ROGER ROSENBLATT: At a celebration of E.L. Doctorow recently by the Kenyon Review, mention was made of Doctorow's "body of work." Interesting phrase, "body of work." Unlike the body you were born with, this one is put together by oneself, part by body part, over the long years -- elbows, eardrums, eye sockets, torsos, anklebones -- of work. Inevitably, some parts will work better than others. But with a first-class writer one is aware that one is in the presence of something significant -- indeed, indispensable -- some body.
So it has been with Edgar Doctorow, whose body of work is composed of such features as Welcome to Hard Times, Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World's Fair, The Book of Daniel, The Waterworks, City of God.
X-ray that body, and thrill at an entire world revealed, consisting of the monologues of Victenstein and Einstein, exploding horses, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Hindenburg, Looms, wild dogs on the attack, Dutch Shultz rooms with Stanford White. Gun fights in the streets. All these parts sprung from a single head in a variety of moods. In a way, the body of work is a body of moods. So we take in the body of work of, say, Robin Williams, whose talent leaps from one mood to its opposite number.
ROBIN WILLIAM: Now racism -- I'm going honey you have to pick a race first. Michael is talking about racism.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: While Williams was touring the country in a kind of desperate reprise of the comic stand-ups of robin the younger, his other mood was producing a brilliant performance on the movie screen, of the brooding, lonely figure in "One Hour Photo." When Williams' body of work is finally glued together, one wonders how Garp will marry Mrs. Doubtfire. But one trusts it will work out.
The magic about a body of work is that its DNA can be erratic: A forehead from one place, a big toe from another. Yet the creature is recognizable, nonetheless, from head to toe. Mark Twain's mood swings produced tom sawyer, the confidence boy; and the confidence man, the devil himself. One may catch Louis Armstrong claiming that he "ain't misbehavin'" and wailing in the sorrow of "black and blue."
Frank Lloyd Wright, Cole Porter, Michael Jordan, Vermeer, Shakespeare himself. A body of work from a body of moods, and a body of ups and downs. It didn't matter if these people were in a slump from time to time, or if, after a time, they lost it altogether. There was still time enough to produce a body of work -- the failures, the depressions, all miraculously absorbed, ennobled even, and made beautiful by the outnumbering triumphs, the flashes of ecstasy.
For us lesser lights, this is all mildly heartening. The body of work. Everyone has one -- carpenter, parent, doctor, friend. Somehow, everybody pulls himself together. Of course, the higher the wire act, the more conspicuous the day of judgment. But it isn't done for judgment. It's the work that matters only. Only the work, piece by piece, day by surprising day, when one awakens full of hope and vinegar and produces a colossal dud, and when one awakens cloaked in gloom and produces the masterpiece of a lifetime. Part by body part. A body of work, like a benign Frankenstein monster, an angelic Frankenstein Monster who stands on his own after a while, and all the world exclaims,
SPOKESMAN: "it's alive!"
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm Roger Rosenblatt.