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Remade in His Own Image: Mark Hogancamp’s Marwencol

1.

Kingston, New York, sits two hours north of New York City on the Hudson. Refugees from Brooklyn have recently put down their version of roots in the historic and formerly abeyant small city—vinyl record shops, bookstores purveying the kind of coffee topped with microfoam tulips, lounges serving Instagram-ready handcrafted cocktails. In a less frivolous development, an LGBTQ community center now occupies a corner of uptown’s most prominent block.

If this Kingston of 2018 had been the Kingston of the turn of the millennium, the one that is the setting of Welcome to Marwen, the new movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is possible that its originating event might never have occurred. Then again maybe it would. Hate has no fixed address.

In that Kingston of yore begins a story about storytelling, revealed from multiple points of view in three different media. It starts in the first hours of April 8, 2000, when a 38-year-old restaurant worker and former U.S. Navy petty officer with a drinking problem was set upon by five men outside a bar. He was beaten so mercilessly that when a bartender found him in the street he was near death. She initially thought he was a garbage bag. Mark Hogancamp spent 40 days in the hospital, nine of them in a coma. The bone around his right eye required reconstruction. When he came to, he remembered nothing of life before the assault. He had to relearn how to eat, to walk. He returned home and thought the pairs of women’s high heels piled in the closet must belong to a girlfriend he couldn’t recall. In fact they were his, and they may well have provoked his attack. At trial people testified they’d overheard Hogancamp tell the men he enjoyed cross-dressing.

A heartbreaking story that might have stayed within the confines of a forgotten city, like the numberless tragedies that daily occur on a thousand other cultural islands, instead broke free because of what the otherwise unremarkable city of Kingston was becoming. And because this transformation intersected with who Mark Hogancamp already was.

He had long kept diaries—dubbed “drunk journals” because they recounted self-destructive behavior that to him was “like something Stephen King wrote”—filled with accomplished drawings informed by comic book illustration. These were neither the product of a trained artist nor overtly intentional artmaking: Hogancamp is the consummate example of an outsider artist.

It was pure chance that a photographer named David Naugle then living in Kingston witnessed a curious sight. A man, frequently dressed in Army drab, used a modified pool cue to pilot a 1:6 scale model jeep filled with costumed dolls down his semi-rural neighborhood’s road. He’d walk to the local deli and back, again and again.

Hogancamp was walking in search of verisimilitude. After his release from the hospital, he embarked on a project that was more like a need. Left with a right hand that now shook too much for drawing, he went about creating a new type of world. It would only look old, meticulously detailed and appropriately weathered. He named his fictional town, set in World War II Belgium, Marwencol. Hogancamp built it in 1:6 scale beside his rented trailer using scavenged materials and peopled it with an alter ego named Hogie and other characters of Hogancamp’s acquaintance. Under his obsessive attention it grew until the realest part of his existence took place inside its miniature precincts. The world reversed. It was women (some of them Barbies) who were the fiercest avengers; Axis and Allied soldiers respected a pact to peacefully coexist. The bar at the center of town life was named the Ruined Stocking Catfight Club. A tiny sign reassured patrons the vicious fights were only staged. Hogancamp’s Marwencol was a matryoshka creation, a hall of mirrors in which personal storylines set in motion by fate were reenacted by characters of his own making. He arranged and photographed figures that appeared to build the town church as he himself was building it. Sometimes a larger figure, identically dressed as Hogie but holding a camera, arranged the smaller figures in Hogancamp’s stead. He photographed big Hogie photograping little Hogie.

The true evildoers were handily provided by history. The SS was the town’s persistent threat. Five soldiers, the number of Hogancamp’s attackers, might appear at any time. In one of the recurring narratives Hogancamp conceived, the SS rampaged through town—desperate for drink. The soldiers attacked Hogie and savagely beat him. After being saved by a cadre of invincible women, as Hogancamp himself had been (the barkeep who found him, the mother who advocated for his recovery and strong penalties for his attackers, the neighbor and colleagues at work who became objects of desire and thus reawakened an essential drive to master destiny by picturing a narrative in which his affections were requited), Hogie was left with a dashing scar over his diminutive right eye.

Alone among the denizens of Hogancamp’s imagined world, the SS were revenants. They could never be killed except by supernatural powers. Their existence speaks to the issue of creative control even as they effectively personify post-traumatic stress, the ordeal that won’t stop.

2.

After David Naugle introduced himself, Hogancamp gave him a packet of photos. They recorded moments—panels, really—of the staged action in Marwencol. If the essence of photography is its apparent capture of frozen moments, these were frozen moments of frozen moments. Everything Hogancamp did stood at a double remove from either life or its representation. His photos were pre-cinematic: film stills of a film that had yet to be made. Perhaps—or perhaps not—Hogancamp’s world was ripe for onscreen realization.

It could be that Hogancamp’s story is necessarily resistant to any effort to cinematize it. The pictures he took were the ultimate step in the creation of a self-enclosed new world through which he could comprehend, reshape, and re-present the past. Only by way of photography’s evocation of the permanent eternal was the creation sealed and complete. It would in effect be unmade if reeled backwards into action, into the recursive present that is film.

Action, along with special effects, is what Robert Zemeckis is known for. It is understandable that the director of earnest movies like Forrest Gump and Cast Away was attracted to a tale that on its surface appears about art’s ability to deliver personal salvation. By combining Mark Hogancamp’s story with animations of Marwencol that jolt the viewer with scale trickery, Welcome to Marwen ironically diminishes both. Not that it isn’t marginally fulfilling, to some degree; Steve Carrell as Hogancamp is affecting. At least when he has not been converted into plastic via motion capture. The film’s narrative, smoothed into the requisite symmetricality by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and Zemeckis, is a good one. It just isn’t about what Hogancamp has truly done: artistically transfiguring a complex, dark, and insular experience. It is about what popular movies do with others’ stories. It is, finally, about Hollywood itself.

3.

As a photographer, David Naugle knew the rawly surreal art brut the man had shown him was unprecedented. Hogancamp’s work recalled that of David Levinthal, another artist who photographed toy soldiers, but without the self-aware guile that permeates the established artist’s pictures. Naugle alerted his friend Tod Lippy, the founder and editor of the arts magazine Esopus, to Hogancamp’s work, which the magazine then featured. A show at New York’s White Columns followed, as did an excellent documentary by Jeff Malmberg in 2010 and six years later the Princeton Architectural Press publication of Welcome to Marwencol, by Hogancamp and Chris Shellen.

It is worth making explicit that Hogancamp’s project spans both the making of his fictional town and the photographing of it. They are inextricable parts of the same endeavor. How to define “art”? Let me not count the ways. Out of infinity, though, I might pull the one that seems most germane to Mark Hogancamp’s singular achievement: an object or experience predicated on its potential for consumption by someone other than its maker. He could have posed his figures and then, alone, looked at them for a time. No one would’ve known about the secret act. Instead, the artist was compelled to make an enduring record. If he hadn’t taken that ambitious step, Marwencol might have remained a doleful oddity, a self-therapy of interest mainly to its creator. Instead, with the first snap of a shutter, Hogancamp imagined into existence a viewer. In that moment, when we were invited into this made-up village with its heroic plastic denizens, we became real too. His small world joined ours, his lens the bridge between the world of the imagination and the world at large.

Hogancamp’s photos speak to the line between believability and fakery, between simulation and the surprise inherent in finding “life” inside the obviously unreal. His photos capture weather and mud, sun filtering through tree branches, drops of “blood” on actual snow: Dislocation is the subject of these works. Shallow depth of field blurs what is in the distance, making it look realer than real, because it looks familiar from a thousand posters for movies we’ve seen. (In a caption in the book, Shellen explains, “The natural environment of Kingston is incorporated into Mark’s photos, with faraway vistas looking size appropriate.”) Then there are the figures, caught in “active” poses—carrying a wounded comrade through deep muck, checking a map unfurled on the hood of a jeep, running away, taking aim, dressing wounds. They bear permanent expressions, ones molded right into their faces, their very “beings.” The viewer’s brain is required to recalibrate basic notions of motion versus permanence. What hurts the head to explain is immediately grasped by the eye: Hogancamp’s pictures represent dynamism through picturing the clearly static.

Their sense of the surreal is not limited to their method. One of the most often reproduced of his photographs is a wedding picture, bride-doll in gauzy white dress and Hogie in black suit and shiny tie. The backdrop consists of the five SS soldiers strung up by their feet. An image of wartime brutality collides with a photographic convention, love’s happy future.

In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a book about photos that contains no photos, she writes, “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” Mark Hogancamp’s past was indeed beaten into unreality. And the space of which he is insecure is the one where he still lives, the Kingston forever changed into an ominously shifting landscape.

***

In Malmberg’s documentary, the photographer Hogancamp tells the camera that has been turned on him for a change, “I built Marwencol for me—now it’s everybody’s. It’s the one last thing I don’t want taken from me.” One is reminded of those innocents who once feared cameras would steal the soul of their subjects.

In Kingston, the dark and unadorned hobby shop where Hogancamp bought many of his models has become a store that sells a “beautifully curated” selection of home goods: modernist porcelain and cooking tools. In a nod to its predecessor, the shop recently hung some Hogancamps in the window. Through fictional eyes Hogie looked out on the streets of the city that is no longer his. It is the one where he almost died and came to life, again and again.

Image credit: Unsplash/Hanny Naibaho.

The Ragged Spawn of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime

Miniatures on a Broad Canvas
At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure.

While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his “best” book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.

Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow’s fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World’s Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971).

In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book’s theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel’s serene opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel’s tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel’s success. When we learn that “Father” built this house, we assume that the man’s son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to “Grandfather” and “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother” and “the Little Boy” reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of “Father,” Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after “the family” took possession of the house, it seemed that “their” days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow.

The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel’s long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel’s signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world.

The gambit unfolds like this: “Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White’s mistress.” A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, “a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” in front of the family’s house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races.

In the course of the novel we’ll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow’s historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini’s “black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow’s mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel’s central conceit from sliding into mere schtick.

From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse
All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975.

But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist’s novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass’s violent death; in Doctorow’s novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse’s violent death.

“Kleist is a great master,” Doctorow told the interviewer. “I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction… Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn’t know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that.”

Ragtime’s Ragged Spawn
I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: “I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.” And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”

I think he’s right. Doctorow’s selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow’s strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression.

(For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.)

Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow’s way of writing novels. McCann’s early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit’s mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.” It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, “I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer’s imagination.” And then? “Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer…and then more or less ever since I’ve been hovering in this territory.”

He’s not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime’s progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal’s more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci’s Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim).

The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker’s technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick.

On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime’s worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here’s the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions:
“Miss Hickey…may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?”

The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart.

“Interesting role you’ve got,” said Susan.

“Well, look,” grinned Clift, tolerantly, “this is just a Western, you know.”

“Still,” she persevered, “the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow.”

“Hey, Howard,” whined Clift, “was Garth a real person? Is that right?”

Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. “There are no real people,” he told them. “See if they sue.”
There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks’s made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list.

The I’s Have It
This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character’s voice and enter his mind. One of this strain’s early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok).

In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb’s reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: “So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.” Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals.

The second strain is something that has come to be known as “self-insertion,” which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it’s not yet universal. I can’t imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing.

Too Much Like Work
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination now upon us, it’s worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King’s thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: “I have never tried anything like that before and I’m not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work.”

E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.

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