A Book Borrowed From History


Ethel and Julius Rosenberg have the distinction of being the only Americans to have been convicted of espionage, for allegedly passing atomic secrets to Russia. After two years of detention they were electrocuted at Sing Sing in 1953, leaving behind two sons aged 10 and six. E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel picks up in 1967 from the point of view of Daniel, a fictionalized rendering of the Rosenbergs' elder son. Daniel, a grad student at Columbia, cannot decide on a thesis topic. His sister's attempted suicide—on Memorial Day, no less—spurs him to choose a dissertation on his parents' lives and deaths. Without skimping on dram, plot or character, Doctorow uses Daniel's scholarship to transcend fiction; The Book of Daniel is as much a novel as it is a historically sound observation of 1960s culture and the changing nature of the Jewish-American mind.

Initially, it's the meticulousness of Daniel's (Doctorow's) search of primary- and secondary-source material that lends the book its sense of historical authenticity. These include treatises on the cold war; memos and other ephemera from the trial; his parents' letters; notes to himself and the reader; and encyclopedic discussions of executions. Oral histories are another component; Daniel interviews an aunt who briefly cared for him and his sister after his parents' arrest; solicits the professional opinion of the trial from his adoptive father, a professor of law; and ultimately tracks down the family friend who turned his parents into the FBI. He is so thorough and unflinching in his search that he even turns his eye on the moments of his parents' deaths: "I suppose you think I can't do the electrocution…. I will show you that I can." And he does, down to the multiple flips of the switch it takes to kill his mother—a horrifying detail lifted directly from real events, for the electric chair did not kill Ethel Rosenberg in one go.

Padding these encounters are Daniel's own thoughts and memories. Although they are the most fictive, or invented, aspect of the book—and, at a historical level, would be the least trustworthy source—they give credence to the rest of the story. In part that's because so often Daniel casts himself in doubt: "Probably none of this is true. There's a lot more I can't remember." Admitting his fallibility makes the reader trust him the more. It doesn't hurt that his identity, and seemingly his own life, depends on his search for truth. He is the sum of his quest.

But it's the novel's cultural and physical settings, included under the guise of Daniel's "research," that make it possible to read The Book of Daniel as a historical text. We follow Daniel around the East Village, to the 1967 march on the Pentagon and eavesdrop on his conversations with Artie Sternlicht, an activist modeled on Jerry Rubin. It seems that Doctorow set down these descriptions more or less as they were happening, and it's no accident that they read more as journalistic notes than novelistic interpretations, for that's essentially what they are. Of course, one can argue that the value of this material is diminished for being filtered through a damaged person's (Daniel's) mind. But how many people can you think of at the frontlines of the '60s and '70s (Vietnam vets, civil-rights workers, Black Panthers, the SDS) who made it through unscathed?

Moreover, Daniel (born 1946) represents the story of so many American Jews—something his parents' extraordinary experiences make it easy to overlook. He bears the immigrant heritage of his family, the sting of institutionalized anti-Semitism, and a sense of alienation from both the Old and New Worlds. His grandmother fled the "Czarist maniacs who would not let us live" to work "sixteen hours a day for pennies" on the Lower East Side and lost two sisters to the Triangle Fire. Before their arrest his working-class parents were poor and subject, in a sense, to the humiliations of those who are not truly American or entirely free. Daniel is the first in his family to experience the boundlessness of American freedom. Complicating matters, however, is that the New Country hasn't turned out so great, both personally for the Isaacsons (Rosenbergs) and at a macro, political level. "America when will we end the human war?" Ginsberg asks in the book's epitaph. "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb."

The Jewish cultural moment in Book of Daniel is also represented by the Isaacsons' Jewish-communist community. Early on, the Isaacsons and their friends hire a school bus to travel to see Paul Robeson perform. Daniel is allowed to go although his mother is concerned for his safety. But Robeson performs in peace, the audience testifying "by their presence Robeson's right to sing and their right to listen."

On the way home, protesters attack the bus. "Flying in with the rocks, like notes tied to them with string, the words kike, commie bastard, jew commie, red." Windows break, the bus doesn't move, and protesters threaten to turn it over. Daniel's father attempts to attract the attention of a police officer. He hands his glasses to Selig Mindish—a friend who will later turn him in to the FBI—and steps outside. His arm is broken, his face lacerated, teeth knocked out. The moment reveals aspects of Paul's character that will come to bear later: his moral outrage, his courage in the face of real violence. But the 21st-century reader sees in this another element, which is the Jewish-American identification with the oppressed and the widespread perception of Jew as outsider. To a large extent among Jews today, that passion and taste for risk has evaporated. And that transformation is transposed upon so much Middle-East discourse: we are the aggressors, agitators, bullies. We once were weak but now are strong. The empathic moment in Jewish history—identification with the Other—is past. The Lower East Side is a hipster enclave with a tenement museum, and we have pulled ourselves into the respectable, middle- and upper-class reaches of the American mind, perhaps leaving behind our moral barometers along the way.

The '60s and '70s were a good time for literature as history; in '68 Norman Mailer coined the phrase "novel as history, history as novel," which ran as the subhead of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Armies of the Night. (It's worth noting, though, that the habit of fiction writers who "borrow" from historical events has been going strong since Melville, whose Moby-Dick germinated, in part, from a newspaper story about an elusive white whale.) Today publishers call the form "historical fiction," a neat package term that sounds vaguely Victorian, guaranteed not to hurt anyone's feelings. (Think Mrs. Havisham's wedding dress dry-cleaned and sheathed in plastic.) But a good novel as history cuts a wider and less comfortable swath. That's because novelists, like historians, are naturally drawn to ugly and awkward moments of human existence. Eras of unpleasantness are often ripe with drama and change, providing writers on either side of the aisle opportunities to uncover the unknown and unseen. The discomforting truths they reveal are vital to understanding who we are and where we're from.