When the National Endowment for the Humanities honored E.L. Doctorow as its 1998 National Medal Winner, the organization noted the novelist’s deft ability to find a point of merger between history and myth. This juxtaposition, the NEH suggested, had enabled him to create worlds that play deftly with the authority of fact and the fantastical nature of the imagination.
In fact Doctorow states it clearly enough himself: “Where mythology and history converge, that’s where I start my novels,” he wrote in his acceptance of the medal.
Fast forward to 2012.
This week the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association recognized Doctorow in a place that merges mythology and history in its own way -- at Oheka Castle.
On Thursday, over a hundred of the region’s most discerning residents gathered at Otto Kahn’s old Gold Coast mansion in Cold Spring Hills, to see the Bronx-born author awarded the 2012 Champions of Literacy Award.
In accepting the award Doctorow, the author of such critically acclaimed novels as The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, and The Waterworks, follows poet Philip Levine, novelist Ray Bradbury and educator and philosopher Daisaku Ikeda as recipient of the honor.
The official business of the evening featured a cocktail reception in Oheka’s Grand Ballroom & Garden Patio, followed by dinner & dancing in the Terrace Room. Then came presentations of awards, including an introduction of Doctorow by WWBA Honorary Board Member Dr Karen Karbiener. In addition to Doctorow, Setauket high school student Melvin Li was recipient of a Young Poet Award; and Mt Sinai schoolteacher Renee Petrola received a Teaching Excellence Award.
Held in the opulent and other-wordly grounds of Oheka, it was an evening of fantasy and history.
But true to form Doctorow, in his comments, injected another dimension to the narrative -- a quality of social consciousness and moral attentiveness that came straight out of his understanding of Walt Whitman himself.
“Whitman, when he walked the streets of New York, loved everything he saw," said Doctorow, quoting from his book Reporting The Universe. "The multitudes that thrilled him, the industries at work, the ships in the harbor, the clatter of horses and carriages, the crowds in the streets, the flags of celebration.“
Yet America's "Good Gray Poet" saw something more. As a newspaperman, said Doctorow, Whitman knew that the success of his business ultimately relied not on publishers and editors, writers and money men -- but "on the skinny shoulders of itinerant newsboys, street urchins who lived on the few cents they made hawking the paper on every corner of the city."
It was a sobering reminder in the middle of an opulent gala.
One which demonstrated that E.L. Doctorow, not unlike Walt Whitman, deserves recognition not just for his ability to combine myth and history -- but for his ability to infuse the narrative of the moment with humanity.