Thursday, July 23, 2015


An Evening with E.L. Doctorow

“Good writing is true writing.”           
                 Ernest Hemingway

By Doc Lawrence

ATLANTA-The announcement of the death of esteemed novelist E. L. Doctorow took me back to an evening in 2005 with the author at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Ironically, his then new book, “The March,” was largely based on the Georgia campaigns of Union General William T. Sherman whose headquarters during the Battle of Atlanta was on the ground now occupied by the Carter Presidential Library. The view of Atlanta’s skyline from the Center is breathtaking.

I brought every book I owned authored by Mr. Doctorow, purchased my copy of “The March” and the native of New York City graciously signed them all.

Doctorow said he carefully researched people, places and events for “The March” sharing with the packed auditorium interesting observations. “Sherman came to regret some of what happened in Georgia,” he said, and in some instances “tried to make amends as he possibly could.” He opined that Sherman was “probably a racist.” One comment about Civil War monuments that abound in Southern cities is quite relevant today.

“Monuments are erected by a deeply-injured people,” he said, with understanding, perhaps sympathy. He repeated this during the evening and it has changed the way I view most of them today. In a recent interview on public radio, president Jimmy Carter made similar remarks.

Doctorow’s commanding creation was not Sherman but the tragic Coalhouse Walker in “Ragtime.” Walker’s pain and rage jumped from the pages of the book, erupted on the movie screen and thundered in the musical. Doctorow, through Coalhouse, rolled out the country’s struggles with racial injustice with a combination of authenticity, drama and unthinkable tragedy. Randy Newman’s magnificent score for the movie is a Hollywood classic.

“The March” reached back into the swath of Sherman’s March to the Sea, “populating the destructive and decisive Civil War campaign of General William T. Sherman,” according to The New York Times obituary, with “the capture of Atlanta and the . . [m]arch to the sea — with a plethora of characters. Black and white, wealthy and wanting, military and civilian, sympathetic and repugnant, they are a veritable representation of the American people.”

E.L. Doctorow interpreted much of the events that molded America, confirming that a good story well told enlightens and broadens the mind and soul. Since that evening with him, each time I visit the Atlanta History Center or the Woodruff Library at Emory University, I often imagine him quietly researching at a corner table.

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