‘Writers are conservers who cultivate the human mind,’ commented Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow Edgar Laurence Doctorow, during a lecture given last Thursday to a hall crowded with graduate students, academics and admiring readers. Doctorow returns to UC Irvine after 35 years. Early in his academic career, Doctorow taught in UCI’s then-burgeoning writing program. No doubt he had a hand in its present repute.
Winner of two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, a National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal awarded by President Bill Clinton, Doctorow has firmly established himself as notable among contemporary American novelists. ‘The Book of Daniel,’ written during his stay here at UCI, brought him success and attention from several American literary circles. Recognized as a gifted novelist, Doctorow currently holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University and was inducted into the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984.
‘The March,’ his latest novel and winner of the 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award, follows William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign during the finish of the Civil War. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Richard Eder proclaims in the Los Angeles Times that Doctorow ‘transforms [historical moments] with a freedom and incandescence that have no more to do with the general run of historical fiction than do ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Charterhouse of Parma.” His current project is ‘Religion and Literature,’ on which he gave a lecture last Thursday.
Doctorow likened the writer’s prose to an act of divine creation.
‘The source of its genius is knowledge,’ Doctorow said. ‘[It] is a damsel upon whom nothing is lost.’ Doctorow contrasted the modern writer and the ancient Biblical writer who authored the ‘sacred texts.’ In both worlds, literature structures a ‘moral framework for being,’ in which the human experience and tradition are founded. The religious authors, however, wrote a more poignant and rapturous moral sermon, than do the novelists of today. But, as Doctorow explained, the nature of modern literature has changed since then, to a more secular humanist approach.
‘Language was enchanted [back then], where the act of storytelling held an element of truth,’ Doctorow said. The speech of an impassioned prophet carried an unquestioned authority whereas now the prose must ‘make it on its own.’ The modern author must persuade the reader to believe her story upon a sheet of paper. With such a formidable task, the character of the author changed as well.
The dichotomy Doctorow faced as a Jew raised by a pious mother and a secular father, contributed to his creative sensitivity.
‘All writers worth a name are unaffiliated with the complete dogma of religion,’ where the blend of sedulous devotion and secular humanism is the most admirable trait of an author. Doctorow gave Walt Whitman as an example of such an author.
As the lecture went on, Doctorow’s criticism of religion and its pervasion in American politics became clear. The audience clapped and hollered its approval as Doctorow spoke critically of the Bush administration and its affiliation of the fundamentalist right. With great emotion, he claimed ‘doubt’ to be ‘the great civilizer on earth’