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Reading E.L. Doctorow in the Old Neighborhood



The author, E.L. Doctorow brings New York of the past to life like no one else. This photograph shows the lights of Time Square in 1920. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

“I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began.” – E.L. Doctorow

Who makes history? Though it is old, 97 Orchard Street is just a dwelling; it has been home to more than 7,000 people. Though we have been able to track their names and occupations, they were mostly ordinary people. This means they may not show up in the history books as being especially good at business, singing, or waterskiing. No matter. History is not made just by the few holders of wealth or beauty. Immigrants moved to the Lower East Side from all over Europe, Puerto Rico, and from China. Some of them notable, all of them namable- someone’s brother, daughter, uncle.  They brought us housing reform, vaudeville, and Kung Pao chicken.  When Doctorow died last week at the age of 84, he was mourned on the front page of the New York Times, yet he is famous in part for his thoughtful and colorful imaginings of the smaller moments in history, and his reimaging of the fireworks moments we all know well.

A map including Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx. Doctorow grew up in the Bronx and many of his novels touch down in his old neighborhood including Billy Bathgate, named for the street. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was like our residents on the Lower East Side and also – not. His grandparents had arrived from Belarus in the 1880s, and he was raised on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx. The Doctorow story was not immediately one of success; Doctorow’s parents struggled for financial security- his father worked at a failing music business in the old Hippodrome building in Manhattan. Doctorow’s uncle was apparently much wealthier, and, as a result, Edgar experienced a bifurcation of wealth which he later wrote about with such timelessness. Doctorow attended the prestigious Bronx Science but was already distracted by tales. As a student, he famously fabricated a much-lauded “interview” with a stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. He was chastised when he admitted the truth, but this was just the beginning of Doctorow’s ability to bring to life stories that might not often be told.

Another piece of old New York: the Hippodrome building where Doctorow's father ran a failing music business. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Doctorow’s books have reached the Civil War, the Wild West, and contemporary America, but as lovers of Lower East Side history we are particularly attached to Doctorow’s unforgettable novel, Ragtime. The novel imagines the space and conversations around many of the headlines of the early twentieth century: Freud visits America. Harry Thaw shoots Stanford White. Ragtime perfectly demonstrates Doctorow’s ability to write about grand historic figures, such as Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman with as much flexibility and realism as the more pedestrian figures he invented himself. When interviewed at the 92nd Street Y about documenting real versus imaginary figures, Doctorow admitted, “Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up. The historical characters in the book are Mother, Father, Tateh, The Little Boy, The Little Girl.”

The beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, or Evelyn Shaw, is leading lady material but only plays a supporting role in Doctorow's novel. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

An author for whom real history resides in the unnamed and the anonymous? Emma Goldman would be proud.