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British Association for American Studies


Issue 15, Autumn 2009: Article 3


Issue 15, Autumn 2009: Article 3

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 15, Autumn 2009

A Better Lie of the West: E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times

Nicholas Murgatroyd
© Nicholas Murgatroyd. All Rights Reserved

In his work Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson discusses E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and argues that:

This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only “represent” our ideas and stereotypes about that past… If there is any “realism” left here, it is a “realism” … of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself forever remains out of reach.[1]

This passage lays out starkly one of the central quandaries of the historical novel in the postmodern era: how to represent history truly when historical truth is something forever out of reach and our vision of it veiled or muddied by images accumulated over a lifetime from varied sources, ranging from films and novels to school history lessons and the toys we played with as children. If there is no historical truth available, should we despair of the whole project of the historical novel and accept that all of E.L. Doctorow’s works, with their continued focus on American history, are doomed to fail from the start? Do they have any possible purpose other than to entertain the reader?

Whether or not Jameson is correct in his assertion that the historical novel can no longer represent the historical past, in his reference to seeking History by way of our own pop images and simulacra, he effectively sums up Doctorow’s novelistic approach. There are scenes in Doctorow’s bestselling novel, Ragtime, such as Jung and Freud’s journey together through the tunnel of love, or the extended and oily massage Stanford White’s mistress Evelyn Nesbitt receives from the anarchist Emma Goldman, that may have delighted his readers by quirkily and outrageously mixing fact, fiction and an erotically-charged imagination, but these scenes are not there for titillation; rather, they are part of an ongoing novelistic project that uses pop images and simulacra to suggest that perceived truths about history, and particularly American history, may be constructs with no objective value, with no divine right to be privileged above fiction. In fact, I would argue that when Doctorow states in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, ‘What’s real and what isn’t? I used to know but I’ve forgotten. … Ragtime is a mingling of fact and invention—a novelist’s revenge on an age that celebrates non-fiction’, he is not being blasé about historical accuracy. Instead, he is responding as a writer of the Left to a historical situation where imagination and not dry historical accounts may be the best way to interrogate both history and the contemporary, postmodern world.[2] In doing so, he is attempting to raise a dissenting voice above the prevalent discourse that credulously ‘celebrates non-fiction’ without questioning the bias it may bring to bear on its own representation of history.

This project of historical dissent starts in Welcome to Hard Times, Doctorow’s first published novel. As with any writer of Doctorow’s stature, there is a certain mythology about his writing career, which Doctorow has himself added to through various interviews and essays. The mythology of the composition of Welcome to Hard Times is that Doctorow was working as a reader at Columbia Pictures, a job for which he had to read a novel a day and write a report on its suitability or otherwise for adaptation, and that he became so frustrated with reading trashy westerns in particular that he decided he could write one himself. There is essentially a Damascene moment where he realised that he ‘could lie better than the screenwriters’ he was reading.[3] The Doctorow archive suggests that this may be a slight over simplification of matters. There is at least one archive box of material he was working on before Welcome to Hard Times, marked juvenilia and strictly off limits to researchers at present, but enough sheets of that juvenilia have found their way into the folders for Welcome to Hard Times for us to know that he spent some time working on a campus novel in which at least one of the characters is determined to write the great American novel, one which would mimic Conrad and Melville by staging ‘a moral crisis under the sky’.[4]

Set on the Dakota plains and peopled by characters that cannot remember the last time they saw a tree, Welcome to Hard Times would certainly lay claim to being a ‘moral crisis under the sky’. It may also be Doctorow’s ambitious attempt to write the great American novel at his first try, for it is surely not only the accident of his day job that encouraged him to adapt a genre which is quintessentially, if not exclusively, American, the western. Narrated by Blue, whose ability to write has seen him appointed mayor of the town without a vote, the novel tells the story of the destruction, rebuilding and re-destruction of the frontier town Hard Times.

At the beginning of the novel, Clay Turner, otherwise known as the Bad Man from Bodie, arrives in town and begins to wreak havoc. ‘Bad Men from Bodie weren’t ordinary scoundrels’, Blue tells us, ‘they came with the land’.[5] They are manifestations of the vicious nature of life on the frontier, symbols of a land that resists the creep of civilisation. Within the space of 18 pages, Turner, whose name suggests a gravedigger, manages to rape and murder a prostitute, kill several townsfolk who attempt to stop him, and drive everyone else away before he sets fire to the whole town, thereby razing it to the ground. The survivors can do nothing except stand on the Dakota plain and watch their homes being destroyed. In all this time, Turner does no’t speak a single word, limited instead to communicating by grinning, (3 does this mean on three occasions?) snoring (7), hooting, and hollering (10), yelling, and whooping (10), and laughing.[6] He refuses to enter into the supposedly civilised discourse of the town, delighting in his own more visceral exclamations of emotion instead. Turner is an ironic embodiment of the creative destruction that Philip Fisher identifies as one of the cornerstones of American culture: Turner’s creativity lies in the inventiveness with which he destroys the town and its people, not in any vision he has for its replacement.[7]

The civilisation whose vestiges Turner destroys is shown in that first chapter to be inherently weak. Its inhabitants’ main focus appears to be protecting their investments from Turner. The innkeeper Avery is clearly more concerned by the fate of his store of liquor than that of his prostitutes, and Hausenfeld the undertaker complains that Fee, the first man to die, reneged on a contract to build coffins for him. Rather than brave frontier fighters, the men are eager to hide behind the women, with Avery trying to get the prostitute Molly to stab Turner, and Blue responding to a call for help by pointing out that he was never actually elected mayor. The implication is that the town Hard Times, symbol of the settlement of the West, is morally bankrupt: its ‘every man for himself’ attitude fails to save anyone.

Were the illustration of this moral bankruptcy Doctorow’s sole aim in writing this western, he could easily have stopped here. Indeed, archive material shows Doctorow’s initial intention was to leave this western as a short story entitled ‘The Bad Man from Bodie’.[8] The story follows the first chapter of the eventual novel almost word for word, and forms a coherent and well-fashioned story that bears few hallmarks of the first-time writer. What then, made Doctorow decide to go beyond the initial short story and develop it into a full novel?

It seems clear, both from the eventual novel and from archive material, that Doctorow found the scenario of rebuilding from the destroyed town perfect for staging his moral crisis under the sky. It is, in effect, a blank canvas, a stage on which he can place his characters as he slowly constructs a metaphor of the building of the American nation and examines capital’s role within it.

Following Turner’s destruction and abandonment of the town, only four of the original inhabitants resist the temptation to join the other survivors in their flight across the plain. Blue, the self-appointed mayor and narrator of the novel, adopts Jimmy Fee, the orphaned son of the town’s original founder, and they come to form an uneasy family unit with Molly, an Irish prostitute who was badly burnt in the fire and whose manipulation of the men in her determination to have revenge on the Bad Man makes her the opposite of Molly, the innocent-natured heroine of Wister’s The Virginian.

They spend their first night in the ruins of the town with John Bear, an Indian who lurks on the edges of the town. Bear is the one character who appears to understand the land which they inhabit. The first mention of him in the novel is when the Bad Man raids his garden and eats one of the onions he is growing (the Indian’s garden is the only place in Hard Times where organic life grows–everything else is brought in from elsewhere and traded), and Bear also acts as the town’s unofficial doctor. Significantly, however, John Bear is also deaf and dumb and therefore unable to communicate with the settlers–if he is representative of the land, there is a chasm of understanding between him and the settlers, and he is unable either to transmit his wisdom or to enter into the town’s discourse, just as the Bad Man, the other character who appears natural and connected to the land, does not communicate fully. As Harter and Thompson suggest in their monograph on Doctorow, these characters’ ‘silence connotes a profound mistrust of civilisation and a refusal to communicate with it’.[9]

These four characters are soon joined by Zar, a Russian brothel owner, and his four prostitutes, one of whom is Chinese, a German storekeeper, an itinerant hunter, and a Swede searching for other Swedish settlers in the hope that his wife might regain her sanity. This multinational mix is clearly a symbol of the melting pot of American immigration, and Doctorow originally planned to make it even more diverse: a synopsis, sent to publishers after only the first three chapters had been written, promises to include: Moldati, an Italian barber; railroad workers; a hostile tribe of ghost dancing Indians on the outskirts of town who refuse to retire to their reservation; a cavalry troop sent to deal with them; and a group of ‘Mormon offshoots’ who provoke ill will amongst the townspeople.[10] Even in their brief mention in the synopsis, these characters gain some form of life for the reader because, to think back to Jameson for a moment, they correspond to the pop figures and simulacra of the West that we are so familiar with through film and other representations of history.

Doctorow’s original plan, outlined in this synopsis, is for the Bad Man to return ‘with three others of his breed. They go into Zar’s saloon and begin to cut up. …The saloon becomes the stage for a wild gun battle in which the Bad Man and his buddies take on anyone and everyone’.[11]

Although elements of this nihilistic ending survive in the eventual novel, the dilution of the original cast shifts the focus of the novel from what may originally have been intended to highlight the inherent savagery of the west to something more subtle and in line with one of Doctorow’s consistent preoccupations throughout his subsequent writing career, namely the role of capital in the forging of American identity. This is a preoccupation that can be traced through Ragtime, Loon Lake, Billy Bathgate and The Waterworks, and it starts here with the arrival of Zar.

Zar arrives in town mistakenly, believing that there’s a road leading directly up to the mines above it. His first act is to barter some coffee and beef in exchange for some water from the well that Blue has commandeered after the death of its owner. As Fisher argues, ‘Bargaining reveals that a market exists’, and this initial exchange economy is soon superseded by one based on money when miners come to town on Saturday night and pay him for his drink and prostitutes.[12] Commerce has arrived. Zar’s plans to leave that day are immediately put on hold, and from this moment, everything in Hard Times becomes infused, or tainted, with the idea of money. The miners’ songs as they let off steam in Zar’s tent are of dreams of mountains of gold, and Blue becomes further implicated in this new economy when a miner entrusts him with letters and two dollars’ worth of silver in readiness for the next arrival of the stagecoach. This simple act of commerce inadvertently leads to the rebuilding of Hard Times:

He [Zar] pointed to the boy’s letter which I had put in my shirt pocket: ‘And town is gone but use for town may not be gone. Am I right?’

‘You’re right.’

‘Frand,’ he said taking a deep breath, ‘what do you smell? … You smell the coffee? You smell the horse? You smell the burn in the air?’

I nodded. ‘Ah, you have not the merchant’s nose. You know what I smell? The money!’[13] (pp54-5)

Zar is the novel’s arch-capitalist, believing that true wealth lies not in the manufacture of goods or the harvesting of the land, but in trade. He tells Blue he abandoned farming because ‘only people who sell farmers their land, their fence, their seed, their tools … only these people are rich … not miners have gold but salesmen of burros and picks and pans … not cowboys have money but saloons who sell to them their drinks, … not those who look for money but those who supply those to look’.[14] (64)

These words assume a prophetic meaning when, after a harsh winter during which the natural world threatens to wipe the town from the map, Hard Times becomes a relatively thriving centre of commerce. In addition to the saloon Zar builds, Isaac Maple, a German immigrant, sets up a store, and a brisk trade develops with the miners from the lodes above the town and other men who come to the town in search of work.

This influx of people to the town is fuelled by the false belief that the mining company has found a rich seam of gold and that a railroad will soon be built to connect the town to a stamping mill nearby. As de facto mayor, Blue finds himself the agent for various claims on the land, with plots being bought for ten-dollar pieces, thus symbolising the appropriation of the west by capital. The stagecoach company gives Blue ledgers in which to record orders, and it is in these that he eventually writes the story of the town, claiming there is enough paper to write the Bible. This act of recording is highlighted by Doctorow’s decision to divide the novel not into three books, but into three ledgers. Thus with no epigraph, the first words we encounter in the novel are ‘First ledger’, thereby giving a dual meaning to the notion of an account of the West. Capital is implicated even in the telling of it.

Indeed, capital becomes such a pervasive element in this new American town that the one act that Blue inscribes in the ledgers that is connected to neither property nor an order for the stage still has a transaction at its heart. Bert, one of the miners, falls in love with the Chinese prostitute, but Blue can only conduct their marriage ceremony after Bert has bought Zar another prostitute to replace her. In what is perhaps the novel’s only humorous moment, Bert fulfils his part of the bargain by leaving town and returning with an aged, toothless crone to be his wife’s replacement. It seems that nothing from love to land can be inscribed in the ledgers, and therefore the story, without capital and the market somehow being implicated.

However, this initial state of fragile prosperity does not last. An underbelly of violence begins to develop in the town as itinerant workers become restless without the materialisation of the expected employment opportunities, and therefore find themselves excluded from the increasingly money-dominated society. In an attempt to prevent violence between the men, Blue gives several of them paid commissions for errands such as bringing cattle to the town, and temporarily suspends charging people for water from his well until the mine and/or railroad takes on workers. This latter decision enrages Zar, who has been planning to drill his own well and charge for the water–the arch-capitalist simply cannot comprehend the idea of giving away something for free, and he accuses Blue of being sick.[15] (176)

Yet Blue’s magnanimous act is a key moment in the novel’s relation to capital. While Blue has been a keythe driving force behind – repetition. Maybe pivotal? figure in the re-emergence of the town, not above bending the truth to attract first Zar and then Isaac Maple as fellow settlers, his attitude towards the market economy within it has always been more ambiguous. While he doubtlessly prospers from his role as the stagecoach’s agent, his main concern seems not to be the pursuit of profit, but merely the maintenance of the stagecoach’s regular route to Hard Times. As long as these visits continue, the town remains a destination, and ‘Blue’s dream of creating the facsimile of a frontier civilization’ survives.[16] He does not invest money in material comfort, preferring instead to continue in his dugout shelter reminiscent of Thoreau’s in Walden, nor, despite Molly’s pleas, does he aim to use the money to leave Hard Times in search of a better place to live. In fact, Blue hoards money like a miser only to reveal himself as a spendthrift in this final act of magnanimity. Walter Benn Michaels argues that a spendthrift ‘tries to buy his way out of the money economy. If the miser is always exchanging his money for itself, the spendthrift tries to exchange his for nothing and so, by staging the disappearance of money’s purchasing power, to stage the disappearance of money itself’.[17] In his decision to donate money to projects that he knows are based on either wild hopes or outright lies, Blue may be attempting to stage the disappearance of money, hoping to save the town by rejecting the importance that capital has come to have within it. His actions prove, however, as worthless as the projects he invests in. The Bad Man’s return shortly after Blue’s generous act may give the story a neatly circular ending that reflects Doctorow’s interest in history as an embodiment of the Nietzschean idea of eternal return, as well as a chance for Molly’s savage revenge to be acted out, but in actual fact the Bad Man wanders into a town that has already begun rioting and disintegrating.

The catalyst for this riot is the arrival of a letter from the mining company that confirms there is nothing worth excavating from the mine above the town. The sight of the miners abandoning the lodes is enough to throw the town below into chaos, its inhabitants literally wreaking havoc, suggesting that the violence embodied by the Bad Man at the beginning of the novel is in fact inherent in society itself. The mine, always the main raison d’être of Hard Times as a town, is shown to be a literally empty symbol, with the mine’s foreman assuring Blue that the ‘mountain is picked so hollow, why it’s holey as honeycomb’.[18](193) The miners’ failure to find gold ensures the railroad will never come to Hard Times, permanently excluding it from the capitalist discourse of the United States. This disconnection is immediate: when the stagecoach comes and its driver sees the riot in progress, he swiftly turns around and retreats to the safety of the plain. The town is a non-destination, its citizens foreshadowing what Jameson sees as the postmodernist dilemma of trying to locate oneself in the ‘bewildering new world space of late or multinational capital’.[19] With or without the riot and the Bad Man, it is fated to become one of the ghost towns that Fisher argues are an integral ‘part of what might be called the bargain of invention’ because of the failure of the mine.[20]

Through Blue, Doctorow implies that the mine should be seen as a symbol for the empty promises of the West, by which I mean both the American West and the West in general:

Like the West, like my life: The color dazzles us, but when it’s too late we see what a fraud it is, what a poor pinched-out claim.[21] (183)

The West has already been plundered. It is a world of empty signs that promise meaning but deliver none, like Tomorrowland, Disneyland’s already dated vision of the future that the senile Mindish rides around at the end of Doctorow’s later novel The Book of Daniel. Disneyland is a place where the embittered narrator Daniel presages Baudrillard’s essay on Disneyworld by seeing that ‘what is being offered … is only a sentimental compression of something that is itself already a lie’.[22] Yet while Daniel’s final confrontation with the empty simulacra of America may be something of a shock in that novel, in Welcome to Hard Times, this final revelation of the emptiness of the sign of the town’s prosperity should not surprise the reader, because the mine is only the final failed sign in a book filled with signifiers that are either empty, misinterpreted or have their communication disrupted.

When Molly cries out for a crucifix when Blue finds her in the smouldering ruins of the town’s original tavern, it is not because of the religious faith Blue first suspects but because it was a gift from her benefactor and the one thing of any value she has left. The wedding dress she later wears is gained through a misunderstanding, and its symbolic function never realised. Blue later sees Molly and Jimmy laying flowers at Jimmy’s father’s grave, but Blue knows by the order of the headstones that they are tending the wrong grave. Isaac Maple the storekeeper comes to Hard Times in search of his brother, the original storekeeper, and only stays because Blue persuades him that he has more chance of finding his brother, Ezra, if he remains in Hard Times and lets word of his own whereabouts spread. Blue never tells Isaac that the letter he wrote to his brother informing him of his impending arrival arrived on the same stage that brought Isaac, the message delayed and its meaning useless. When the town grows more populous, Blue notes that every newcomer soon learns they can get free credit from Isaac simply by lying about having encountered Ezra out in the west.

This wilful misguiding of Isaac is part of what could be seen as the wider thesis of the book, the implication that the most misleading sign of all is perhaps not capital, which can at least sometimes be exchanged for physical goods or services, but language. Blue is the first of Doctorow’s figures who actively narrate the narration of the book, which he is supposedly writing while dying, but the more he writes, the more he suspects that his words are not to be trusted:

I’m trying to put down what happened but the closer I’ve come in time the less clear I am in my mind. I’m losing my blood to this rag, but more, I have the cold feeling everything I’ve written doesn’t tell how it was, no matter how careful I’ve been to get it all down.[23](199)

Yet this distrust of language, particularly in its relation to history, is ambivalent, because apart from some charred timbers, the one thing that survives of the town after the Bad Man’s second visit is the sign erected at the highpoint of the town’s prosperity:

And on a dazzling morning Swede raised up the sign over the street. From the scaffold of the well it stretched all the way across to the false front of Zar’s saloon: WELCOME TO HARD TIMES.[24] (148)

The story inscribed in the ledgers, told in words/signs that may not transmit the original signified, and the eponymous sign are all that remain of this history, the truth unknowable.

This brings us back to the Jameson quote with which this essay started, and also to Doctorow’s willingness to mix fact and fiction. The characters in Welcome to Hard Times, from the prostitutes to the sage Indian, are so archetypal and, at times, one-dimensional, that one could be forgiven for thinking that Doctorow had purloined them from the dime novels he was reading. However, to see that as a negative is perhaps to miss the point. Doctorow, as a writer of the American Left, has consistently been mistrustful of received history and the way it is shaped by the ruling classes to the detriment of other discourses, and suggests that this history is little more than a simulacra, a copy of something that never existed.

Rather than trying to give a definitive alternative account of life of the West, he embraces this use of simulacra and pop images of our history, but shows them in a different light and encourages us to view them through an alternative lens. While this may be part of a wider project to show that all history is made up at least partly of received myths, which makes all history, for want of a better word, a lie, Welcome to Hard Times is the first instalment in a novelistic career that suggests that if we can never ascertain the truth about our past, we can, through fiction, at least aim to tell a better lie.

University of Manchester



[1] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (New York: Verso, 1991), p. 25.

[2] Publisher’s Weekly 207 (30 June 1975), collected in Christopher D. Morris (ed), Conversations with E.L. Doctorow (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999), p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p. xiii.

[4] Loose sheet from draft of unidentified novel; E.L. Doctorow Papers, MSS 2A; Box 23; Folder 002; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

[5] E.L. Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times (New York: Plume, 1996), p. 7. Subsequent references to this edition are included within the body of the text.

[6] Ibid., pp. 3-13.

[7] Philip Fisher, Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 1-5.

[8] ‘The Bad Man from Bodie’; E.L. Doctorow Papers, MSS 2A; Box 23; Folder 001; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

[9] Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson, E.L. Doctorow (Boston: Twayne Press, 1990), p. 21.

[10] Outline, p. 2; E.L. Doctorow Papers, MSS 2A; Box 23; Folder 003; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

[11] Ibid., p. 3.

[12] Fisher, Still the New World, p. 15.

[13] Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times, pp. 54-5.

[14] Ibid., p. 64.

[15] Ibid., p. 176.

[16] Harter and Thompson, E.L. Doctorow, p. 16.

[17] Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 144.

[18] Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times, p. 193.

[19] Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 7.

[20] Fisher, Still the New World, p. 3.

[21] Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times, p. 183

[22] E.L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel (London: Picador, 1982), p. 295.

[23] Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times, p. 199

[24] Ibid., p. 148.