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America was Never Innocent: James Ellroy as Historian

October 15, 2018

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

“Our most uncompromising historian…”  This is how I described James Ellroy in my introduction to the Demon Dog’s brief 9/11 meditation “The Power of Witness” (originally published in the November, 2001 edition of GQ magazine), which I posted on the Facebook Ellroy Discussion page on the seventeenth anniversary of that fateful Tuesday.  Ellroy’s 9/11 piece is still today, as I put it in the introduction, a sobering gut punch to anyone hopped up on the fatuous fantasies of mass market nostalgia.

Any reader of the Demon Dog’s 2001 GQ feature will be instantly reminded of Ellroy’s searing one page introduction to American Tabloid (a history lesson in itself that I believe should be required reading for every American citizen), particularly that introduction’s timeless warning: “America was never innocent.”  Such a blunt and fearless proclamation is certainly echoed in “The Power of Witness”:  “We work well with blinders on.  We’re doing that now,” Ellroy wrote in one particularly jabbing paragraph in his GQ piece.  “We’re overlooking the U.S. bombs that have killed kids and women.  We’re eschewing the knowledge of how we’ve plundered for oil.  We’re denying that our misdeeds have served to make hatred cohere.”  Ellroy’s terse 9/11 meditation, delivered while the fires and molten steel at Ground Zero still burned, is thus a lone solid red flag frantically waving amid a sea of red white and blue that was conspicuously absent on September 10th.

So is James Ellroy an historian?

A classic definition of an historian is someone who researches, analyzes, records and interprets the past as recorded in a broad range of sources including government and institutional records, newspapers, photographs, interviews, films and even unpublished material like personal diaries, letters or other internal memorandum. This exhaustive list should easily remind any devoted Ellroy reader of a common feature in the Demon Dog’s novels: the often similarly amassed obsessive hoards, privately maintained, and hidden from public scrutiny by detectives driven mad by an investigation-turned-obsession spiralling out of control.

dark ellroy america 4

Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race. The Demon Dog spoke about this process in a 2014 interview with Evan Smith.  “I’m a yearner,” Ellroy said.  “…Why do people do what they do? … What is America’s destiny?…”

Ellroy is particularly concerned—obsessed even—with tracing the origin of misdeeds, convinced that the forerunners of a ghastly crime can be glimpsed by examining someone’s shattered upbringing. Ellroy mentions this obsession in his 9/11 meditation:  “Track the lives of the […] perpetrators.  You’ll find the traumatic childhoods that spawn hatred.  You’ll find a range of incident and circumstance that explicates but never justifies.”  Even with his mother’s killer, Ellroy has publicly said he would like to trace the roots of the killer back to infancy to learn why the man murdered his mother…  This is without question the action of an historian.

Ellroy actually personifies an historian in Blood’s A Rover’s window-peeping narrator Don Crutchfield, who amasses a range of historical sources like those mentioned earlier.  Crutchfield calls himself “a literary executor and an agent provocatuer,” but stops just short of the H word, all while Crutch’s actions more than spell it out.  This is a demonstration of integrity both on the part of Crutch (who is based on the real life celebrity private investigator Don Crutchfield) and even Ellroy himself:  After giving us endless fictional examples of disingenuous duplicity in his books, it’s refreshing to see Ellroy produce a character who embodies his occupation so completely and consciously, that he’s too busy to tell you he’s an historian.  The same could be said for James Ellroy.

In chapter 69 of Perfidia, Kay Lake delivers a speech that serves unwittingly as a primer for the chaotic thirty-one-year storyline to come…  No spoilers here, but Kay’s speech outlines Ellroy’s philosophy of history, and even includes a line that should make any reader of Blood’s A Rover sit up in their chair.  On a deeper level, you could even call Kay’s speech a companion to Ellroy’s American Tabloid introduction, describing even more deeply an America sculpted by violence, and yet rising to a momentous occasion as it steps into its greatness.  This is Ellroy’s morality on clear display, and could even be called Ellrovian Social Activism.  Kay’s speech foreshadows the lessons of Blood’s A Rover, most notably that the future—no matter how bleak it may seem—is uncertain, and the choice is entirely yours.

Ellroy would spell out his unique philosophy of history more completely in the essay, appropriately titled “Ellroy’s History—Then and Now” which concluded the limited edition hardcover Waterstones edition of Perfidia.

The essay begins with a quote from Ross Macdonald, whom Ellroy has called one of his greatest teachers.  “In the end, I possess my birthplace, and am possessed by its language.”  Readers of the L.A. Quartet will recall that Ellroy began that body of work’s concluding volume, White Jazz, with this same Macdonald quote.  It foreshadows a piece of wisdom Ellroy would make his own many years later:  “Geography is destiny.”

Across a succinct 4,000 words, Ellroy unfurls a layered narrative of his ascension as an historical novelist, ultimately giving us—in panoramic technicolor—the grand sweep of history… at least the past 72 years of history.   This is something many novelists spend entire careers trying to achieve (most fail).  If you think 4,000 words is hardly succinct, then I urge you to juxtapose Ellroy’s Waterstones history lesson against the bloated, tediously over-descripted historical fiction of James Michener, among others.

Here’s a sample passage:

“Hitler murdered Jews in Germany while American demagogues raged that Jews engineered the war.  Anti-communist Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with anti-fascist Joe Stalin and invaded Russia anyway.  American Leftists hated Hitler and forgave Uncle Joe for his temporary lapse in good taste.  They dutifully ignored Stalin’s agrarian purges that left millions dead.  The Left hates the Right.  The Chinese hate the Japanese.  The Irish hate the English and vice versa.  The German Lutheran-Catholic rift dates back to the Reformation and the Thirty Years War.  Right wing nuts hold that the Jews invented Communism and Wall Street.  Fascist Spaniards hate Loyalist Spaniards.  Left wing eugenicists want to build strong human beings to fight the fascist beast.  Fascist eugenicists want to build a master race.  The Nazi Health Ministry offers breeding bonuses to good looking Aryan Women. 

Welcome to the world wide web, 1941.  That’s the way it was Then.  Don’t tell me that we’ve got it bad Now.”

As a forerunner to this grand sweep, I was reminded of several chapters from the second volume of Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand.  These chapters are often consumed by vertical lists of newspaper headlines from all over the U.S., illuminating portions of the story the characters cannot in a literary technique known as false document, with some lists continuing for nearly five pages.

“History was my birthright,” Ellroy writes in the Waterstones essay.  “I […] lived in books and films depicting the swirl of time before my time.”  As Ellroy goes on to explain, the future Demon Dog learned about ubiquitous duplicity and expedience early in life: “Adults lied to kids and engaged assignations.  Lies mean that something else really happened.  What really happened? I’ll never know.  I’ll have to concoct a story to make it all plausible and sexy.”

… Or, in the case of mass market consumption, uncomplicated, and compressed into a threadbare (and fatuously expedient) narrative.

From the second paragraph of Ellroy’s second novel Clandestine, the book’s narrator and protagonist, Fred Underhill cautions us against the implicit dangers of such willfully blind indifference in a warning that foreshadows his creator’s incendiary introduction to American Tabloid some 13 years later:  “nostalgia vicitimizes the unknowing by instilling in them a desire for simplicity and innocence they can never achieve.”

Such disingenuous re-writing of history is also something recently referenced by Ellroy scholar Nathan Ashman, who astutely observed that the plastic surgery motif in Ellroy’s novels is an obvious nod toward concealing the ugly scars of past abuse; just as fatuously grand ideologies like “liberty” and “democracy” and an overall false historical narrative hide the actual bloodshed, misery, abuse, exploitation, and conspiracy that fueled progress.

“Someone always survives to tell you the story and what it all means.  That’s my job.”  Ellroy concludes a few paragraphs in his Waterstones essay about the Underworld USA’s concluding volume Blood’s A Rover here with this hallowed assignation.  I said something similar to Ellroy last year during one of our many conversations at his Denver film series.  I remarked to Ellroy how readers should think of Don Crutchfield as an Ellrovian Ishmael. Like Herman Melville’s sole survivor, the traumatized Crutchfield is saddled with the burden of having to tell the tale, and, as Grant Nebel has observed, accept and condone history’s legacy, a permanent bloodstain that steals your innocence…This is the “dear and savage price to live history” Crutch mentions at Rover’s end.

Stephen King once wrote that “fiction is the truth inside the lie,” implying that fiction is not bound by the obligatory strictures of non-fiction, and can thus, ironically, expose the brutal truth of the matter with built-in impunity.  I witnessed this very process earlier this year during Noir City Denver, when Ellroy and Eddie Muller were discussing the salacious lives of 1950s Hollywood stars.  In deference to his journalistic roots, Eddie told us he always sought multiple sources of verification for every bit of tattle he ever learned, in rather sharp contrast to Ellroy.  “James is a novelist; he can say whatever he wants.”


Jason Carter


** I formally call upon William Heinemann, Alfred A Knopf, and/or the Waterstones bookstore to launch a mass-market reprint of the Waterstones Edition of Perfidia, and/or include Ellroy’s Then & Now essay in a future printing of Perfidia.  The essay is one of Ellroy’s finest works, and deserves an unlimited worldwide release.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. wallflower permalink
    October 19, 2018 9:09 pm

    Thanks for the shout-out, and a damn good essay too. What Ellroy does, through the sheer force of his writing, is an act of witnessing that compels us to be witnesses too. Another favorite writer of mine, Michael Herr, wrote that “you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did”; Ellroy’s witnessing makes us part of the legacy of history, and that always costs you your innocence. I can live with that trade.

    –Grant Nebel (“wallflower”)

    • Jason Carter permalink
      October 20, 2018 12:56 pm

      Thank you Grant! I absolutely LOVED your Aug. 16, 2016 piece; it was an honest and deeply respectful analysis of Ellroy’s work that very few writers can achieve. Well done, sir. Yeah, the ever-present voyeurism aspect of Ellroy’s work helps us to understand that as spectators we are guilty by association. As Philosopher Robert Pippin observed, even Sophocles understood this, evoking the notion in Oedipus’ noir-esque revelation that “I suffered those deeds more than I acted them.” Something you often encounter when you study Ellroy is the understanding that maybe what we’ve needed all along is an unabashed voyeur to help us see (and accept) the bloody and mangled truth about our past. I’m sure Nathan Ashman will have much more to say about this in his upcoming book “James Ellroy and Voyeur Fiction”.

      — Jason Carter

  2. November 30, 2020 11:04 pm

    I’m so desperate to find Ellroy’s Perfidia essay. Does anyone have any leads on where to find the Waterstone edition, or if its been scanned and put online somewhere?

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