Winter 1994, Volume 11.1


E. L. Doctorow


Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in New York City on 6 January 1931. He attended Kenyon College, where he studied philosophy and literature under a distinguished faculty, most notably John Crowe Ransom. Following his graduation in 1952, he undertook graduate study at Columbia University, but was drafted into the Army and spent two years in Germany (1953-55). A senior editor for New American Library from 1959-1964, he assumed the role of editor in chief at Dial Press in 1964. In 1969-70, Doctorow was appointed writer in residence at the University of California at Irvine. He has since held similar positions at Sarah Lawrence, Princeton, the Yale School of Drama, and currently holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University. Doctorow lives in New Rochelle, in Sag Harbor and, for periods of teaching, in New York City. He is married to Helen Henslee; the couple has three children.

Doctorow is one of America's most distinguished literary practitioners today. His professional writing career began with the publication of Welcome to Hard Times (1960), followed by Big as Life (1966) and The Book of Daniel (1971). His play, Drinks before Dinner (1979), was originally produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. Ragtime (1975) secured him the popular and critical acclaim that his subsequent novels have received: Loon Lake (1980), World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and a collection of short stories, Lives of the Poets (1984). His recent collection, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays 1977-1992 (1993), will shortly be followed by his new novel, The Waterworks (forthcoming Spring 1994). Several of his novels have been made into films. Doctorow has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, the PENIFaulkner Award, the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and both the Arts and Letters award and the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Read the interview with E. L. Doctorow in this volume of Weber Studies.

There are no more passengers. Still the streetcar makes the daily run from the city.

Sand covers the tracks. The motorman stops the car at every corner and comes down with his broom and sweeps the track clean.

The flanged wheels of the car mill the sand till it no longer settles but hangs in the air like white smoke.

When the wind comes off the ocean the smoke is punched and buffeted and blown into the shapes of shades and ghosts that float and loom and shrink in their anguish through the streets of empty bungalows.

The sand rises in the street to the level of the curbs. The tracks are no more than thin intermittent glints of sunlight. One ordinary day at the last stop, at the foot of the dunes, the car slips gently atilt and the motorman abandons it without a backward glance.

The wind sandblasts the paint off the car till it is down to the wood. Eventually the wood bleaches white. In that year it is very beautiful.

The wind blows out the windows and sand fills the aisle and piles on the seats in the shapes of slumped bodies.

Terns fly in and lay their eggs and gum everything up with their guano and feathers. The car becomes a cheap symbol of civilization in ruins.

One winter a hurricane destroys the dunes and fills the car with seawater. The car lists like a sinking ship, half of it buried in a newly formed tide pool. Marine life begins to subsist there. Clams and crabs burrow in the sandwater. Minnows swim through the windows and snappers chase the minnows into star shaped sprays of watered light.

The streets of bungalow have been flattened. The wind blows through the stacked housewalls. Sections of roof rise and sail through the air. The utility poles tilt and topple and the electric wires hang in loops.

On the land horizon to the west the city skyline advances.

As the tide pool fills one day the underwater barrier is breached, the ocean breaks in, and the streetcar is lifted from its seabed and begins its stately drift out to sea.