Behind The White Suit

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Every successful musician sooner or later makes an album of standards, the familiar pieces he or she has loved and learned from over the years. Writers, too, love paying homage to their forebears, as can be seen from a pair of recent books: Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney , by Paul Johnson (HarperCollins, 320 pages, $25.95), and Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993–2006 , by E. L. Doctorow (Random House, 192 pages, $24.95).

Johnson is a British journalist and critic, best known for sweeping historical works such as Modern Times and Intellectuals . Doctorow is an American novelist, the author of Ragtime , Billy Bathgate , and, most recently, The March , about William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 march to the sea. In politics, Johnson generally sympathizes with the right, while Doctorow is a committed leftist. Unsurprisingly, they take disparate approaches in their books, with Johnson’s longish articles minutely examining the subjects’ craftsmanship and personal histories, while Doctorow’s briefer essays are more concerned with philosophy, psychology, politics, and morals.

This contrast may be seen in their divergent treatments of the only person covered in both books, Mark Twain. Johnson spends much time comparing Twain’s writing with his lecture performances and praising his creative recycling of material and his astute management of the business side of literature. He goes wild over Huckleberry Finn , attributing to that one novel “such institutions as Disney , Time magazine, Reader’s Digest , [and] the New Yorker ,” as well as “all of James Thurber’s work,” the Marx Brothers, Raymond Chandler, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

Doctorow delves into the creative tension behind the writing of Tom Sawyer , teases out the novel’s moral subtexts, and places it in the context of myths from various cultures. He is theoretical where Johnson is practical, seeing the character of Huckleberry Finn not merely as a vehicle for Twain’s ample stock of anecdotes, dialect, and local color but as “a true outsider, the real unrepentant thing, a boy who would never conform.” Johnson calls Huckleberry Finn “the basic fact of American literature”; Doctorow admires its moral spirit but thinks that “something terrible happens … for American literature” when the action shifts away from the river and the antislavery theme is downplayed.

This same pattern recurs throughout the rest of both collections. Johnson presents a historical march of geniuses and master artisans and shows them at the writing desk or in the studio, creating things whose beauty and originality have become part of a great Western tradition. Doctorow gives us a series of rebels and reformers, mostly American (Poe, Melville, Hemingway, Harpo Marx), who dream of new and better worlds even as they struggle with disillusionment and self-doubt. It is a measure of Twain’s achievement that he can garner effusive praise even when considered from these two very different standpoints, showing that true greatness cannot be confined in a box—or, perhaps, that it can be made to fit in any box you want.