarating; his meticulous analyses of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn are far reaching; his parsing of Moby-Dick is brilliant in conception and beautiful in execution. "Wars demand novels" is the opening salvo in a bracing discussion that raises provocative questions about how the story of the Iraq War will be told. Whatever the subject, Doctorow's abiding humanism rekindles and sharpens our perception of creativity. How dark and menacing the world would be without the fires of the imagination, the beacons of literature. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
These are gathered essays, all regarding the artistic process, E.L.'s own imagination and a critical analysis of particular works.
All of the works and workers are classics. The Bible, Poe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, a terrific imagining of Melville's experience writing Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer + Huck Finn as unfulfilled projects, Arrowsmith, F. Scott, an excellent piece comparing Malraux's L'Espoir and Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls, John Dos Passos' U.S.A., why Harpo Marx stands out among his brothers, the German poet/playwright von Kleist (who I now will look out for), a nice short bit on Arthur Miller, how Kafka's first novel Amerika could be written by a guy who'd never been there, W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants (another writer and book I learned about), a great piece on Einstein's imaginative ability, and a closing essay on The Bomb, the furtive genius that created it and the brilliance it destroyed.
The Bible, poets, gigantic classics, silent comedians, scientists and mass destruction...All are created. Creationists are all mortal, but their creations are immortal.
Doctorow's impressive expertise and reverence for each of his subjects makes for terrific reading, and an education.
E.L. Doctorow understands. He writes in the introduction to his essays,"A novel or play has its origins in the peculiar excitement of the writer's mind. These are powerfully-felt, even inspired, responses to what may be the faintest or fleeting of stimuli--an image, the sound of a voice, a kind of light, a word or phrase, a bar of music."
Doctorow knows how fleeting inspiration is, and he seeks it from the inspired because he also knows just how damn hard it is to get it right. That's why these essays are so nourishing. He includes Harpo Marx and Einstein in this collection. With Harpo taking words and communicating silence, and Einstein thinking frantically against the limits of age, you'll see why.
His essay on Kafka's Amerika [The Man Who Disappeared] is worth the price of the book. Kleist he approaches more obliquely: where is the glorious dramatist who knew women's hearts so well (Penthesilea, The Broken Pitcher)? Later, he muses over Huck Finn, positing that he was Twain's match, a character wholly beyond Twain's ability, a giant metaphor deserving more than the plot Twain gave him. T.S. Eliot said much the same of Hamlet.
Where Doctorow loves (Kafka, Melville, Marx), he writes movingly, even nakedly. Where his mind is tickled, he is a fierce intellect, more than able to communicate the convergence of time, inspiration, culture, failure--and genius.
The four-page introduction is a superb tribute to stories, from a masterful storyteller:
"Underlying everything--the evocative flashes, the dogged working of language--is the writer's belief in the story as a system of knowledge. This belief is akin to the scientist's faith in the scientific method as a way to truth.
"Stories, whether written as novels or scripted as plays, 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."
The subjects of the essays themselves are surprisingly diverse - from Genesis to the atomic bomb, Harriet Beecher Stowe to Harpo Marx. Doctorow shows himself to have a mind of uncommon breadth as well as unusual depth. Particularly fine are the pieces on Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville and "Moby-Dick", Sam Clemens and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But Doctorow also is well worth reading on non-American authors such as Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald.
For example, here is a sentence from his piece on Kafka's "Amerika": "At times Kafka would seem to define the spiritual quest as the struggle to meet one's obligations without too much loss of self-respect." That's about as precise and elegant an encapsulation of Kafka as I have come across in volumes of commentary. And here is Doctorow on Sebald (specifically, "The Emigrants"): "From the modulations of his sentences and the paradoxes built into them, we infer a culture of rarefied sensibility that seems to be the florescence of a dying civilization. * * * W.G. Sebald is an elegist."
Curiously, CREATIONISTS may be the best book by Doctorow that I have read, with the possible exception of "Ragtime" - which I am now spurred to go back and re-read.