Authors: E. L. Doctorow

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

January 6, 1931

New York, New York

July 21, 2015

New York, New York

Biography

E. L. Doctorow (DOK-tur-oh) must be counted as one of the most significant novelists of the generation that began publishing in the 1960s. All of his work is imbued with a sense of history, by an innovative unity of fact and fiction, and by an intense desire to comment upon the most important political events of the twentieth century. Doctorow was a philosophy major at Kenyon College, and his literary work is informed by a probing exploration of how human beings interpret reality.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was reared in the Bronx, the setting for World’s Fair, which contains many of the elements of his own family life. While not an autobiographical writer, Doctorow sometimes used the materials of his own life just as he used the conventions of history and literature for his unusual narratives. Having also worked as an editor in major New York publishing houses (he edited some of Norman Mailer’s books) and having taught at several colleges, including Sarah Lawrence and New York University, he had a certain didacticism that was tempered by an exquisite sense of style.

E.L. Doctorow, Miami Book Fair International, 1991

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E.L. Doctorow

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Doctorow’s first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, is a caricature of a Western. He had done some scriptwriting and had not liked much of what he had seen in the genre. (Ironically, many of his novels have been made into highly regarded films.) The book was an effort to write an unconventional Western, a sort of absurd version of High Noon, the 1952 film in which Gary Cooper plays the vulnerable town marshal who must fend off a gang of menacing outlaws. In fact, Doctorow’s novel implies, the West was chaotic, even demoniac, and order was not usually restored in the fashion of a Hollywood Western. The reality of American history has been much grimmer than its literature or its popular entertainment has ever acknowledged. Doctorow’s fiction shows again and again an America whose myths do not square with its history.

After Big as Life, a science-fiction spoof about monsters who destroy New York City (a book Doctorow regards as a failed work), he published The Book of Daniel. Based in large part on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953, the novel is narrated by their son, a 1960s youth trying to understand his own tormented and destructive nature even as he investigates the past that led to his parents’ deaths. He is angry over their abandoning him for politics, yet politics serves as the metaphor for the divisions in family life. In other words, the private and public realms of society merge, just as the narrative swings between Daniel’s first-person (intimate) and third-person (impersonal) points of view. In his great trilogy U.S.A. (1937–38), John Dos Passos separated the elements of history and fiction by creating discrete sections called “Camera Eye” and “Newsreel.” It is Doctorow’s achievement to have fused the personal and the public, the fictional and the historical, into one narrative voice, suggesting the indivisibility of history and the individual’s perceptions of it. There is no “history” out there, he implies. There is only the “history” within the minds of the people who live it and re-create it.

Ragtime took this philosophical perception of history a step further. Historical figures, the novel argues, have the same status as fictional creations. The novelist’s Freud (who appears in Ragtime) and the historical Sigmund Freud are equally the products of imagination, of the language that is used to invent both history and fiction. So convincing is Doctorow in inserting famous people such as J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman into his narrative that he has had many people wondering which incidents in the novel are true. Ragtime is surely one of the most subversive novels ever written by an American, for it suggests that history, like fiction, is a form of myth.

Like The Book of Daniel, Ragtime is anchored in the story of a family—this time of a little boy who grows up at the turn of the century during the development of the motion picture and the advent of polar exploration and during political upheavals led by radicals such as Emma Goldman. From his naïve viewpoint, the boy observes explosive changes and the stresses of a society that does not know how to handle its own dissenting elements—exemplified in the character of Coalhouse Walker, a proud black man who is insulted by a group of white firemen and who (more in the style of the 1960s) resorts to violence and hostage taking, demanding that society recognize his human rights.

Doctorow’s experimental play, Drinks Before Dinner, features a protagonist who is concerned about unraveling human identity and who threatens world-ending violence. Loon Lake shifts in perspective and setting between a rich man’s isolated estate and a poor man’s picaresque adventures across the United States in the 1930s. Some of the novel is also mediated through rather obscure poetic passages and the sensibility of the poet who lives on the rich man’s estate. Somehow the power of the materialist, the millionaire capitalist, is meant to be balanced by the imagination of the poet, but the novel fails to measure up to Ragtime’s astonishing feat of fusing the realms of fiction and history.

Doctorow’s Lives of the Poets and World’s Fair continue his interest in cultural and political history. The former is a collection of stories about the process of literary creation, the latter is a loving account based somewhat on Doctorow’s own childhood in New York City that was highlighted by his visit to the 1939–40 World’s Fair. He has always been interested in material culture, in how the artifacts of American society reflect its identity. World’s Fair won the National Book Award, while Doctorow’s next novel, Billy Bathgate, won the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Whether it is a world’s fair or the trip to Disneyland brilliantly described in The Book of Daniel, Doctorow showed how American amusements reflect the core of the American psyche, the overwhelming urge to mythologize history, to make it amenable to human desires and hopes. In these passages, he excels as one of the best literary sociologists. In World’s Fair, he triumphantly combines the personal and the familial aspects of life with the way a society celebrates itself. In so doing, he recovers the synthesis of history and literature that made Ragtime such a resounding success.

Billy Bathgate returns to concerns of Loon Lake, with greater success. Once again fusing fiction with history, Doctorow has his protagonist, Billy, join the historical Dutch Schultz gang and reach an ambiguous triumph. Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992 collects essays and reviews on literature and politics. The Waterworks, while continuing Doctorow’s interest in rewriting the history of New York, departs from previous works in the extremity of its horror and pessimism, reminiscent of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. City of God was not as well received as Doctorow’s other works, an ambitious (some felt over-ambitious) narrative and metanarrative of religion, faith, Jewish and gentile relations, the Holocaust, and much more.

After turning back to essays in Reporting the Universe (2003) and short stories in Sweet Land Stories (2004) to comment upon American society, Doctorow published another well-received and award-winning novel. The March (2005), a fictional take on Union general William Tecumseh Sherman's famous march during the Civil War, won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He next published another collection of essays, Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993–2006 (2006); another novel, Homer & Langley (2009), and a third compilation of short stories, All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories (2011). In recognition of a sustained career of such work, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2012, and both the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters's Gold Medal for fiction in 2013. His last novel published would be Andrew's Brain (2014), which tells the story of a troubled man in the form of discussions with his psychotherapist. It was considered one of the best books of the year by several prominent publications.

Doctorow died on July 21, 2015, in New York City, at the age of eighty-four.

Author Works Long Fiction: Welcome to Hard Times, 1960 Big as Life, 1966 The Book of Daniel, 1971 Ragtime, 1975 Loon Lake, 1980 World’s Fair, 1985 Billy Bathgate, 1989 The Waterworks, 1994 City of God, 2000 The March, 2005 Homer & Langley, 2009 Andrew's Brain, 2014 Short Fiction: Lives of the Poets, 1984 Sweet Land Stories, 2004 All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories, 2011 Drama: Drinks Before Dinner, pr. 1978 Nonfiction: Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977–1992, 1993 Poets and Presidents, 1993 Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, 1999 Reporting the Universe, 2003 Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993–2006, 2006 Edited Text: Best American Short Stories, 2000, 2000 Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Chelsea House, 2001. A collection of essays offering an overview of Doctorow’s career and works from a variety of perspectives. Intended as a starting point for students first reading the author. Bloom, Harold, ed. E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” New York: Chelsea House, 2002. A collection of essays illuminating the historical context of Doctorow’s work as well as offering literary analysis. Doctorow, E. L. Conversations with E. L. Doctorow. Edited by Christopher D. Morris. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Part of the Literary Conversations series, this volume of interviews reveals Doctorow’s thoughts and goals. Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Introduces the reader to Doctorow and his works on a basic level, surveying arguments of other critics and noting Doctorow’s links to other writers. This book emphasizes the extent to which family life is Doctorow’s most enduring thematic concern. Friedl, Herwig, and Dieter Schulz, eds. E. L. Doctorow: A Democracy of Perception. Essen, Germany: Blaue Eule, 1988. Primarily essays by German and American writers from a 1985 symposium held in Heidelberg, Germany. Features the transcript of a question-and-answer session Doctorow held with students while attending the symposium. Harter, Carol, and James R. Thompson. E. L. Doctorow. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Emphasizes Doctorow as an artist rather than as a politician or experimental historian. More than other books, this study sees significant differences among Doctorow’s works and sees Doctorow himself moving toward autobiography over the course of his career. Levine, Paul. E. L. Doctorow. London: Methuen, 1985. The first major study. Levine provides sound readings of individual novels as well as discussions of themes in the fiction: politics, the nature of fiction and history, and Doctorow’s critique of the American Dream. Morris, Christopher D. Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. The most theoretically sophisticated of the book-length studies of Doctorow’s works. This book relays very original and controversial readings of both Doctorow’s novels and his essays by emphasizing the ways in which readers are forced to use literary texts to maintain their illusions. Parks, John G. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Continuum, 1991. Emphasizes the study of Doctorow through the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, for whom the job of an author is to bring the conflicting voices within a novel into harmony. Probably the best introduction to Doctorow’s works, this book considers Doctorow to value society over the individual. Tokarczyk, Michelle M. E. L. Doctorow’s Skeptical Commitment. New York: P. Lang, 2000. A political literary analysis of Doctorow’s works. Covers all the novels up to The Waterworks. Trenner, Richard. E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1983. Includes several of Doctorow’s important essays as well as articles by others. The pieces reflect the range of critical opinion on Doctorow, the variety of his themes and techniques, and the historical background required to read his novels. Weber, Bruce. "E. L. Doctorow Dies at 84; Literary Time Traveler Stirred Past into Fiction." The New York Times, 21 July 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/books/el-doctorow-author-of-historical-fiction-dies-at-84.html. Accessed 18 May 2017. Obituary covering Doctorow's life and career. Williams, John. Fiction as False Document: The Reception of E. L. Doctorow in the Postmodern Age. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1996. Reviews and analyzes all the important criticism on Doctorow, including major reviews, especially in relation to how criticism has promoted Doctorow’s reputation, used postmodernism to understand Doctorow, and used Doctorow’s texts to promote postmodern critical theories.

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