The radical author E.L. Doctorow rose to prominence in 1971 with The Book of Daniel, his fictional retelling of the Rosenberg spy story from the vantage of one of the Rosenberg’s children. This week Doctorow has been back in the news as a result of his poorly received attack on President Bush in the commencement address he gave Sunday at Hofstra University. Peggy Noonan did justice to Doctorow’s offense against good taste in her piece for OpinionJournal, “Doctorow’s malpractice.”
I read The Book of Daniel when it came out in paperback in 1972, and I think even then it struck me as being full of the kind of venom Doctorow spewed at Hofstra. The book reeks of self-hatred projected onto a mate, a family, and finally America itself, but neatly tucked away in literary and narrative devices that render the whole perfectly obnoxious. Whatever self-hatred might find an outlet in his literary works, Doctorow seems to believe in nothing more profoundly than his own cleverness if not his own greatness.
The current issue of the New York Review of Books carries a sycophatic review/essay on Doctorow by John Leonard with plot summaries and quotes more than sufficient to belie the gist of Leonard’s assertions and to establish Doctorow’s utter mediocrity. The essay is “The prophet.” Coincidentally, Leonard quotes Doctorow’s tribute to Abbie Hoffman from a 1989 commencement address at Brandeis University:
He got people terribly mad, Abbie, and for very good reason: He was insufferable. He was insufferable because he held the mirror up so that we saw ourselves. That’s just what the biblical prophets did, they operated in just that way. Wasn’t it Isaiah who walked abroad naked to prophesy the deportation of the Jews? And wasn’t it Jeremiah who wore a yoke around his neck to prophesy their slavery?
Abbie Hoffman is a forgettable figure from a bygone era. Doctorow’s tribute to him obviously represents Doctorow’s grandiose conception of himself, accurate only with respect to his insufferability.