The Young Gangster as Mythic American Hero: E.L. Doctorow's 'Billy Bathgate.' (Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)

Article excerpt

Among the creative principles held by E.L. Doctorow are the notion that "history lives in people as imagery" (Ruas 200), and the idea of "using disreputable materials and doing something serious with them" (McCaffery 36). In Billy Bathgate (1989), he has turned to the image of gangsters as a usable past to compose a fantasized history of the 1930s. As critics have often remarked, lawlessness, especially when it is associated with rugged individualism, has always appealed to the American imagination, but the attraction of the gangsters in the early 1930s was phenomenal because of the distressed economic conditions of the time.

Doctorow's recent novelistic rendition of the lawless era can be placed in the line of Jewish-American fiction exemplified by such works as Daniel Fuchs's Low Company (1937) and Meyer Levin's The Old Bunch (1937), which has given expression to one aspect of immigrant life: "crime was one traditional route out of the ghetto" (Guttmann 41). What is remarkable about Billy Bathgate, however, is its basic scheme of blending fiction and historical fact. Doctorow has set the story in the year 1935--the year in which New York Attorney-General Thomas Dewey brought rigorous indictments against racketeers (Gordon 153)--and against this historical background, he has conjured up an adolescent apprentice to Arthur Flegenheimer, alias Dutch Shultz, making the boy the big-time gangster's spiritual son. The result is the gripping historical fantasy of a young American hero's perilous journey fabulously patterned after the mythic hero's archetypal journey discussed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The following essay is an attempt to read Doctorow's gangster novel as Bildungsroman and, simultaneously, to illuminate his view of the streak of lawlessness in the American consciousness.


According to the author, the idea of Billy Bathgate has its origin in a peculiar image lurking in his imagination--"men in tuxedoes on a tugboat" (Freitag 46). The opening chapter, evidently evolving out of this original image, introduces an episode of a ritual murder in New York Harbor as epitome of the young hero's initiation journey into the dark unknown world. The rolling sea water in the dead of night, which gives the tenement boy from the Bronx an alienating sensation of riding on "a beast of another planet" (6), adds a mythic quality to the episode and turns it into a symbolic confrontation with a monstrous father-figure. Billy experiences the cruelty of Dutch Shultz, his idolized gangster role-model, and the exasperated despair of Bo Weinberg, a loyal gunman, who is unfairly condemned to death for double-crossing. Billy as narrator confesses, "My witness was my own personal ordeal" (9, emphasis added). Moreover, Drew Preston, Bo's lover, who has been abducted from a party along with him,(1) is also portrayed here as a mythic figure. The beautiful but depraved society woman, characterized by her blond hair and her white neck and shoulders, is brought up to the cabin "as if she was rising from the ocean" (15). This image prefigures her role in Billy's adventure: an Aphrodite, a goddess of love and fertility, as well as a siren, a dangerous temptress.

In the second chapter, the narrative shifts back to the very first stage of Billy's adventure and begins the story again in a comic mode. Billy's early history of abandonment by his Jewish immigrant father not only mirrors the life of the historical Dutch Shultz but also makes him a comic orphan figure, like Huck Finn or Augie March, who lights out for a lawless realm. Mark Twain's novel, narrated in a rustic boy's unpretentious voice, presumably soon after the great adventure, recaptures both the pastoral dream and harsh reality of the antebellum South. Saul Bellows Bildungsroman, on the other hand, is told in highly intellectual, allusive language, years after the main events, and represents the realistic and the idealistic adventures of a modern urban hero over a long period of time. …


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