Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Apocryphal Trauma in E.L. Doctorow's the Book of Daniel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Apocryphal Trauma in E.L. Doctorow's the Book of Daniel

Article excerpt

   They are changing our names in the sky,
   making their own insidious designs.
   I am one man with just the normal equipment,
   saying No, offering little essays to the wind.
   They are removing the vowels now.
   They are erasing the beginning and the end.

--Stephen Dunn, "The Bad Angels"

Published in a time of bitter political upheaval, E.L. Doctorow's 1971 The Book of Daniel is a novel about the formation of communal narratives and their traumatic implications. A historiographic metafictional tale of the 1951 Rosenberg trial and subsequent execution in 1953, Doctorow's story of the Isaacsons is told from the perspective of their surviving child Daniel. On the surface, Daniel's first person retrospective narrative of his parents' ordeal seems like the traumatic repetition of what Cathy Caruth would call an "unclaimed experience" through a literal/literary mimetic performance. (1) Indeed much of the current criticism of the novel assumes the primacy of the parent-child relationship and, in turn, seizes the opportunity to discuss the significance of the Rosenberg trial (see Detweiler, Levine, Morgenstern, Pepper, and Tokarczyk). But this reading is complicated in that it is Susan's suicide attempt, not the death of his parents, that is the direct impetus for Daniel's cathartic narrative. While the historical occasion of the Rosenbergas-Isaacson execution is critical, its significance has obscured the more subtle trauma relations at stake in the novel and led to a misdiagnosis of Daniel's trauma.

Such a misdiagnosis has the potential to repeat the traumatic moment. In her discussion of law and trauma in the second half of the twentieth century, Shoshana Felman identifies the private and the collective as the two structural poles of trauma trials. While there is a possibility that trials can create a positive "collective tale of mourning" or "sacred narrative" (129), the reverse can happen as well where a trial subordinates the private trauma to the collective, erasing the victims' narrative in favor of a "lesson" (77). The historical Rosenberg affair certainly bears the marks of the latter, as Leslie Fiedler suggests that the Rosenbergs "became, despite themselves and their official defenders, symbols of the conflict between the human and the political, the individual and the state" (33). What was first an espionage trial quickly became a battleground for the conflicting collective responses to the Cold War: the threat of communism, treason, and nuclear holocaust on the one hand and calls of anti-Semitism, the communist witch-hunt's violation of civil liberties, and the fairness of the legal system on the other. Doctorow's novel makes a similar move for the Isaacsons. Daniel writes that "it is clear that although [his parents Rochelle] and Paul will be found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, it is for the crime of treason they will be sentenced" (201-2). In other words, they will be punished for a perceived crime, not the crime of which they were convicted.

In part, then, Daniel's narrative is a recovery of the memory of his parents' execution from the community's distortions imputed in the Isaacson verdict. But such a reading oversimplifies the recovery process, refusing to take into account the removed and reactive nature of Daniel's investigation into his parents' lives and deaths. Pulled clear of the oppressive collective tale, we can glimpse Daniel's initial narrative impetus for what it truly is: an effort to negotiate not the 1953 trauma of his parents' execution but the 1967 suicide attempt of his sister. In this reclamation we find that beneath Daniel's narrative is the fatally unspoken story of his sister. Susan's trauma bears witness not just to her parents' execution but a broader collective narrative that has overwritten, contained, and re-performed this execution, silencing her traumatic recovery. Perhaps more devastating for Susan is Daniel's complicity in this silencing, a realization that threatens Daniel's own traumatic recovery from Susan's suicide attempt. …

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