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Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993-2006by E.L. Doctorow
Synopses & Reviews
The King James Version of the Bible, an early-seventeenth-century translation, seems, by its now venerable diction, to have added a degree of poetic luster to the ancient tales, genealogies, and covenantal events of the original. It is the version preachers quote from who believe in the divinity of the text. Certainly in the case of Genesis 1-4, in which the world is formed, and populated, and Adam and Eve are sent from the Garden, there could be no more appropriate language than the English of Shakespeare's time. The King James does not suffer at all from what is inconsistent or self-contradictory in the text any more than do the cryptic ancient Hebrew and erring Greek from which it is derived. Once you assume poetically divine authorship, only your understanding is imperfect.
But when you read of these same matters in the contemporary diction of the Revised Standard Version, the Jamesian voice of holy scripture is not quite what you hear. In plainspoken modern English, Genesis-especially as it moves on from the Flood and the Tower of Babel, and comes up in time through the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and then to the more detailed adventures of Jacob and Rachel and Joseph and his brothers-seems manifestly of the oral tradition of preliterate storytelling out of which the biblical documents emerged, when history and moral instruction, genealogy, law, science, and momentous confrontations with God were not recorded on papyrus or clay tablets but held in the mind for transmittal by generations of narrators. And so Genesis in the Revised Standard Version is homier-something like a collection of stories about people trying to work things out.
The contemporary reader would do well to read the King James side by side with the Revised Standard. Some lovely stereophonic truths come of the fact that a devotion to God did not preclude the use of narrative strategies.
If not in all stories then certainly in all mystery stories, the writer works backward. The ending is known and the story is designed to arrive at the ending. If you know the people of the world speak many languages, that is the ending. The story of the Tower of Babel gets you there. The known ending of life is death: the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil arrives at that ending. Why do we suffer, why must we die? Well, you see, there was this garden. . . . The story has turned the human condition into a sequential narrative of how it came to be; it has used conflict and suspense to create a moral framework for being. And in suggesting that things might have worked out another way for humanity if the fruit had not been eaten, it has, not incidentally, left itself open to revision by some subsequent fantasist who will read into it the idea of original sin.
Artistry is at work also in the blessings the dying Jacob bestows on his twelve eponymous sons. Each blessing, an astute judgment of character, will explain the fate of the twelve tribes led by the sons. A beginning is invented for each of the historical tribal endings known to the writer. Never mind that we understand from the documentary thesis of Bible sources-for it is, after all, the work of various storytellers and their editors—that different
In a new collection of essays, the award-winning author of The March and Ragtime offers a series of reflections on the nature of imagination and creativity, looking at diverse forms of creative endeavor--from the literary and scientific to the comic and cosmic--as well as on his own creative process in his writings. Reprint.
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
E. L. Doctorow’s work has been published in thirty languages. His novels include The March, City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, and The Waterworks. Among his honors are the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner awards, three National Book Critics Circle awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. He lives in New York.
From the Hardcover edition.
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