The Waterworks


by E. L. Doctorow
Literary Criticisms 
Literary Criticisms (mostly book reviews) on the novel,
"The Waterworks", by E.L. Doctorow focus on different
topics. One talks of the author and his style in writing
the novel. Another describes Doctorow's love for New York
city, which can be seen throughout the pages of his various
novels. There is one that discusses the aspects of Utopia
in the novel. Also, "The New Yorker" has an interview with
him discussing his work. 

Ted Solotaroff, in "The Nation", claims that this novel,
which takes place in 1871, serves as a literary link
between Hawthorne, Melville and Poe and the post-Civil war
figures, such as Twaine, Howells and Crane. the earlier
writers are characterized by dark meditative tales and
romances, while the later ones wrote realistic stories.
Also, the actual writings differed, in that the earlier
writings were written in an intensely literary language
while the later writings drop a step to incorporate the
spoken idiom. Hence, the Waterworks is a link between these
two contrasting styles. the narration of the story is told
in a straight forward, reportorial fashion. In fact, the
narration would have been described by Melville as an
"inside narrative" because it's inhabited by the mind and
heart of the narrator. However, the story itself is quite
imaginative and murky (Solotaroff 784, 785). 

One can also see the techniques of Poe in the characters of
the story. Edmund Donne, the on honest detective in New
York at the time is reminiscent of Poe's M. Maupin, the
first of the gentleman investigators. In this sense
Doctorow's Donne is the sleuth of the democratic future.
This again ties together the writings of the pre and post
Civil War eras. Dr. Sartorius also plays a role in tying in
the two eras. He is a man whom personifies the search for
scientific progress for the sole sake of science. He is in
fact a man with one foot in his time and one foot in ours,
due to his many scientific findings (Solotaroff 786-790). 

I, of course, do not have the necessary background to give
a solid rating of this review. However, Solotaroff does
seem to prove his point, and it is an interesting concept.
I like the idea that Doctorow uses a certain style of
writing which is indicative of the time period about which
he is writing. 

Walter Goodman in "The New Leader", chooses to comment on
Doctorow's strong love for New York. In Doctorow's novels,
mainly Ragtime, World's Fair, and the Book of Daniel, he
takes us through the history of New York City. As
McIlvaine,the main character, states "The soul of the city
was always my subject" (Goodman 35). One can see Doctorow's
affinity for the old city in his writings: "...all at once
the block and tackle were raising the marble and granite
mansions of Fifth Avenue, and burly cops were wading
throughout the stopped traffic on Broadway, slapping horses
on the rumps, disengaging carriage wheels, and cursing the
heedless entanglements of horsecars, stages, drays, and
two-in hands, by which we transported ourselves throughout
the business day" (Goodman 35). Goodman goes as far as to
exclaim that when Doctorow writes, "You have not seen them
[the villains of the story], except in the shadows, or
heard them speak, except in the voices of others...they've
been hiding in my language" he is admitting a creative
failure in not developing his villains (Goodman 34, 35). He
claims that Doctorow's most vivid writing is reserved for
New York's underside and could not be matched in all other
aspects of the story (Goodman 34, 35). 

It is true that Doctorow's love of New York is easily seen
throughout the novel. However, I am in total disagreement
with Goodman's closing statements, that Doctorow had failed
in other aspects of the story. Specifically, the quote that
Goodman brings describing the villains is misunderstood by
him, I believe. I think that Doctorow kept his villains
hidden on purpose. This is supposed to give the reader a
sense of the events that occurred during that time period.
the Tweed Ring was always hidden away, and not out for
everyone to see. So too, Doctorow is presenting his
villains in the same manner. 

The theme of a utopia is also quite prevalent in the novel.
The wealthy elderly men in the novel have tried to set up a
system in which they would live way past their life
expectancies. However, in the words of the novel itself it
was an "obverse Eden" (DeKoven 68). So the story in fact
uses a "characteristic postmodernist narrative" in which it
contrasts the "powerful utopian desire and at the same time
representing thoroughgoing skepticism concerning the
possibility of its fulfillment" (DeKoven 78). In the story,
the utopia is related with the urban capitalism and
political corruption of its times. As the capitalism and
corruption are able to strive, the anti-Eden is able to
continue its existence, but as McIlvaine and Donne uncover
the corruption the anti-Eden falls apart (DeKoven 75-87). 

The utopia issue is a fascinating concept. In the
post-Civil War era many wrote about it. However, in this
story Doctorow shows us the negative aspects of it. He
shows us how one cannot truly exist. Humans can only build
an "obverse Eden". and even if they can build one (be it an
Eden or not) it will not continue in existence. 

"The New Yorker" has an actual interview with Doctorow, who
comments on many of the topics brought up by the book
reviews. As for the common theme of New York in his novels,
he replies that it's nothing he has done intentionaly, but
rather something that naturally happened because of the
fact that New York is the source of his imagination. He
also says that he wrote the book to also make the readers
take notice that some of the problems in the novel are no
different from that of those that exist today. Some
examples of this that he gave are the vagrancy of children
and the constant isolation of the rich from others.
Doctorow also made an interesting little comment on how he
got the inspiration for the novel. He says that on one
morning a fog came over the city, covering the World Trade
Center, the Woolworth building...the twentieth century. and
as he had said to himself "This is Melville's New York you
are looking at!" (The New Yorker 195). 

I found this article very interesting, in that the reader
got to see what the author himself had seen of his novel.
the reader gets to see his love of New York, and his
throwback to Melville's times. Although he does not
specifically address his feelings on a utopia, it is quite
evident from his writing how he feels. 


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