Doctorow’s Orders by Sara Wheeler

Sara Wheeler

Doctorow’s Orders


The Bronx is larger than Paris (forty-two square miles), with one commercial bookshop and forty branches of McDonalds. Barnes and Noble closed the doors on its store in 2016; three years later, a Bronxite named Noëlle Santos raised the money to open the glorious Lit Bar in Alexander Avenue, a sketchy slice of the South Bronx where plastic bags cartwheel through the streets. ‘Bookstore & Chill’ the metal sign over the door says. On my pre-virus visit, books by Zadie Smith, Isabelle Allende and a volume entitled Stop Telling Women to Smile stood to attention on the front table. In the bar at the back, next to two sofas, I asked the friendly bartender for a coffee. As yet, she explained, the bookstore only stocked wine: would I care for a glass? Santos, who identifies as Afro-Latina, was stationed at the till wearing impressively pendulous gold hoop earrings. We talked about books (Santos’s Twitter handle is @bossynbookish) and about her vision for the store. Her mission is to ‘create a haven that inspires reading, encourages healthy social interaction, highlights diverse voices, and increases intellectual visibility in the Bronx’.

While in the borough, I made a pilgrimage to the childhood home of E L Doctorow, one of the finest 20th-century American novelists and one whose star – in the way writers’ reputations unfathomably come and go – shines less brightly than it once did, unfairly I think. As a boy Edgar Doctorow lived in East Tremont, towards the end of the elevated subway line that ferried workers to the Garment District. Outside the modest Doctorow home at 1658 Eastburn Avenue, a man was washing his car and the air smelled of solvent and detergent. East Tremont was sucking in refugees from the Lower East Side at the time these houses rose from the coastal basalt: refugees in second flight, heading for the sunlit uplands of the Bronx. Doctorow’s Jewish grandparents had emigrated from Russia without a word of English and made the pilgrimage from Ellis Island to the Bronx via Manhattan. In the novel World’s Fair, which comes close to being an autobiography, the narrator Edgar (born a few months before the real Edgar) remembers bearded figures from Manhattan yeshivas knocking on the door ‘with coin boxes and letters of credentials’. Rose, the narrator’s mother, says, ‘When my father brought us to the Bronx when I was a little girl, he didn’t know the whole Lower East Side would follow.’

Doctorow describes wet sawdust on the floor of Irving’s fish store (a place that ‘had a kind of swimming-pool atmosphere about it’), the travelling farm exhibit in Claremont Park and his school on 173rd Street, where a watercolour of FDR hung above the blackboard. And, of course, he describes the stoops, the front steps that appear in every film featuring the Bronx, from Robert Benton’s Billy Bathgate (based on Doctorow’s novel of the same name) to Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale, set in Belmont in 1960. It was where you sat to contemplate your world.

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Doctorow was named after Edgar Allan Poe, who in 1846 rented a farmhand’s shingled cottage in the Bronx for $100 a year. He moved in with his young wife, Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm, who was Poe’s aunt. Virginia had late-stage tuberculosis and the trio had picked the Bronx for its clean air; it was also judiciously removed from the literary squabbles that swirled around Poe, as well as from the sites of his heroic drinking binges. The homestead, in what is now Fordham, was thirteen miles from the centre of New York on the New York and Harlem Railroad. Trains departed three times a day from Williams Bridge to City Hall.

The cottage, marooned now on an island in the traffic-choked Grand Concourse, had a wooden veranda at the front, a steep, narrow staircase and, in the kitchen, a fireplace over which to cook, though it is a wonder Maria ever had enough money to buy food. She used to dig up turnips planted for cattle. To maintain spirits, the little family kept a tortoiseshell cat called Catterina and birds in cages that hung from fruit trees in the garden. In this cottage the restless Poe wrote of ‘a despair more dreadful than death’, yet his time there was a productive period, yielding, among other poems, ‘Annabel Lee’.

Virginia died in 1847 in a narrow iron bed on the ground floor. She was twenty-four. The widowed Poe, who had married his cousin when she was thirteen, went even more bonkers than before and took to sleeping on her grave. ‘Did you and dad realise’, Doctorow asked his mother, ‘you named me after an alcoholic, drug-addicted, delusional paranoiac with strong necrophiliac tendencies?’

Poe’s work had a profound effect at home and abroad. Mallarmé and Baudelaire translated his verse; Tennyson called him ‘the most original genius that America has produced’. In later years he infiltrated the curriculum, to the extent that elderly Americans can still recite ‘Annabel Lee’, though I am not sure who reads Poe today. Doctorow said he was ‘our greatest bad writer’. He died at forty in Baltimore in mysterious circumstances – an irony, as he was one of the inventors of the detective story.

I left the Bronx in a hurry, and with great regret, as New York City collapsed into disorder. Looking back, I think most often of City Island at the western end of Long Island Sound. A causeway joins the finger-shaped island to the rest of the Bronx. A touch of New England clings to the pastel clapboard houses that face the water off both sides of the single City Island artery; Sidney Lumet picked one to shoot the 1962 film Long Day’s Journey into Night – actually set in coastal Connecticut – starring Katharine Hepburn as a morphine addict (in the opening scene, the disintegrating family sits on the porch talking about the foghorn). On one day, I ate shrimp cocktail from a plastic tray at Johnny’s Reef on Belden Point. It was crowded with laughing customers and the windows looked onto sparkling teal water, where British gunships had anchored during the Revolutionary War.

In 1931 Ogden Nash wrote a couplet about the borough that includes the line, ‘The Bronx? No thonx!’ The Bronx’s entrenched reputation for violence and lawlessness hides a rich literary history. Even Nash eventually recanted. In 1964 he declared in print, ‘I wrote those lines, “The Bronx? No thonx”;/I shudder to confess them./Now I’m an older, wiser man/I cry, “The Bronx? God bless them!”’

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