Author E.L. Doctorow decided while on the plane to Washington last week that he would not to talk to the Woman's National Democratic Club about "the prevailing preoccupation here." But he couldn't resist, especially after a question from the audience: "Is morality declining?"
"No," said Doctorow, "we've always been wicked."
"Polls show people outside of Washington are not as concerned" about alleged White House dalliances, Doctorow said. "Not that they are cynical, or morality is declining. They're sophisticated, more concerned about human rights. I am encouraged."
Doctorow -- a six-time literary award winner -- should know about turbulent times. During the 2 1/2 years he spent writing the novel "Ragtime" -- with Scott Joplin's music ever in his ears -- he lived vicariously in the era between the turn of the 20th century and the Great War. Women, including the founders of the WNDC -- workers, immigrants and diverse races -- rose up to demand social justice. Showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, magician Harry Houdini, financier J.P. Morgan and industrialist Henry Ford cavort in the novel. Yet members of a middle-class family, an unwed mother, an immigrant and a pianist of color -- who believed he deserved the respect due a human being -- are the central characters brought to life in Doctorow's 1975 book.
What the author calls "the American allegory implicit in its pages" is now onstage for all to see and hear in "Ragtime: The Musical," coming to Washington next month. Its producers "have flushed this sly fox of an author out of his den of tropes and shown him up for the shamelessly feeling fellow he is," Doctorow said. "They have taken the nameless narrator of the novel, the Little Boy, and given him a name, Edgar."
That's E.L. Doctorow's own name. "I never wanted to be anything but a writer," he said, although "I might have been impelled by the name I was given, Edgar, after Poe." The choice was "mostly my father's idea -- he loved a lot of bad writers," he said, "but I'm consoled that Poe is our greatest bad writer."
He spoke to the audience of more than 100 people about historical fiction and reality.
"Imagination is a form of knowledge," Doctorow said. "It's probably naive to think that there is always a clear distinction between fact and fiction. We all compose the world we live in every moment of our lives."
Afterward, upstairs in the great old mansion on New Hampshire Avenue NW, the author talked about his musical family. His father owned a music store. His mother was "a wonderful pianist" who played the accompaniment to silent movies, with his older brother sitting behind her for protection. "Movie houses then weren't respectable places," he said. His wife, Helen, and daughter Helen Caroline Doctorow are both singers.
The family lives, as does a family in "Ragtime," on Broadview Avenue in New Rochelle, N.Y. Doctorow writes in his third-floor study, most days beginning at 8 a.m. "Writing generates writing. If I don't write one day, I've lost two. When I was consulting on the musical, I lost six months of writing. But I don't regret it; it's easier watching them work -- lots of kissing. You don't do that in the literary game," he said.
He has no shortage of ideas. "For the novelist nothing is inadmissable as inspiration -- myth, legend, history, hallucination, confession and the muttering of poor mad people on the streets. "When the writing is going well the book is giving you gifts. Writers have a feeling of being a medium," Doctorow said. "Mark Twain once said, I never write a book unless it writes itself.' "
To Doctorow, "Writing is a series of discoveries, rather than acts of possession." Ragtime opens at the National Theatre on April 14. CAPTION: "I never wanted to be anything but a writer," author E.L. Doctorow told the Woman's National Democratic Club last week.