Tuesday 25 October 2016

Obituary: EL Doctorow American novelist

Born January 6, 1931; died, July 21, 2015

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Literary figure: EL Doctorow attended Ohio's Kenyon College in the late 1940s where he acted in plays with Paul Newman, who became a lifelong friend
Literary figure: EL Doctorow attended Ohio's Kenyon College in the late 1940s where he acted in plays with Paul Newman, who became a lifelong friend

EL Doctorow, the novelist and editor, who has died aged 84, was one of the most important American literary figures of the past half century.

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He was first an editor of celebrated authors such as Norman Mailer and Ayn Rand and then, with his own books, reworked his country's history into bestselling, thought-provoking, prize-winning entertainments. As a novelist, he dealt directly with America's history from the gilded age of the latter half of the 19th century through to World War II. In books like Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989) and The Book of Daniel (1971) he juxtaposed the lives of real historical persons - Houdini, Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg - with fictional figures. These imagined characters were often immigrants or the children of immigrants - or, as Doctorow got older, a version of himself as a child.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx on January 6, 1931. His father ran a small musical instrument store in midtown Manhattan and his mother was a pianist. Edgar was named after Edgar Allan Poe. Late in life, he told an interviewer that his father liked a lot of bad writers: "Poe was our greatest bad writer, so I take some consolation from that."

Edgar's Bronx childhood was steeped in the cultural aspirations of the second-generation immigrant Jews who made up much of the neighbourhood's population, and the milieu would feature in his fiction.

He attended Ohio's Kenyon College in the late 1940s where he acted in plays with an older student, Paul Newman. Doctorow joked that it was not until Newman graduated that he himself began to get good parts. The pair remained lifelong friends, sharing success and non-doctrinaire left-wing politics.

Following graduation and military service - he was stationed in Germany in the mid-1950s - Doctorow, by now married, returned to New York and worked as an airline reservation clerk and then script reader for a film company.

Having read a disproportionate number of bad Western scripts, he decided to try his hand at writing a parody Western novel. Welcome to Hard Times (1960) ended up being a more serious book than its author intended. It was sold to MGM and turned into a film starring Henry Fonda.

Throughout the 1960s, with a growing family, Doctorow had to earn a steady living and he became an editor first at the New American Library, where he worked on the fiction of his political opposite Ayn Rand. He then became editor-in-chief of the Dial Press, where his authors included Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.

Doctorow found, however, that writing fiction remained his calling. He left the security of his job in 1969 and took a one-year appointment as a visiting writer at the University of California Irvine where he wrote - and rewrote - The Book of Daniel. The novel is a retelling of the infamous true life case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets and executed for treason in 1953.

The case riled the American Left, many of whom believed that the Rosenbergs were innocent. As a man of the Left, Doctorow set about turning the story into fiction and wrote 150 pages before he realised they were awful and threw them away. It was the making of the novel, he recalled for George Plimpton of the Paris Review: "The realisation that I was doing a really bad book created the desperation that allowed me to find its true voice. I started to type something almost in mockery of my pretensions … and it turned out to be the first page of The Book of Daniel. What I had figured out… was that Daniel [the son of the characters based on the Rosenbergs] should write the book, not me. Once I had his voice, I was able to go on." Published in 1971, the novel was nominated for a National Book Award and turned into a film directed by Sidney Lumet.

Doctorow then wrote Ragtime, the work that made his reputation and his fortune. A kaleidoscopic recreation of America at the beginning of the 20th century, the book's themes were race, immigration, crime and capitalism. It was full of jazz pianists, artists and socialites, slum tenements and a fledgling Hollywood. The fictional characters at the book's core interacted in odd, yet believable, ways with real-life historical characters. In one passage, Freud and Jung take a ride on a Coney Island tunnel of love. Asked how he researched the character of the financier JP Morgan, Doctorow said that he stared for hours at the portrait of the great banker by the photographer Edward Steichen.

Ragtime won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It sold by the million and continues to sell. President Obama, in a well-publicised bookshop visit last year, bought a copy, saying it was one of his favourite books. It was turned into an Academy Award nominated film and, more than 20 years later, a Tony-award winning musical.

Financial success did not go to Doctorow's head, however. He continued to be a prolific writer, producing another eight novels, two collections of short stories and much non-fiction. In World's Fair (1986) he depicted the titular 1939 event through the eyes of both a nine-year-old and an adult. Three years later he created a fictional teenage protégé for the real-life mobster Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate, a story of gang-infested New York in the 1930s. Some critics compared Doctorow's child narrator to Huckleberry Finn. A film of the book was released in 1991 starring Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman.

As Doctorow grew older, his stories were centred more and more on the Bronx of his childhood - but they were not entirely autobiographical. Then, in his mid-Seventies, he travelled back in time to the American Civil War to write a book that many critics consider the equal of Ragtime. The March was a retelling of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman's notorious scorched earth procession from Atlanta, Georgia, to the sea. Published in 2005, it also won a National Book Critic's Circle Award.

Throughout his life Doctorow continued to teach. He was a courtly, soft-spoken man, his manner more that of a professor than a celebrated famous author. But he was fierce in his politics. Along with his old friend, Paul Newman, he helped to keep the left-wing magazine The Nation afloat for years.

With his last novel, Andrew's Brain (2014), he departed from his usual sprawling Dickensian narratives for a forensic exploration of a neuroscientist's personal crisis.

EL Doctorow is survived by his wife of 62 years, Helen, and by three children.

© Daily Telegraph

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