Writer who enjoyed critical and popular success over his 50-year career with novels such as Ragtime and The March
Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30
Writer E.L. Doctorow, who wryly reimagined the American experience in such novels as Ragtime and The March and applied its lessons to the past and the future in fiction and non-fiction, died last Tuesday aged 84.
Considered one of the major authors of the 20th century, Doctorow enjoyed critical and popular success over his 50-year career. He won the National Book Award for fiction in 1986 for World's Fair and the National Book Critics Circle award in 1989 for Billy Bathgate and in 2005 for The March.
US President Barack Obama praised Doctorow on Twitter as "one of America's greatest novelists".
"His books taught me much, and he will be missed," Mr Obama wrote on his @POTUS account.
Besides Doctorow's 10 novels, he published two books of short stories, a play called Drinks Before Dinner and numerous essays and articles.
"I don't know what I set out to do," Doctorow said in 2006 after the publication of The March, his acclaimed Civil War novel. "Someone pointed out to me a couple of years ago that you could line them up and in effect now with this book, 150 years of American history. ... And this was entirely unplanned."
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born on January 6, 1931, in New York. He was named after Edgar Allan Poe, whom he often disparaged as America's "greatest bad writer." His father ran a music store, and his mother was a pianist.
As a youngster he read widely and decided he would become a writer at the age of nine.
"I began to ask two questions while I was reading a book that excited me," he recalled. "Not only what was going to happen next but how is this done? How is it that these words on the page make me feel the way I'm feeling? This is the line of inquiry that I think happens in a child's mind, without him even knowing he has aspirations as a writer."
Doctorow graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He attended graduate school at Columbia University but left without completing a doctorate. He also served in the US Army, stationed in Germany.
In the 1950s Doctorow worked as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, reading novels and summarising them for possible film treatment. That job led him to his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, a Western published in 1960.
He spent a decade as a book editor at New American Library and then as editor in chief at Dial Press, working with such authors as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.
Doctorow's second novel, a science fiction work called Big as Life, was published in 1966 and was unsuccessful. But his third, The Book of Daniel, published in 1971, catapulted him into the top rank of American writers.
A fictionalised account of the Rosenberg case, The Book of Daniel probed the central character's struggles over the deaths of his parents, executed as Communists in the 1950s. New Republic critic Stanley Kauffmann called it "the political novel of our age, the best American work of its kind that I know since Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey."
Ragtime in 1975 served up a Dickensian stew of Gilded Age New York, mixing historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman with invented ones. The central character, Coalhouse Walker Jr., was a black musician victimised by racism.
Historical and made-up characters also peopled 1989's Billy Bathgate, featuring the real-life gangster Dutch Schultz, and The March, which he called his "Russian novel" because of its epic scope.
The March depicted William Tecumseh Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas from the vantage points of Sherman himself, a mixed-race freed slave girl, a brilliant but dispassionate battlefield surgeon, two Confederate prisoners who adopt various disguises and others.
The main character was in a sense the Union army itself and all the human flotsam and jetsam it had picked up along the way.
Several of Doctorow's novels including Ragtime and Billy Bathgate were made into movies, but Doctorow was generally not pleased with the screen versions. Ragtime was made into a Broadway musical in 1998.
Doctorow married Helen Setzer in 1954. They had two daughters and a son.
Doctorow taught creative writing at New York University and taught at several other institutions including Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of California, Irvine.
A life-long liberal, Doctorow was booed by students when he criticised President George W Bush and the Iraq war during a 2004 commencement speech at Hofstra University on Long Island.