The Writer in the Family

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The Writer in the Family





In "The Writer in the Family," E. L. Doctorow condenses a narrative that resonates with the amplitude of a full-scale novel of family conflict and individual growth into a short story of less than fifteen pages. With a concision whose effectiveness comes from the author's inside-out knowledge of the personalities and family dynamics he is dramatizing, Doctorow not only tells a story of longstanding family animosity and its resolution but also presents the coming-of-age story of a young writer who learns the meaning of art by learning the meaning of self-assertion and artistic integrity. As the opening tale in a collection of six stories and a novella bound in a volume called, after the novella, Lives of the Poets, "The Writer in the Family" is ostensibly the first of six stories written by the narrator and subject of the novella, Jonathan; in the novella, he is a man of fifty, a New York Jewish writer, while in the first story, he is of high-school age. Thus, "The Writer in the Family" is presented not only as a freestanding short story but also as an example of the work of a fictional writer of fiction whose story Doctorow presents directly in the novella and variously and indirectly in the six short stories that precede it. Lives of the Poets was published by Random House in 1984. A 1997 reprint is available from Plume.


Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, the son of well-educated second-generation Russian-Jewish parents—his father was a musicologist, his mother a pianist—was born Edgar Lawrence Doctorow on January 6, 1931, in New York City, in the Bronx. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, where he concentrated more on the arts. After graduating from Kenyon College in 1952, Doctorow did graduate work at Columbia University. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he was stationed in Germany. In 1954, during his time in the army, Doctorow married Helen Setzer. The couple has three children. After being discharged from the army, Doctorow began his career as an editor reading scripts at Columbia Pictures in 1955. He did not continue a career in the movie industry but became a senior editor at New American Library in 1959. In 1964 he moved to the Dial Press, where he became editor in chief.

Although Doctorow wrote his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, in 1960, he first achieved success and recognition in 1971 with The Book of Daniel. A fictionalized account of the life and trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were electrocuted by the U.S. government in 1953 on the charge of having passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, the novel is ostensibly written by their son. "The Writer in the Family," which first appeared in 1984 in Lives of the Poets, is an anomaly in Doctorow's body of work since he usually writes novels rather than short connected stories, as he did in that book. As in much of his work, the political subtext in the novel reflects Doctorow's concern with matters of social and economic justice and civil liberties. These concerns are expressed not only in his fiction but also in a collection of essays, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992, and in his active opposition to the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, and violations of the U.S. Constitution and international accords like the Geneva Conventions, which were attempted or accomplished by the government of George W. Bush.

Doctorow has received the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howell Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Humanities Medal. Several of his books, including Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The Book of Daniel, have been made into movies. Doctorow has taught at Yale, Princeton, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of California, and New York University.


Section 1

The year is 1955. The narrator of the story is Jonathan. His father, Jack, has just died, preceding Jack's ninety-year-old mother, who is living in a nursing home. Afraid of the effect the news of her son's death will have on the old woman's precarious health, her daughters (Jonathan's aunts) tell her that he has moved to Arizona for his bronchitis. Jack was throughout his life financially unsuccessful. His purported retirement to Arizona makes his mother think that he has finally achieved financial success.

Because it is assumed that Jack has taken his entire family with him to Arizona, none of the family can visit his mother. This does not bother Jonathan, his brother, Harold, or his mother, Ruth. The boys never enjoyed their visits, and their mother never liked Jack's mother or any of Jack's family. That the sisters did not consult Ruth about their story gave her one more piece of evidence of their sense of superiority and their contempt.

The lie Jack's sisters tell their mother does not give closure to the situation. After a few weeks, Jonathan's grandmother begins to wonder why her retired son does not write to her from Arizona. Frances, the wealthier aunt, who lives in affluent Larchmont and is married to a lawyer, and both of whose sons go to the prestigious Amherst College, telephones Jonathan and requests that he write a letter, pretending to be his own father in Arizona, and send it to her so that she can read it to Jack's mother.

As Jonathan begins to compose the letter, he recalls his father, remembering, first, his failure to rise from the working class to the professional class. He also recalls the pleasure his father took, as he traveled through New York City on his rounds as an appliance salesman, in going to the old part of the city, below Canal Street, to pick up exotic cheeses, spices, vegetables, teas, and nautical devices like barometers or "an antique ship's telescope in a wooden case with a brass snap." The letter Jonathan then writes captures his father's voice and spirit, the voice and spirit his worldly failure may have tended to obscure. Jonathan writes about his father's sense of wellbeing and of the beauty of Arizona, capturing the serenity and vigor of the landscape. His aunt calls to tell him how touching the letter was and how strongly it made her feel a sense of loss regarding his father.

Section 2

Jack's death has left his family in straitened economic circumstances. Jack had borrowed money against his insurance policy, so there is little left when he dies. His firm is withholding some commissions it still owes him, and Jonathan's mother is unable to withdraw any of the few thousand dollars from their savings account before the estate is settled. The lawyer handling the estate is Aunt Frances's husband, whose dedication to following legal niceties is stronger than his concern for Jack's family's welfare. Jonathan's mother takes a job in the admissions office of the hospital where her husband died.

As they are clearing out their cramped apartment, Jonathan tries on the jacket of one of his father's suits. It is too big for him, and he feels an uncomfortable sense of his father's presence. His brother simply refuses to try on any of his father's clothing.

Section 3

Aunt Frances calls after a few weeks and tells Ruth that she wants Jonathan to write another letter from Jack to his grandmother, especially since the old woman is depressed after having bruised herself in a fall. Frances's presumption annoys Ruth. She complains that even her husband's death is controlled by his family; she says that knowing her son is dead will not kill his mother.


  • An audio cassette recording of "The Writer in the Family" and "The Leatherman," read by author Doctorow, is available through American Audio Prose Library (1990).

Though uncomfortable doing it, Jonathan writes another letter. His brother, Harold, who switched from day classes at college to night school when their father became ill in order to help support the family, tells Jonathan, "You don't have to do something just because someone wants you to." In the letter, Jonathan tells his grandmother that Jack dresses casually and has opened an electric appliance shop. When Frances calls again, she tells Jonathan that he is very talented and advises him to continue to write more about the electrical appliance shop. Jonathan says that he would rather not continue, as to write the letters is dishonest, and Frances becomes annoyed. She tells him to tell his mother "not to worry," that his grandmother only wishes the best for his mother and that she will die soon anyway. Jonathan does not report the conversation to his mother. He does feel torn, being in the center of a family conflict; he feels like his father, unable to take a side. Jonathan recalls an ongoing family argument, once it became clear that Jack was a failure in business, concerning who was responsible for that failure. Jack's family blamed his wife, Ruth.

In the spring, Jonathan, Harold, and Ruth go to the cemetery to visit Jack's grave. Jonathan notes that his father does not seem to be "honorably dead" or "properly buried" because his grave is missing a headstone. Although one had been chosen and paid for, the stonecutters had gone on strike. Ruth remembers how Jack's family thought they were better than other people, better even than Jack, who, according to Ruth, was good only to get things for them at wholesale prices. As Ruth cries and complains, Harold wanders away to look at tombstones. Jonathan joins him and tells him their mother is crying. Harold tells him that that is what she came to the cemetery to do. When Jonathan says that he feels like crying, too, Harold puts his arm around him and, noting the way carving monuments has changed, points out that everything changes.

Section 4

Jonathan has troubling dreams. He is taking his father home from the hospital after his death, but he is alive. Jack is unwieldy, impatient with everyone, and angry. They have trouble getting him home: the car changes shape; it will not start; Jack's bandages get stuck in the spokes of his wheelchair; his clothes are too big and get stuck in the door; a suitcase will not stay closed. Jonathan feels guilty because his father senses in the dream that his family does not want to live with him. When Jonathan wakes with a scream, he does not tell his brother about the dream, saying he forgot what it was. His dreaming becomes so disturbing that he tries not to fall asleep. He tries to remember the good things about his father, the bounce in his walk, his eagerness to see what was ahead of him.

Section 5

Frances calls again to ask Jonathan to write a letter on the same evening that Harold brings Susan, a girl he has begun to see, home for dinner. The family is in good spirits. Jonathan fools around, setting the table as if he were a high-class waiter. His mother likes Susan. Just as they are toasting, Frances calls requesting another letter. Jonathan tells his mother the call was from a school friend checking on the pages for their math homework.

Section 6

Harold notes that there is really no need for the elaborate letter charade. Their grandmother is nearly entirely blind and half deaf. Frances could write the letters herself or ask one of her own sons to. Jonathan asks, then, why Frances has asked him to write the letters; Harold reminds Jonathan that Frances and her sister used Jack to do them favors continually, with no consideration for him. They wanted to be served. Jonathan responds that "it was a matter of pride" for his father "to be able to do things for them," and Harold wonders why that was. Jonathan realizes that the question about what gratification can be gained in serving Frances applies to him.

Section 7

When Jonathan gets home from school one afternoon, he sees his aunt's impressive Buick in front of his house. He notes that he had always liked his aunt and that she had always seemed to like him, as well as that she is quite pretty. She refuses to go into his house when he invites her, instead telling him to get into the car. Upset by the last letter he wrote, she tells him that it was cruel and that he has been poisoned by his mother's bitter feelings. She proceeds to say that Ruth ruined Jack's life with her constant demands for material things and that he sacrificed himself for her because he loved her. Frances then exculpates herself, saying that she does not like speaking ill of others and that she would invite him and his mother and brother to her house for the Passover holiday if she thought Ruth would accept the invitation. She gives Jonathan back the letter and tells him that she hopes he will think about what he has done by writing the letter.

Section 8

Jonathan watches his mother that evening, noticing that she is not as pretty as his aunt. She is heavy, and her hair is plain. She asks him why he is looking at her, and he says he is not. She says she learned that they may be eligible for a small pension because of the time Jack spent in the navy. This comes as a surprise to Jonathan. They search through Jack's closet to discover a document proving his service and a picture of him as a young man aboard a ship with other sailors. Jonathan puts the picture by his bedside and connects it to the series of books about the sea that his father had given him and to the nautical instruments his father collected. Jonathan regrets that he had never seen his father for the person he really was or "understood while he was alive what my father's dream for his life had been." Yet Jonathan takes some comfort in the last letter, the one his aunt returned without reading to his grandmother, which he wrote before knowing of his father's dream of the sea. In it, Jonathan, as his father, states that it will be his last letter because the doctors say he is dying. He tells his mother he has sold his store and is sending her a check for five thousand dollars. He says that the desert was not the place for him and that he is "simply dying of the wrong life." He says that his body will be cremated and the ashes "scattered in the ocean."



See Grandma


Jack's sister Frances, who asks her nephew Jonathan to write letters to Jack's mother in his name after his death in order to conceal the death from the old woman, is a complex person. She is wealthy and appears to be condescending and even exploitative in her relations with Jonathan and his mother. Yet the reader does not have enough background information to judge whether her impatience with Ruth is warranted or not. She seems to enjoy being in control of situations. According to Harold, she is accustomed to telling others what to do and to being obeyed. She apparently used Jack when he was alive, but she felt it was Ruth's fault that he did not achieve what she considered to be his potential. When she becomes angry, characteristically, she becomes self-righteous and insinuates character faults to those who do not behave as she wishes. She exercises self-control when angry as well as control over others. She sits in her Buick holding on tightly to the wheel as she reproaches Jonathan. She remains in the driver's seat and pictures herself, as she pictures her mother, as the victim of other people's pettiness.


Essie, called Grandma throughout the story, is Jack's ninety-year-old mother, now living in a nursing home. Although she is often the center of each character's attention, she never appears in the story in person. According to Ruth, Jack's widow, Grandma was a tyrannical mother who kept her son tied to her apron strings all her life and did everything she could to thwart Ruth's wishes. According to Frances, she is a kind woman who never wished her daughter-in-law ill. Jonathan's aunts believe that the news of Jack's death would be fatal to his mother. In the nursing home, she boasts of her son's belated good fortune, and it seems she wants letters from him in order to show them to the other women. Since Grandma is never shown, it is impossible for the reader to resolve the ambiguities of her character, which might just accurately reflect her complexity as a person and the ambiguities of her motives.


Harold is Jonathan's older brother. He is a solid, responsible, and serious young man. When his father became sick, he switched to night school so that he could work in a record shop during the day. He comforts Jonathan at the cemetery and gives him character advice, as when he tells him he does not have to do something just because someone tells him to. He considers the complexity of situations, as when he wonders why Frances needs to set up the elaborate charade of the letters. He treats his mother with regard but without sentimentality, as when he lets her cry at the cemetery. He is confident and outgoing. He has a lovely girlfriend who is fond of him. He is comfortable in his own skin and does not like to have others encroach on him, as is shown when he will not try on his dead father's clothing.


Jack, Ruth's husband and the father of Jonathan and Harold, is dead when the story begins. He had been an appliance salesman who never achieved real success or financial security in business. According to his wife, he was ever tied to his mother's apron strings. According to his sister, he was hobbled by a demanding wife. According to his son Harold, he was used by his sisters and his mother. According to Jonathan, he did not live the life he ought to have lived. Jack had once been in the navy and had an abiding love for the sea that showed itself in his collection of novels about sailing and the sea and in his scattered purchases of antique nautical instruments and exotic foods. From Jonathan's description he was also a friendly, lively, generous, and outgoing person.


Jonathan is the narrator of the story, a high school student who writes letters to his grandmother as if they are written by his deceased father, at the request of his aunt, who wants to keep the news of Jack's death from her. In the course of writing the letters, Jonathan comes to have a better understanding of his father and of his own would-be vocation as a writer. He is polite and tries to satisfy his aunt. He feels guilty about usurping his father's identity for his aunt's sake, but he is thoughtful and overcomes his difficulties because of a good sense of human empathy that reveals itself in his letters. Jonathan is imaginative and actually does get a sense of the lost side of his father's life, causing the reader to feel that he expresses an aspect of his father that his father would have but could not. Jonathan is actually haunted by his father in his dreams, in which his father gets entangled with him and Jonathan cannot free himself. His sense of guilt at his desire to be free of his father seems to be displaced onto the deceased man in his dreams when his father feels he is not wanted. Jonathan finally frees himself from his father by entering into his consciousness in the letters and by symbolically allowing him to die in his last letter.


Ruth is Jack's widow and the mother of Jonathan and Harold. According to Frances, she hobbled Jack and held him back from becoming a success with her nagging, demanding disposition. Ruth resents Jack's family, blaming his mother for his lack of success because she hampered his independence. She complains that his family do not even allow him to be dead when he is dead. Ruth is resourceful and responsible. When the family is in financial difficulty after Jack's death, she takes a job in the admissions office of the hospital where he died. Rather than avoiding the past and its grief, she stoically confronts it. But she is not entirely stoical. At the cemetery she weeps at Jack's grave; the reader may feel that she weeps as much for the loss that was present in her relationship with her husband as for his death. She mourns her own lost life. She is troubled by Jack's sisters' deception, and old animosity between her and them and Jack's mother is once again brought to life because of that deception. At times Jonathan avoids telling her about his aunt's phone calls in order not to disturb her.


Susan is the girl Harold brings home to dinner. She is thin, has straight hair, and is impressed by the number of books in his house. Ruth thinks that she is "adorable." She serves the function of showing that Harold is a young man who has a healthy life in the world.



In the course of writing the letters to his grandmother that are supposed to be from his father, Jonathan develops a sense of his own integrity as a person and as a writer, and he achieves insight into his father as a man who failed to realize his integrity. Moreover, by asserting his own integrity, Jonathan confers integrity upon his father. In the final letter he writes, the one his aunt will not accept, he presents a picture of the true man, the self his father had buried deep inside. By doing so, Jonathan symbolically confers upon his father the life his father had never achieved. Jonathan understands that his father was not a failure but a man who led "the wrong life." By having his fictional father say that, Jonathan redeems his actual father.

With the help of his brother, Jonathan comes to understand that he does not have to do something to please others, especially if it violates his integrity as a person and, in his case, as a writer. In consequence, he writes the last letter not to please his aunt or to win her praise but to honor his father's memory by extricating himself and his deceased father from his aunt's schemes, as well as extricating himself from the need to serve others by compromising his own values. In the process, he actually penetrates his father's reality, realizing in his imagination his father's never-realized dream of being a seaman. Jonathan's last letter, though a pretense, presents the fundamental truth of his father's life.

Family Conflict

The long-standing conflict between Ruth and her husband's family, rather than being laid to rest with Jack's death, is actually reconstituted when Jack's sisters decide, without consulting Ruth, to withhold the news of his death from his aged and infirm mother. For Ruth, their behavior is one more manifestation of their contempt both for her and for Jack. She is bitter over the way they exploited him when he was alive, demanding favors of him and disdaining her. She resents the hold Jack's mother had on him and her influence; Ruth complains that Jack's mother, Essie, kept her son tied to her apron strings and continually thwarted any of Ruth's wishes. Ruth's perceptions are confirmed by her older son, Harold. On the other hand, Frances, Jack's wealthy and self-satisfied sister, rather than being able to understand Ruth's point of view, describes Ruth as a bitter person who begrudges her mother-in-law a little pleasure. Frances puts Jonathan in the middle of the family conflict when she commandeers him into writing the letters purportedly from his father in Arizona to his grandmother.


  • The revelation that his father had been in the navy makes Jonathan view him differently from how he had seen him during his father's lifetime. Recall something you learned about a family member or friend that caused you to see her or him in a new light. Write an essay describing the person as you knew him or her before the revelation and after. How did the new information affect your regard for, understanding of, or relationship with that person?
  • Jonathan and his family live in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, while his Aunt Frances lives in Larchmont, a rural suburb of the city. Compose a series of letters between two high school students, one living in the city and the other in the suburbs, in which they describe their lives, their schools, their homes, their pastimes, their wishes, and their regrets. Focus on how the two different environments affect the two students' outlooks.
  • In "The Writer in the Family," Jonathan is faced with a problem of divided loyalties, caught in the middle of a conflict between his mother and his aunt. In a story or expository essay, describe a situation in which you faced a similar problem. Who were the people involved? What was the conflict? How were you drawn into it? What pressures were put on you? How did you handle the situation? How did the episode affect you?
  • Jonathan seems to be ambivalent about the task of letter writing that Frances imposes on him. In part he seems to write the letters under a sense of obligation, but he also seems to be engaged in the task and to enjoy the praise his first efforts earn. Interview perhaps half a dozen people, including friends and relatives of varying ages, asking about what motivates them to act—a sense of obligation to others or an internal drive, or perhaps a combination of both. Compile the responses in a report, analyze them, and outline your conclusions in an oral presentation to the class.
  • Although what he is doing is ostensibly done to spare his grandmother pain, Jonathan feels that writing the letters is dishonest, and it is. In an essay of a thousand words, consider the morality of "little white lies." Think of works of fiction or drama in which such fibs play a significant role in the development of the plot, and incorporate references to these works into your essay.

The Nature of Fiction

Aunt Frances tells Jonathan that when she read his first letter to his grandmother, supposedly from his father, "the full effect of Jack's death came over her" and she wept. She was so greatly moved because Jonathan's letter gave her a sense of Jack. Thus, Jonathan's rendition of Jack has the power to represent Jack more thoroughly than Frances's memory of the actual Jack. Fiction is not merely false representation but a means of approaching what is essential—a way of conveying the depths of reality. Through his acts of literary ventriloquism, Jonathan does not make

his father into a puppet or dummy but reveals his truest, deepest self. He also elicits the truth about Frances, who demonstrates that she uses people for her own ends and expects them to cooperate. In the last letter, Jonathan not only frees himself from his aunt's demands but also asserts his father's independence. He accomplishes this through the act of writing fiction after he discovers that the fiction about his father can be a means of expressing truth, especially unwanted truth, rather than a vehicle for promulgating socially constructed lies that may be deemed useful or convenient by some. The writer, Jonathan discovers, can be a champion of truth and a rebel against the established order that thwarts human actuality.


First-person Narrator

Jonathan, the central character in "The Writer in the Family," also tells the story. This technique allows Doctorow to relay the story from Jonathan's point of view and give the reader a sense of closeness and connection to Jonathan. His personality is not only depicted in the story but also demonstrated through his manner of telling the story and presenting himself to other characters and the reader.

Characterization through Physicality

A sense of character is often created in "The Writer in the Family" through a gesture a character makes or a rendering of a characteristic pose. Frances sits behind the wheel of her parked Buick looking straight ahead, with her white gloved hands on the steering wheel, as if she were keeping her eye on the road while driving. She is actually talking to Jonathan, but she uses the same affect that she might have if she were negotiating traffic. The physicality of the interaction shows that she is the one who is in control, in the driver's seat. Elsewhere, the happy family excitement that arises when Harold brings Susan to dinner is conveyed by Jonathan's comical assumption of the role of a high-class waiter as he sets the table. His mother's miming the words "She's adorable" conveys as much about her character as the words convey her feeling at the moment. The way Harold puts his arm around Jonathan during the visit to the cemetery shows him to be a warm and reliable person, supportive but not intrusive.

Symbolic Imagery

Doctorow wrote in The Book of Daniel, "Images are what things mean." In "The Writer in the Family," through quick images of his characters, Doctorow elicits their attitudes and characteristics. In his first letter, Jonathan, as his father, describes "peculiar crooked trees that look like men holding their arms out." Without having to give any psychological analysis of his father, Jonathan allows the idea of tormented longing to attach itself to the reader's idea of his father, a man whose dreams were thwarted and whose life was narrowed. When speaking of his father's grave, Jonathan mentions that it has no headstone because the stonecutters were on strike. The missing headstone suggests an incomplete death, as Jonathan himself suggests, and it reinforces the central conceit of the story, Jack's sisters' efforts to conceal and thus deny his death, as well as its antithesis, Jonathan's ability to accomplish his father's death and to free himself from the shadow of his father's failures. The image of Jonathan trying on his father's suit suggests a presence of his father from which he has not freed himself. In his final letter, Jonathan gives the word "desert" resonance as an image. He uses the word, ostensibly, to refer to Arizona, the desert his sisters have consigned him to, but the word takes on much more encompassing meaning. The desert is the place without water; it signifies the quality of Jack's life. The actual desert of Arizona reflects, as an image, the barren desert of Jack's mis-lived life, and it suggests the absence of the sea that Jack endured by not being a sailor.


Upward Mobility

After defeating Fascist Germany in 1945, the United States entered a period defined by economic growth and increasing chances for working-class people to rise from blue-collar factory jobs to white-collar professional jobs. With the new upward mobility, there was also a massive exodus from cities to suburbs. The idea of "keeping up with the Joneses"—showing that one had as much wealth as one's neighbors, if not more—became an important mark of success. This led to the social habit of conspicuous consumption, buying expensive things in order to show anyone paying attention just how successful one had become. In "The Writer in the Family," Jack did not succeed in moving up to the professional class, and that was cause for condescension on the part of his family. Similarly, Jack and his family continued to live in the Bronx, unlike his sister Frances, whose husband is a lawyer and has a house in Larchmont, a wealthy suburb located on the shore of the Long Island Sound.

The Nuclear Family

The co-residence of the nuclear family, a household comprising mother, father, and children, was the norm in the 1950s. The independent functioning of the nuclear family replaced what has commonly been called the extended family, comprising the nuclear family plus a mixture of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or adult siblings, living under the same roof and sharing the same economic circumstances. This had been a common living arrangement before the 1950s. The breakdown of the extended family caused social division among family members who were no longer interdependent. Increases in the number of households composed only of the nuclear family were often associated with the placement of older or infirm members of the family in nursing homes.

The Death of Russ Columbo

Russ Columbo (1908-1934) was an American crooner of the twenties and thirties, famous particularly for writing and performing the pop song "Prisoner of Love." When Columbo died in 1934 in a gun accident, Doctorow was three years old. Columbo's sixty-eight-year-old mother, Julia, was in the hospital with a serious heart condition at the time of her son's death. Her doctors, worried about the potential effect of the news of her son's death on her, kept the news from her. Her family, in turn, told her that Columbo had flown to New York and was married there to the actress Carole Lombard. Telegrams from New York, signed by Colombo and Lombard, were sent to Columbo's mother, and she was told they were flying to England. She was then told that Colombo would remain in Europe and tour extensively. From time to time Julia received letters, and even money, supposedly from her son. Newspaper articles about his death, as well as about Lombard's later marriage to the movie actor Clark Gable, were kept from her. This pretense went on for ten years, until Julia Columbo's death. It is likely that Doctorow, whose acquaintance with pop culture is extensive, was aware of this story.


  • 1950s: New York City, especially Lower Manhattan, looks rather the way it has looked for over a century, a city of old buildings and narrow streets. Wealthy families are leaving the city for the openness and prestige of the suburbs.

    1980s: Fueled by the neglect of social services by the administration of President Ronald Reagan and the boom in corporate wealth, New York is a city with sharp class divisions in which numerous homeless people live, beg, and sleep on its streets. Old buildings are being demolished, the bank of the Hudson River is being transformed into landfill on the Lower West Side, and office towers and luxury apartment buildings are going up.

    Today: New York City has been radically altered by the demolition of old buildings, the redesign of streets and waterfronts, and the construction of new skyscrapers and luxury residences. Affluent families are resettling in the city, including boroughs like Harlem. The number of homeless people living on the street has been greatly reduced.

  • 1950s: Women generally do not work once they are married. Like Jonathan's mother, they often seek employment in secondary positions only when desperate family circumstances compel them to.

    1980s: Feminism has brought women into the workforce in large numbers, and women can be seen doing many jobs that were once exclusively done by males.

    Today: Women constitute a significant portion of the modern American workforce. Some hold high executive positions.

  • 1950s: Letter writing is the primary way for people to communicate over long distances. Long-distance telephone calls are expensive and require operator assistance. In emergencies, people use telegrams.

    1980s: While people still write letters and postcards, telephones have become the favored means of communication. Businesses use fax machines.

    Today: The Internet has enabled instantaneous communication among people using a variety of media, including text, pictures, voice, and video. E-mail has essentially replaced letter writing, and the mobile phone has come to dominate interpersonal communications via voice, text message, and mobile e-mail.


Being a short story by a writer whose reputation rests on his recognition as one of the major novelists of the latter part of the twentieth century, "The Writer in the Family" has not been given the critical attention that Doctorow's major works have been afforded. Nevertheless, the critical attention it has received has extended it the same regard that works like The Book of Daniel and Ragtime have enjoyed. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, reviewing Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella—the work that includes "The Writer in the Family"—in the New York Times in November 1984, calls it "a thoroughly charming but somewhat conventional piece." Benjamin Demott, writing in the New York Times a few days later, calls the entire work Doctorow's "subtlest work of fiction," noting that it offers "an account of one man's search for seriousness—and for human connection and truth." Demott sees "The Writer in the Family" as a story of how a boy "awakens to the self-centeredness and disloyalty of" subordinating his gift as a writer to his aunt's demands, thus "showing the writer in the family to be not a technician but a truth-teller, a scribe directing his imagination to the service of reality and thereby recovering integrity and pride."

The importance of "The Writer in the Family" to the novella Lives of the Poets and of the novella to the story is emphasized by Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson, who remark in E. L. Doctorow that "what appears to be a collection of only vaguely related pieces may be read as a spatially constructed novel of sorts." They cite as an example the instance in the novella when on Jonathan's fiftieth birthday his mother "admits that she was at least partially responsible for his father's unfulfilled life," altering the reader's perception of her. In the opening story she appears as the victim of her husband's sisters' apparently unjust criticism, but perhaps the criticism is actually, or partially, warranted.

Stephen Matterson, in his 1993 Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction essay "Why Not Say What Happened? E. L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets," argues that the story "establishes within the book, a set of fundamental questions and observations about writing and the role of the writer." Noting "his refusal to use writing for deceit," Matterson concludes that "Jonathan actually comes to a truthful image of his father by writing the letters through the fiction that he makes up," such that "he uncovers two kinds of truth about his father, the factual and the psychological."


Neil Heims

Heims is the author of over two dozen books on literature and literary figures. In the following essay, Heims discusses "The Writer in the Family" as a work showing how the writer of the story became a writer.

In "The Writer in the Family," E. L. Doctorow has fashioned a narrative account of a youth's transformation into a man and a writer that not only tells of his metamorphosis but also graphically demonstrates its success. "The Writer in the Family" is a story of a rite of passage and itself stands as an outgrowth and example of its narrator and central character Jonathan's successful accomplishment of that passage.

Focusing on a series of external events, Doctorow presents the moment of a boy's psychological metamorphosis. It is a significant moment in the fundamental development of Jonathan's understanding, in the formulation of his integrity, and in the definition of his character. Jonathan is not only the main character in "The Writer in the Family" but also, inside the fictional world of Lives of the Poets, the author of the story. Consequently, because the story is a representative piece of Jonathan's work, in addition to being a tale recounting an episode in the narrator's youth, it is a story about how the narrator came to be an author—the author of the very story the reader is reading. Jonathan is faced, in the telling of the story, with an implicit and essential task. He must show convincingly that the outer circumstances of the story he tells, the events to which he was forced to respond, contributed not only to the development of his consciousness as a person but to his understanding of what a writer is and to the development of his craft as a writer. If one considers Jonathan as the author of the story, then the story itself is the proof of the success of the process it describes.

Jonathan's growth as a writer and his transformation from a boy living in the shadow of his dead father into a man who by reimagining his father releases himself from him—and at the same time releases his father from his father's own false life—are the results of the intersection of events in the world and of his own developing response to those events. His maturation is a function not only of how he comes to terms with his place in the world, as that place has been defined by his role in his family, but also of how he develops the ability to redefine his place in the world and not accept others' definitions, whether his aunt's or his father's, of what he is, where he belongs, and what he does. When his aunt Frances calls him "the writer in the family," the reader may cringe a bit, feeling the force of condescension in her words. She seems to be patronizing Jonathan, drawing on his power and on his resources for her own sake. She is using him. She does not consider the character of a writer as something beholden to itself but reduces writing to a servile act, a clever ability to dissemble and create illusions. Frances turns writing into a technical skill and is oblivious to the craft as a sacred calling. Consequently, she indifferently diminishes Jonathan's authenticity and authority as a writer, which depends upon his sense of duty and loyalty to the truth as he perceives and understands it. Similarly, being enthralled by his father's failure lessens Jonathan's sense of himself and of the integrity of his vocation. The dramatic action of the story is found in the way Jonathan transcends his father's hold upon him as well as his aunt's condescension, which also had his father and mother as its object. In the process he also escapes his aunt's usurpation of his talent and identity and becomes truly a writer. He forcefully dedicates himself to his own vision of truth and avoids becoming his aunt's factotum.


  • In Paul Goodman's story "The Home-made Sweater," originally published in 1949 and available in the 1979 collection The Facts of Life: Stories, 1940-1949, Goodman presents the psychology of the realization that occurs when a seven-year-old girl intuits that the objects in the world are actually made by people and are not mysteriously preexisting things.
  • In "On Being a Son: A Story of the Fifties," by George Dennison, published in New American Review, Vol. 8, in 1969, Dennison transports his hero from within the context of the bohemian milieu of 1950s Greenwich Village to his hometown in Pennsylvania and explores the family conflicts that haunt him and how he comes to terms with his conflicting feelings about his mother.
  • "The Locking Gas-Cap," by Meyer Liben, published in Justice Hunger in 1957, explores the neurotic relationship a man has with his fiance'e, who has a neurotic attachment to her mother and her dead father, through an anecdote concerning the car they own together.
  • Grace Paley's "Goodbye and Good Luck," originally published in 1959 and reprinted in The Little Disturbances of Man in 1968, tells the story of a spinster who relates her life history as the mistress of a great actor in the Yiddish theater to the daughter of her condescending sister on the day that she finally marries the actor. As in Doctorow's story, Paley uses a first-person narrator who draws on past experience to show how her present condition has evolved.
  • In "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," by J. D. Salinger, originally published in 1948 and reprinted in Nine Stories in 1966, two women who were friends in college spend an afternoon together getting drunk and remembering their past. The family tensions that are explicit in Doctorow's story are implicit in Salinger's, as revealed in the conversation between the two women.
  • In The Vanishing Adolescent, by Edgar Z. Friedenberg, published in 1959, the author presents a study of adolescent development focusing on self-definition, conflict, and the establishment of self-esteem in boys.

"The Writer in the Family," is, consequently, not only a story about the events that Jonathan relates, although they are its manifest content. It is as much a story about how those events affected him then and how they determined what he and his work are like now, at the time he is telling the story, as an adult writer of published work. As an example of his work, the story is an exhibit in his defense against his aunt's criticism of him for asserting his vision over her wishes in his last letter from his father to his grandmother.

In order to demonstrate how he was affected by the events he is narrating, Jonathan must present those events to the reader in such a way that the reader experiences them as he did. By making Jonathan the narrator of his own story, rather than using a limited and removed third-person narrator, Doctorow demonstrates Jonathan's power as a writer, his achievements as a writer and as a son, and his sensitivity as a person. Indeed, the narrative is effective as a story of enlightenment. Making Jonathan the narrator of his own experience also shows the importance of that experience for him: his skill as a storyteller, his decorum as a narrator, and the control of his material demonstrate his accomplishment. As such, they validate the importance of his having written the letter that Frances deplored. That letter was his declaration of independence as a son, as a nephew, and as a writer—his liberation from dependency and his first step in the direction of the authority it takes a writer to be an actual author. What Aunt Frances piously tells him to do when she returns his letter, to think about "what you've done," is really what the reader must do, and in so doing the reader will see that to be a writer is to find the truth of the other, as young Jonathan found the truth of his father. Because of that early discovery, which made him into a writer, the readers of the story can sense that the truths of the other characters—Frances, his mother, his brother—have also been found by the older Jonathan now telling the story.

Jonathan found the truth of his father in the very act of attempting to become his father imaginatively and fictitiously through writing letters in his name. Before discovering that truth, he was dwarfed and disturbed by unburied remnants of his father. Symbolically, his discomfort and his sense of being less than his father are represented by his feeling uneasy when he tries on his father's too-large suit jacket. Moreover, Jonathan begins, after he has begun to write the letters in his father's voice, to be haunted by his father. He dreams of him, with his dreams so fraught with disturbance that they keep him awake. Since he is sensitized in this way, the picture of his seafaring father that is discovered toward the end of the story—a photograph that reveals a truth about his father of which he had been ignorant—penetrates his understanding. This photo, a frozen representation of his father as a young man, thaws out in his consciousness and replaces the phantom figure of a disturbing ghost with a warm figure whose secret meanings he becomes empowered to express the way his father never had been free to. He meets his father, and in the process, he meets himself—that is, he participates in the process of creating, of fathering, himself by giving his father his true life.

The living characters in "The Writer in the Family" are revealed as full human beings glimpsed as they are displaying particular aspects of their character. Doctorow endows Jonathan with the skill to elicit people who are both types and individuals. The portraits Jonathan draws catch and present his characters in their essence. The depiction of Aunt Frances sitting in her Buick, for example—at which time, though the car is parked, she keeps her hands on the steering wheel and looks straight ahead as she reprimands Jonathan for what she calls the cruelty of his letter—shows the woman that she is: a woman who has taken her place in the driver's seat. She reflects the social proprieties that she has identified with and that Jonathan must reject in order truly to be a writer. Jonathan's description of his mother slamming the telephone and crying out in anger that her husband "can't even die when he wants to" is another quick portrait that reveals something about her that is always with her, a sense of frustration at having to struggle as hard as she does to keep living despite the burdens she has had to bear. There are other quick pictures—Jonathan's brother putting his arm about him at his father's grave, for example. His brother's girlfriend's astonishment at the number of books in their apartment not only quickly shows her to the reader but also gives an impression of the apartment and their culture. The scene shows one of the roots of Jonathan's desire to be a writer.

Often Jonathan renders portraits through what may be called verbal images, in other words, through tonality. The tone of Frances's voice and the nature of her diction on the phone reveal the psychology of her personality. She must command and control. Jonathan's apparently objective, almost photographic representation of her corroborates his mother's subjective dislike of her. The reader can hear Frances when she speaks. In few words, Jonathan presents the cloying sweetness that both conceals and reveals her passive aggressivity. She hardly speaks, yet she is a firm and full presence. Similarly, his mother is revealed as the tired, frustrated, and thwarted yet good-hearted and clear-sighted woman she is with quick strokes, such as with her complaints about Jack's family at the cemetery and her muffled appreciation of Harold's girlfriend, Susan. Similarly, although Jack does not appear in the story, his spirit is conveyed by Jonathan's recollection of how he called him "matey" as well as by the old photograph of him in the navy. Already dead and only a memory, Jack nevertheless appears as a complex person in the story. The photograph of Jack on the deck of a ship toward the end of World War I, a classic image of sailors with their mops, in part reveals his inner life. And the juxtaposition of that photograph with Jonathan's description of his later life gives the reader a sense of the man's deepest longings and disappointments and even a sense of his heroism. He lived a painfully thwarted life as authentically as he could.

Through the accumulation of graphic details, like the way his father called him "matey," the way his aunt sits in the car, the way his mother hangs up the phone, the way he dreams about his father, or the way his brother consoles and advises him, Jonathan not only brings together a narrative of his early life but also shows how the forces around him are fragments that he has assembled into one complete, unified art work. They show a portrait of himself, a portrait of the artist in the process of becoming an artist.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on "The Writer in the Family," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Michelle M. Tokarczyk

In the following excerpt, Tokarczyk examines the character of Jonathan in "The Writer in the Family" and the class status of his family.

In many of his essays, Doctorow addresses the situation of contemporary American writers, but he most clearly articulates his view of contemporary fiction and its reception in "The Beliefs of Writers." Here he laments what he sees as a lack of passion in contemporary writing and a related inability of writers to represent politics. In contrasting American writers with Europeans he finds his cohorts, "With certain exceptions … less fervent about the social value of art and therefore less vulnerable to crises of conscience" (Jack London 106). He further argues that withdrawal from and distrust of society has been prominent in American fiction since Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and that fiction suffers from a "reduced authority" because it neglects the issues that are critical to contemporary life. Moreover, critics have not developed a way of writing about social and political fiction: "There is no poetics yet devised by American critics that would treat engagement as anything more than an understandable but nevertheless deplorable breakdown of form" (112). Doctorow ends this essay with a charge to writers themselves to write books about, "the way power works in our society, who has it, and how it is making history" (116).

Each of Doctorow's novels, I believe, attempts to address this imperative, but in fleshing out the conflicts contemporary writers face and the difficulties of formulating an acceptable aesthetic and praxis, it is instructive to begin by examining his two autobiographical works, Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories and World's Fair. In his interview with Larry McCaffery, Doctorow stated that his first attempted novel was autobiographical, but that he quickly realized this type of writing was not his strength ("Spirit" 34). As a middle-aged man, however, he was perhaps better able to return to the subject of his life not as an example of isolated, atomistic experiences, but rather as a "case study" (to use a social science term admittedly too impersonal for Doctorow's fiction) of the writer's place in American society. In both Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories and World's Fair, Doctorow grapples with the boundaries between art and practice, between individual and community, that will inform all of his fiction. Nowhere is the artist's position to his society, the artist's role as witness, more clearly articulated.

Like Doctorow's other fiction, Lives of the Poets and World's Fair are in many ways specific to time, class, and region. Both works are set in New York City, where Doctorow has spent the majority of his life and with which he strongly identifies. Class mobility is prominent in each work, although in Lives of the Poets the protagonist has moved up while in World's Fair the family is downwardly mobile. Furthermore, as in much of his fiction, the search for a father-figure to complement or replace an inadequate one is an important theme which is, in each work, resolved through the representation of writing as the ideal parent.

Lives of the Poets is composed of six short stories and a novella that is supposedly about the author of these stories. Hence, while the prose in this book is not generally experimental, especially when compared with Ragtime or Loon Lake, the book's composition is distinctly self-reflexive, reflecting the postmodernist bent in Doctorow's writing. The stories' subjects are very different, but all feature characters who are outsiders, misunderstood and often thwarted; appropriately Harter and Thompson see dereliction as a motif in this work, for many characters face actual or emotional abandonment (105). Significantly, the collection begins with "The Writer in the Family," which is about a boy whose father has died and whose family is afraid to break this news to the ailing grandmother. Because of his letter-writing skills, young Jonathan is enlisted to write "fictional" letters from his deceased father. The boy makes up adventures for his less-than-successful father of whom the narrator tells us, "In his generation the great journey was from the working class to the professional class. He hadn't managed that either." Eventually, Jonathan learns his father had been in the navy and realizes the man's dreams were to be at sea. Angry at himself for not recognizing his father's dreams earlier, the boy drafts a letter from the father stating he has a fatal disease, should never have traveled to Arizona, and wishes his ashes to be scattered at sea. As a writer, the boy, like many Doctorow characters, bears witness to the emotional rather than the literal truth.

In its focus on a boy estranged from his father, "The Writer in the Family" is typical of Doctorow's work. Ellen G. Friedman has argued that a preoccupation with the father is characteristic of much male fiction that features a missing father and often represents Oedipal conflicts, "The missing father is the link to the past that, for the protagonists, determines identity" (241). While Friedman's formulation cannot be applied to Ragtime, in which Father often appears as an outdated buffoon, it is useful in considering most of Doctorow's fiction, including "The Writer in the Family." In this story, as in some of Doctorow's other work, the father's strained "linkage" is related to his role as breadwinner. The father's financial irresponsibility puts a barrier between himself and his son that, the boy discovers, writing helps dissolve. As Doctorow says in discussing this story, writing leads Jonathan to the truth about his father's desires and causes for his failures (Morris "Fiction" 448). Presumably, this story is an autobiographical piece by the writer Jonathan in Lives of the Poets and might shed some light on him.

"Willi" also focuses on childhood experiences, but they are recalled by an old man years later (a technique repeatedly employed by Doctorow). The eastern European narrator remembers his mother's repeated infidelities for which his father beat and finally murdered her. There is a tension in the text between the child's romantic vision, "I imagined the earth's soul lifting to the warmth of the sun and mingling me in some divine embrace" and the harsh realities of his life, a tension reminiscent of the polarities associated with American romance but present in other fictional forms as well. Furthermore, there is an irony in the story being set in the early twentieth century, for at the end the narrator points out, "This was in Galicia in the year 1910. All of it was to be destroyed anyway, even without me." Like so much of Doctorow's work, "Willi" suggests the impossibility of isolating private tragedy from political turmoil.

While most of Doctorow's fiction is about males and often about male themes (such as searching for a father figure), as Harter and Thompson point out "The Hunter" is unusual in that it is written from a woman's point of view (107). The female voice and experience of becoming interested in a man who sees her only as a sex object are gender specific, but her loneliness and alienation are common to many of the male characters in this book….

It is easy to see the outlines of Doctorow's life in Jonathan's New York suburban lifestyle, in his age and profession, and in the writers described who resemble some of Doctorow's colleagues, such as Norman Mailer. However, it is also easy to see why Doctorow would disavow claims that the narrator is actually based on himself, for the lives described here represent some of the problems contemporary writers face as well as Jonathan's shortcomings (McInerney 152-55). In a sense Lives of the Poets is not Doctorow's or even Jonathan's life; rather it is the collective life of contemporary successful male authors. Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets, in contrast, focused on individual lives. Interestingly, scholars have pointed out that the critical judgments in Johnson's biographies obviously bear the stamp of his neoclassical time (Hardy vii-xv). Hence, the allusion to Johnson's work suggests that the writer is constructed by his time and his literary cohorts.

Lives of the Poets might be read as a model, or perhaps a parody, of the diminished fiction against which Doctorow has cautioned. Private angst certainly dominates Jonathan's life. As the novella begins he complains of minor physical ailments that characterize middle age. Additionally, he focuses on his own and his colleagues' marital difficulties and his need for isolation. At the core of many problems is a conflict between a need for autonomy and a need for solidarity with other people—not just for companionship but for a sense of shared human purpose. Marital problems become symbolic of the conflict between the need for bonding with another person and the need for freedom and isolation; Jonathan describes the many marriages between couples not divorced but not entirely together (such as himself and his wife) as wavering between two "archetypes," touching on both but committing to neither. These problems also represent Jonathan's doubts about his self-worth as a man, doubts that might stem from his relationship with and opinion of his father. When his wife Angel goes into a tirade against male perfidy, Jonathan reinforces her views. His willingness to condemn males partially reflects an insecurity rooted in his relationship with his own father. Again, it is useful to consider "The Writer in the Family" as a story reflecting the childhood experiences of its fictitious writer with his own father as well as those of Doctorow himself. (For one, the father in "Writer," reportedly loved the city—a trait Jonathan in Lives and Doctorow share.) As the Jonathan of the novella remembers his father, he recalls, "How I loved him. The man who disappointed millions. Make promises, fail to keep them." Clearly, Jonathan tries to distance himself from his father, for he reflects on both his success and his financial responsibility. Moreover, he points out that he is a "true Capricorn," an earth sign implying a stable character as opposed to the father who loved the sea in "The Writer in the Family." In a sense, Jonathan has achieved the American Dream constructed as a child economically surpassing his parents. Yet achieving or even striving for this dream can have many dark sides. In their study The Hidden Injuries of Class sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb analyze the often-hidden costs of the assumption that in the United States everyone who works hard can be at least middle class. One of the more detrimental effects of this ideology upon working-class families is parents' tendency to in effect tell their children not be like them and for working-class children to see their parents as failures. Hence, the child may be encouraged to "desert [his/her past] … leave it and the parents who have sacrificed for it behind" (131). But those who alienate themselves from their parents and their pasts are likely to feel guilty. So it is not surprising that Jonathan sees his financial responsibility as atonement for success. Most likely, other actions are also penances.

For one, Jonathan's isolation is self-inflicted. New York City functions as a metaphor for this isolation and as an ironic preserver of it. According to some social critics and historians, a common theme among writers and historians from the nineteenth century until today has been the sense of estrangement urban inhabitants feel—estrangement from their surroundings, themselves, and from people of other classes (Vidler 11). The urban landscape itself and the particularly dense population of New York City can foster a sense of anonymity and isolation. For this reason among others, cities have in postmodern novels often been represented as labyrinths where memory is cut off from experience (Lehan 240-45). While Jonathan is perhaps better at connecting memory and experience than are the characters in White Noise or The Crying of Lot 49, he is no more able to learn from experience. In addition, he is unable to connect with other people in any meaningful way. Throughout the novella there are images of the body as fort; while riding the subway he sees his skin as a border. He condemns people who talk too much, thereby violating their own privacy. These images suggest that the city functions both to isolate and to insulate. Jonathan's neighborhood, Greenwich Village, is a former bohemian haunt. Yet in the 1980s much of the housing is affordable only to the affluent. Hence, Jonathan, like most New Yorkers, lives in close proximity to the poor, but otherwise removed from their lives. In stating that most of his acquaintances eventually switched from riding the subways to taking taxis, he is referring to the class mobility among his peers and to their growing reluctance to mingle with other classes.

While there are economic and psychological roots of Jonathan's isolation, there are also important ones in his being a writer. Writers require isolation; to write novels they must, in most cases, work alone for several hours a day. Moreover, the writer is often working on something of dubious value; in interviews with me and with Christopher Morris, Doctorow talked of how the author is often filled with doubts about the value of his work, of how difficult it is to determine the worth of literary labor as compared with other kinds of labor (Tokarczyk 36-37; Morris 455). Such anxieties are likely related to the increasing commodification in American society—especially in the 1980s when some artists in all fields became stars and visual artists in particular sometimes had six-figure annual incomes. It is perhaps these concerns taken together that prompt Jonathan to refer to writing as "like a sentence—it's a prison image. It's an exclusionary image as far as I'm concerned." The exclusion here refers both to non-writers being excluded and to the author being excluded from everyday society. As Fred Pfeil stated, the writer's engagement with others seems "indirect, incomplete, filtered through this premeditated skein of words, a process by which what I do now, writing the words, loses the name of action" (25). Like Ragtime's Houdini, the author here laments not being [able] to create, a "real world act"; fiction, despite the substantial power Doctorow assigns it, does not have the immediacy of many forms of communication. Moreover, in the act of writing fiction the sources of the fiction are lost or mutated; hence, in a desperate tone Jonathan tells a friend "each book has taken me further and further out so that the occasion itself is extenuated, no more than a weak signal from the home station, and even that may be fading." Jonathan is not only isolated and alienated from others, but to an extent from his own work, which may explain his inconsolable nature.

But Jonathan's problems are the problems of contemporary American writers and to some extent other intellectuals; as was discussed earlier, the book is titled for "poets," all writers, not Jonathan as an individual. As such, the book questions not only how writers should respond to their own dilemmas, but also how they should address the social and political realities in society. John Williams argues that often Doctorow's characters are escapees from a social power structure who try to assert writing as resistance to life-denying forces in culture (11-12). This is certainly the role into which the Jonathan of "The Writer in the Family" falls, and, as we will see, one which Edgar of World's Fair discovers. But it is not one into which Jonathan has found entre'e. He has not yet been able to finish his work Lives of the Poets, perhaps because he has not found the kind of fiction he wants to write, a fiction similar to that endorsed by Doctorow in "The Beliefs of Writers."

Because he has not found a way to address his own problems or those of his society, he adapts a stance similar to that of a modern cynic as conceptualized by Peter Sloterdijk. According to Sloterdijk, contemporary culture is marked by a universal, pervasive cynicism. "Modern cynicism presents itself as that state of consciousness that follows after naïve ideologies and their enlightenment." In other words, cynicism results from the exhaustion of seemingly failed ideologies and social institutions. This pervasive modern figure has its roots in ancient culture in which the cynic, typified in Diogenes, is "a lone owl" and "an urban figure who maintains his cutting edge in the goings on of the ancient metropolises." In the modern world the city becomes a fertile breeding ground for cynics, for in this anonymous setting cynics can perform their daily duties, apparently effectively blending into society, while having little faith in this society. This performance aspect is crucial, for Sloterdijk sees cynics as having enlightened false consciousness. In traditional Marxist ideology, false consciousness described the state of the proletariat identifying with the ruling class and actually believing that it shares in the upper class's benefits. The cynic, in contrast, knows that many social policies and institutions are meaningless, but nonetheless goes through the motions of accepting them. What might appear to be false consciousness is then "a constitution of consciousness afflicted with enlightenment that, having learned from historical experience, refuses cheap optimism." Indeed, according to Sloterdijk one of the hallmarks of cynics is their ability to work and be successful, even though they are often borderline melancholics. The distinction between cynicism and skepticism, I would argue, is the degree to which one accepts enlightened false consciousness.

In many respects Jonathan fits Sloterdijk's profile. He is an urban figure on the periphery of society; he might also be seen as a melancholic nonetheless able to control symptoms and work, if with reduced efficiency. Jonathan withdraws from his society in what Sloterdijk describes as "mournful detachment." His sense of existential absurdity is to him something to be ashamed of, so it is repressed and internalized and consequently useless for taking preemptive action. Possibly he perceives himself as being more marginal to society than he actually is. Having shown some fascinations with derelicts—those without home or work who live on the edge, he reflects "between the artist and simple dereliction there is a very fine line." Furthermore, he believes that dereliction is a state of mind common to middle-aged men, but not women. We might speculate that to the extent this perception rings true it does because, as theorists such as Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow, and Mary Belenkey have in various ways shown, women tend to value connection over individuation, while men have contrary priorities. Hence, intimacy and connectedness are often threatening to men; they may avoid these states and thus become isolated.

Although Jonathan is relatively isolated in his society, he is far from apathetic. In particular he laments the plight of refugees and the actions of the U.S. government that made the refugees' lands unlivable. Furthermore, he refers to the U.S. president embracing sociopathic murderers, and at this point contemplates whether he has become "estranged" from his calling. Such estrangement is presumably what prompts him to offer his home as sanctuary to illegal aliens, an act a local minister calls "bearing witness"—a term Doctorow might use to describe the writer's art.

Despite his fears of commitment, he decides to take the leap of becoming a political activist and returning to live with his wife. In typing with the alien boy, relying on the child to reach his quota of pages, he is resolving his father-son issues by realizing that his battle with his own father is over and it is time for him to be a father figure. Rather than wish for a son to surpass him economically, he will "adopt" an "orphan" and try to give that boy a new life.

In discussing American literature, Katherine Newman argues that its governing theme is not the American Dream, but rather the selection of a cultural model that will satisfy spiritual and emotional needs. Novels are often about choices of assimilation, accommodation, and successful rebellion. Despite concern about the legal ramifications of his actions, Jonathan, who had the guise of an assimilationist, chooses to rebel against his society, and despite his ideals of writerly detachment, Jonathan gets involved; he changes from cynic to activist.

In theorizing Jonathan's action, it is useful to consider Frank Lentricchia's Criticism and Society in which the author argues that society is unreasonable, most critics recognize this is so, and it is the intellectual's task to go about transforming society. To do so, one must keep in mind a fact that might seem like a commonplace [one], but nonetheless has powerful implications: that the ruling culture does not define all culture; it excludes marginalized voices that the oppositional critic must work to amplify. In teaching the young boy to write, Jonathan is enabling him to someday voice his own concerns. In his essay "Foucault's Legacy," Lentricchia speculates that the central if unacknowledged desire for historicism is to find a space of freedom in which people are not forced to become what they do not wish to become. Drawing on Raymond Williams's notion that determinism is a complex and interrelated process of limits and pressures in the social process, we might see the pressures for commitment conflicting with those for isolation, the fact that Jonathan, for his weaknesses, is not emotionally crippled, and understand his willingness to commit on various levels. We might also utilize Barbara Eckstein's concept of complicity. She explains that in the OED complicity is related both to "complicate" and "accomplice," and that its roots ("com" and "plic") mean to "fold together." In contemporary definitions "complicity" means both "being an accomplice" and "[the] state of being complex and involved." Hence, "If evil befalls the other, the self is not simply guilty, to blame, but rather complicit in a network of personal, social, political, even aesthetic conditions which perpetuate the stereotypes and which, in turn, rationalize the suffering. The self is an accomplice in this complexity. But in the web of complicity the self also suffers" (32-33). It might be argued that Jonathan becomes acutely aware of his inevitable complicity, and then decides to undermine immoral policies of the country to which he nonetheless owes allegiance and supports with his taxes.

While the previous analyses are appealing, some critics have found the ending of Lives of the Poets unconvincing. It is indeed difficult to believe that Jonathan could so quickly commit to his wife and become an activist who takes legal risks. That the ending is strained most likely reflects Doctorow's continued ambivalence concerning the writer and political activism, an ambivalence attributable both to a solitary nature and to a New Critical schooling. The move to activism in this novel is perhaps best seen as an ideal that the writer is still struggling to envision a way to achieve….

Source: Michelle M. Tokarczyk, "Praxis, Identity, and the American Writer: Lives of the Poet and World's Fair," in E. L. Doctorow's Skeptical Commitment, Peter Lang, 2000, pp. 27-45.

Stephen Matterson

In the following excerpt, Matterson argues that "The Writer in the Family" sets up a central concern in the collection Lives of the Poets—that fiction, although by definition not true, can nonetheless reveal important truths.

Lives of the Poets, E. L. Doctorow's seventh work, first published in 1984, occupies a unique space in his writings. Its most obvious difference from the other work is announced in its subtitle, A Novella and Six Stories, because, apart from the 1979 play, Drinks Before Dinner, Doctorow's previous work had been in the novel form. A case could be made for considering Lives of the Poets almost an aberration within the Doctorow canon. Among its diverse themes and settings the collection becomes an exploration of the nature of writing itself and of the relation of writing to the life of its author. Doctorow had never before treated this issue so explicitly, though a debate about the reliability of fiction had often been implicitly present in his work. The style of the book is also markedly different from the other work. Doctorow appears willing to allow his self and voice to emerge more fully than they ever had before. Lives of the Poets could also be said to lack something of the ambitious breadth of Doctorow's novels. The multiple plotting and discontinuities that might be considered typical of Doctorow's writing are here apparently disregarded in favor of a series of self-contained stories. Doctorow's typically sustained focus on a particular time period is also absent. Whether writing of the 1870s, the turn of the century, the 1960s or the 1930s, Doctorow had maintained the focus on that time even while diffusing the action. In contrast, the short stories here range broadly in time and setting. However, in spite of the elements that would make Lives of the Poets an oddity among Doctorow's works, the book illuminates and adds much to our understanding of the novels. It may remain an aberration, but one that it was essential for Doctorow to write and that is in itself a major achievement.

For the reader to appreciate fully the unfolding of its meanings, Lives of the Poets must be read in sequence. It would be possible to detach particular stories and consider them complete in themselves, but Doctorow's achievement in the book is an overall one in which the stories are interdependent and contribute to a developing meaning. Lives of the Poets works in part through a series of correspondences that are established in the first story and are developed by the others.

These correspondences achieve two effects. First, they establish a series of connections, which, when taken together, make up the theme of the whole book. Second, the correspondences between this book and Doctorow's other writing indicate the seriousness and urgency of the themes and issues it raises. It addresses fundamental questions about the nature and function of the writer, questions that Doctorow is applying to himself and to his already published work. In some respects, chiefly through what it reveals about the writer and the need to write, Lives of the Poets could be said to alter our understanding of Doctorow's preceding novels. After reading this work we reconsider some aspects of Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Loon Lake. Lives of the Poets is an outstanding example of the supposition that T. S. Eliot made in 1917: "The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered" (5). Indeed, it can be argued that one of the urges driving Lives of the Poets is Doctorow's need to re-examine some of the ideas that Eliot originated in that essay….

The situation established in the book's first story, "The Writer in the Family," is important for appreciating this dual series of connections. The narrator, Jonathan, is in his early teens when his father dies, leaving a widow and two sons, Jonathan and his older brother Harold. The father's elderly mother, however, is still living, in a nursing home. Fearing that the shock of her son's death will be too much for the old lady, the narrator's wealthy Aunt Frances persuades Jonathan to write a letter purporting to come from his father, pretending that the family has moved to Arizona. Aunt Frances is delighted with the letter and prevails upon Jonathan to write more. Eventually the deceit disturbs the boy and to end the letters, he writes one that he knows Aunt Frances cannot show her mother.

Because of the dual system of correspondences in Lives of the Poets, "The Writer in the Family" is not a self-contained, straightforward story. It establishes within the book, a set of fundamental questions and observations about writing and the role of the writer. It is suggested that Jonathan has to give up the letters because they are dishonest. In anticipation of the novella "Lives of the Poets," young Jonathan is already haunted by Robert Lowell's question from the poem "Epilogue," quoted in the novella: "Yet why not say what happened?" On one level, "The Writer in the Family" is about the boy's almost heroic stand, his refusal to use writing for deceit. Yet the story introduces other, potentially more important, areas. First, in spite of the deceit involved, Jonathan actually comes to a truthful image of his father by writing the letters through the fiction that he makes up. Thus, in the final letter, he invents the father's longing for the sea, and, in so doing, he uncovers two kinds of truth about his father, the factual and the psychological. His father actually was, as Jonathan later discovers, in the navy for a year. Psychologically, the father was restless and unsatisfied, a man for whom living in Arizona would have been a kind of death.

The second significant point about the fictive letters is that they come to have a function far beyond their ostensible one of deceiving the grandmother. Their immediate effect is somehow to keep the father's memory alive, to keep him real and living to the boy (he has a vivid dream that his father is still alive), and to Aunt Frances. The first brief letter has a profound effect on Aunt Frances:

My aunt called some days later and told me it was when she read this letter aloud to the old lady that the full effect of Jack's death came over her. She had to excuse herself and went out in the parking lot to cry. "I wept so," she said. "I felt such terrible longing for him. You're so right, he loved to go places, he loved life, he loved everything."

The talent of the young writer has given the father a truth, a reality, that keeps him alive for others. Jonathan never really grasps this fact, and Aunt Frances' motives are misunderstood. His brother, Harold, points out that the letters are unnecessary: "Grandma is almost totally blind, she's half deaf and crippled. Does the situation call for a literary composition? Does it need verisimilitude? Would the old lady know the difference if she was read the phone books?" Both the brothers misunderstand Aunt Frances because they fail to realize how much the letters help in dealing with the loss of her brother.

For all of its darkly comic situation, "The Writer in the Family" concludes subtly with a complex and dual message: although fiction is deceit, made-up stories, it can reveal truths that facts alone cannot. Jonathan is as yet too young to grasp this fully; to him the letters are deceptions that he cannot continue. It is significant here to suggest the ways in which this dual approach to fictions pervades Doctorow's other works. "The Writer in the Family" forces the reader to recognize how much of Jonathan's situation has been repeated in the novels. This happens most obviously in World's Fair, which followed Lives of the Poets; there, Aunt Frances and the family all reappear at much greater length. There are particular changes; for instance, the brother Harold is renamed Donald, and the family situation is amplified from "The Writer in the Family." Edgar in World's Fair, who wins a prize in an essay contest, resembles Jonathan in the earlier story. Though absent in "The Writer in the Family," the father is a prominent figure in World's Fair, and his longing for the sea is further outlined, appropriately enough, by Aunt Frances herself (240-41)….

Source: Stephen Matterson, "Why Not Say What Happened? E. L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets," in Critique, Vol. 34, No. 2, January 1993, pp. 113-25.


DeMott, Benjamin, "Pilgrim among the Culturati," in the New York Times, November 11, 1984, Section 7, p. 1.

Doctorow, E. L., The Book of Daniel, Random House, 1971, p. 71.

———, "The Writer in the Family," in Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella, Random House, 1984, pp. 3-20.

Fowler, Douglas, "E. L. Doctorow," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173: American Novelists Since World War II, Fifth Series, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 54-72.

Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson, E. L. Doctorow, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 100, 103.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, Review of Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella, in the New York Times, November 6, 1984.

Matterson, Stephen, "Why Not Say What Happened? E. L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter 1993, pp. 113-25.

Pierce, Max, "Russ Columbo: Hollywood's Tragic Crooner" in Classic Images, Vol. 286, April 1999, (accessed August 19, 2008).


Doctorow, E. L., Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992, Random House, 1993.

Although predominantly a writer of fiction, Doctorow uses the essay form, such as with those presented here, to discuss literary, cultural, and political issues of concern to him.

———, World's Fair, Random House, 1985.

Published a year after Lives of the Poets, World's Fair extends, amplifies, and deepens the situation Doctorow presented in "The Writer in the Family." Jack, for example, is a living character in this work.

Fowler, Douglas, Understanding E. L. Doctorow, University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Fowler examines Doctorow's work, style, themes, and development, starting with Welcome to Hard Times (1960) and going through Billy Bathgate (1989).

Rosenberg, Bernard, and Ernest Goldstein, eds., Creators and Disturbers: Reminiscences by Jewish Intellectuals of New York, Columbia University Press, 1982.

In a series of interviews with New York Jewish intellectuals, the editors give a sense of the cultural context of midcentury America in New York City.

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