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Creationists: Selected Essays: 1993-2006 [Hardcover]

E.L. Doctorow

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Book Description

Sept. 19 2006
E. L. Doctorow is acclaimed internationally for such novels as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The March. Now here are Doctorow’s rich, revelatory essays on the nature of imaginative thought. In Creationists, Doctorow considers creativity in its many forms: from the literary (Melville and Mark Twain) to the comic (Harpo Marx) to the cosmic (Genesis and Einstein). As he wrestles with the subjects that have teased and fired his own imagination, Doctorow affirms the idea that “we know by what we create.”

Just what is Melville doing in Moby-Dick? And how did The Adventures of Tom Sawyer impel Mark Twain to radically rewrite what we know as Huckleberry Finn? Can we ever trust what novelists say about their own work? How could Franz Kafka have written a book called Amerika without ever leaving Europe? In posing such questions, Doctorow grapples with literary creation not as a critic or as a scholar–but as one working writer frankly contemplating the work of another. It’s a perspective that affords him both protean grace and profound insight.
Among the essays collected here are Doctorow’s musings on the very different Spanish Civil War novels of Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux; a candid assessment of Edgar Allan Poe as our “greatest bad writer”; a bracing analysis of the story of Genesis in which God figures as the most complex and riveting character. Whether he is considering how Harpo Marx opened our eyes to surrealism, the haunting photos with which the late German writer W. G. Sebald illustrated his texts, or the innovations of such

literary icons as Heinrich von Kleist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sinclair Lewis, Doctorow is unfailingly generous, shrewd, attentive, surprising, and precise.
In examining the creative works of different times and disciplines, Doctorow also reveals the source and nature of his own artistry. Rich in aphorism and anecdote, steeped in history and psychology, informed by a lifetime of reading and writing, Creationists opens a magnificent window into one of the great creative minds of our time.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (Sept. 19 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400064953
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400064953
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16.7 x 2.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 454 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,668,190 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All creationists are mortal. Jan. 3 2007
By Aco - Published on
I picked this up at the library, having known of Doctorow's work for years, but never reading it.

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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A loving look at the creative impulse Jan. 13 2007
By Erica Bell - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"A writer who is not writing is a madman". That's Kafka--one of his letters, I think. Is it the one where he cancelled plans for a country holiday with friends because when a writer is creating, "he must hold on to his desk with his teeth"?

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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First-rate!! April 25 2007
By Librum - Published on
I can only echo the other positive reviews on this page. The essays in CSE are superb: acutely insightful and beautifully written. Like another reviewer, before I encountered CSE I, too, had known of Doctorow but never read him. I am very pleased to have begun exploring this author's oeuvre with his own reflections on literature and the literary craft. Though I also have yet to read several of the works that Doctorow discusses in CSE, I nonetheless very much enjoyed learning about them and have added them all to my burgeoning list of future reads. Anyone who loves literature will take great pleasure in reading CSE.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Curiously, may be the best Doctorow that I have read Dec 1 2010
By R. M. Peterson - Published on
The title is awkward. This book is a collection of sixteen pieces by E.L. Doctorow, most of which are in the nature of literary criticism - introductions and afterwords, reviews, lectures, etc. Doctorow has tried to give them a common theme by positing them as "a modest celebration of the creative act". The effort is a little strained and "creationists" sounds too much like a politicized school of religious belief. But that is about the only ground for faulting the book. It is a wonderful assemblage - eminently readable and insightful. Indeed, it is as good as non-academic literary criticism gets.

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.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars July 8 2014
By J R - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
Thought provoking insight into genius

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