E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow

Doctorow in 2014
Born Edgar Lawrence Doctorow
(1931-01-06)January 6, 1931
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
Died July 21, 2015(2015-07-21) (aged 84)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Occupation Writer, editor, professor
Nationality American
Alma mater Kenyon College, Columbia University
Notable works The Book of Daniel
World's Fair
Billy Bathgate
The March
Homer & Langley
Spouse Helen Esther Setzer (m. 1953–2015; his death)
Children 3

Edgar Lawrence "E. L." Doctorow (January 6, 1931 – July 21, 2015) was an American novelist, editor, and professor, best known internationally for his works of historical fiction. He has been described as one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century.

He wrote twelve novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama. They included the award-winning novels Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005). These, like many of his other works, placed fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts, with known historical figures, and often used different narrative styles. His stories were recognized for their originality and versatility, and Doctorow was praised for his audacity and imagination.[1]

A number of Doctorow's novels were also adapted for the screen, including, Welcome to Hard Times (1967), with Henry Fonda, Daniel (1983), starring Timothy Hutton, and Billy Bathgate (1991) starring Dustin Hoffman. His most notable adaptations were for the film, Ragtime (1981) and the Broadway musical of the same name (1988), which won four Tony Awards.

Doctorow was the recipient of numerous writing awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ragtime, National Book Critics Circle Award for Billy Bathgate, National Book Critics Circle Award for The March, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction. President Barack Obama called him "one of America's greatest novelists".[2]

Early life

Doctorow was born in the Bronx, the son of Rose (Levine) and David Richard Doctorow, second-generation Americans of Russian Jewish extraction who named him after Edgar Allan Poe.[3] His father ran a small music shop.[4] He attended city public grade schools and Bronx Science where, surrounded by mathematically gifted children, he fled to the office of the school literary magazine, Dynamo, which published his first literary effort. He then enrolled in a journalism class to increase his opportunities to write.[5]

Doctorow attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied with the poet and New Critic John Crowe Ransom, acted in college theater productions and majored in philosophy. While at Kenyon College, Doctorow joined the Middle Kenyon Association, and he became friends with fellow student and future historian Richard H. Collin.[6][7] After graduating with honors in 1952, he completed a year of graduate work in English drama at Columbia University before being drafted into the United States Army. He served as a corporal in the signal corps, in Germany 1954–55.[8][9]

He returned to New York after his military service and took a job as a reader for a motion picture company, where he said he had to read so many Westerns that he was inspired to write what became his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. He began it as a parody of western fiction, but it evolved to be a serious reclamation of the genre before he was finished.[10] It was published to positive reviews in 1960, with Wirt Williams of the New York Times describing it as "taut and dramatic, exciting and successfully symbolic."[11]

When asked how he decided to become a writer, he said, "I was a child who read everything I could get my hands on. Eventually, I asked of a story not only what was to happen next, but how is this done? How am I made to live from words on a page? And so I became a writer."[12]


"When you'd read Edgar's manuscripts, it was done. That's just the kind of writer he was; he got everything right the first time. I can't think of any editorial problem we had. Even remotely. Nothing."

Jason Epstein, Doctorow's book editor[13]

To support his family, Doctorow spent nine years as a book editor, first at NAL working with Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand among others; and from 1964, as editor-in-chief at Dial Press, publishing work by James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Ernest J. Gaines, and William Kennedy, among others.[14][15][16]

In 1969, Doctorow left publishing to pursue a writing career. He accepted a position as Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine, where he completed The Book of Daniel (1971),[17] a freely fictionalized consideration of the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was widely acclaimed, called a "masterpiece" by The Guardian, and said by The New York Times to launch the author into "the first rank of American writers" according to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.[18]

Doctorow's next book, written in his home in New Rochelle, New York, was Ragtime (1975), later named one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library editorial board.[19] His subsequent work includes the award-winning novels World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005), as well as several volumes of essays and short fiction.

Novelist Jay Parini is impressed by Doctorow's skill at writing fictionalized history in a unique style, "a kind of detached but arresting presentation of history that mingled real characters with fictional ones in ways that became his signature manner".[20] In Ragtime, for example, he arranges the story to include Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung sharing a ride at Coney Island, or a setting with Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan.[20]

Despite the immense research Doctorow needed to create stories based on real events and real characters, reviewer John Brooks notes that they were nevertheless "alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required".[1] Doctorow demonstrated in most of his novels "that the past is very much alive, but that it's not easily accessed," writes Parini. "We tell and retell stories, and these stories illuminate our daily lives. He showed us again and again that our past is our present, and that those not willing to grapple with 'what happened' will be condemned to repeat its worst errors."[20]

Doctorow also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Yale School of Drama, the University of Utah, the University of California, Irvine, and Princeton University. He was the Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. In 2001 he donated his papers to the Fales Library of New York University. The library's director, Marvin Taylor, said Doctorow was "one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century".[21]

Personal life and death

In 1954, Doctorow married fellow Columbia University student Helen Esther Setzer while serving in the U.S. Army in West Germany.[22][23] The couple had three children: Richard, Jenny, and Caroline.[14]

Doctorow was a heavy smoker. He died of lung cancer on July 21, 2015, aged 84, in Manhattan.[24] He is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Awards and honors



Short story collections



See also


  1. 1 2 "E. L. Doctorow Dies at 84; Literary Time Traveler Stirred Past Into Fiction", The New York Times, July 21, 2015
  2. "US novelist EL Doctorow dies at 84", BBC, July 22, 2015
  3. Wutz, Michael. "The E.L. Doctorow I Remember", Newsweek, July 22, 2015
  4. Intersections: E.L. Doctorow on Rhythm and Writing, June 28, 2004.
  5. American Conversation: E. L. Doctorow, September 25, 2008.
  6. "Literary giant". Kenyon News. Gambier, OH: Kenyon College. 22 July 2015. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  7. "A group of Middle Kenyon (non-fraternal) residents in 1952. Included are Roger Hecht '55, Richard H. Collin '54, E.L. Doctorow '52, William T. Goldhurst '53, Martin Nemer '52, Harvey Robbin III '52, and Stanford B. Benjamin '53.". Kenyon News. Gambier, OH: Kenyon College. 22 July 2015. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  8. "Beloved Historical Fiction Author E.L. Doctorow Dead At 84", Huffington Post, July 21, 2015
  9. "E.L. Doctorow, acclaimed author of historical fiction, dies at 84", PBS, July 21, 2015
  10. "Interview: E.L. Doctorow discusses the art of writing and his new book of essays, Reporting the Universe". Talk of the Nation. NPR. Retrieved February 9, 2011.
  11. Williams, Wirt. "'Welcome to Hard Times'", New York Times, September 25, 1960
  12. "EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, dies in New York aged 84", The Guardian, U.K., July 22, 2015
  13. "E.L. Doctorow’s Longtime Editor: 'No One Could Possibly Say a Bad Word About Him'", Vanity Fair, July 22, 2015
  14. 1 2 "E L Doctorow, author – obituary". The Telegraph. July 22, 2015. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  15. 1 2 3 Homberger, Eric (July 22, 2015). "EL Doctorow obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  16. Jones, Malcolm (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow's Readers Were Guaranteed a Good Time". The Daily Beast. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
  17. Robinson, Will (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime author, dies at 84". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
  18. Review of 'The Book of Daniel', The New York Times, June 7, 1971.
  19. "Modern Library: 100 Best Novels". Random House. Retrieved September 5, 2008.
  20. 1 2 3 "E.L. Doctorow's gift", CNN, July 22, 2015
  21. "From Ragtime to Our Time E.L. Doctorow Donates His Papers to NYU’S Fales Library", New York University, April 19, 2001
  22. Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists: A Bio-critical Sourcebook (1997) by Joel Shatzky and Michael Taub, pp. 54
  23. Woo, Elaine (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow dies at 84; 'Ragtime' author turned history into myth". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  24. "E.L. Doctorow, Author of Historical Fiction, Dies at 84". The New York Times. July 21, 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  25. Ragtime wins the National Book Critics Circle Award. History Channel. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  26. "National Book Awards – 1986". NBF. Retrieved March 26, 2012.
  27. New York State Author and New York State Poet Awards
  28. Johnson, M. Alex (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow, Acclaimed Author of 'Ragtime' and 'Billy Bathgate,' Dies at 84". NBC News. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  29. "Doctorow's 'Bathgate' Wins Faulkner Award". The New York Times. April 7, 1990. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  30. The William Dean Howells Medal. American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  31. "Winners of the National Humanities Medal and the Charles Frankel Prize". National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Retrieved September 5, 2008.
  32. "National Humanities Medal: Nominations", NEH.gov. Retrieved March 26, 2012.
  33. E.L. Doctorow. Tulsa Library Trust's Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  34. "Beloved Historical Fiction Author E.L. Doctorow Dead At 84". The Huffington Post. July 21, 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  35. Thompson, Bob (February 21, 2006). "Doctorow's 'The March' Wins Top Honor". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  36. Website of St. Louis Literary Award
  37. Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Noted Novelist E. L. Doctorow to be Honored as 41st Annual Saint Louis Literary Award Recipient". Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  38. 2012 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. PEN American Center. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  39. James McBride wins US National Book Award, BBC News, November 21, 2013
  40. Gold Medal. American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  41. Alison Flood. "E.L. Doctorow wins Library of Congress prize for American fiction", The Guardian, April 17, 2014. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  42. Robertson, Michael (1992). "Cultural Hegemony Goes to the Fair: The Case of E. L. Doctorow's World's Fair". University of Kansas. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  43. Scott, A. O. (March 5, 2000). "A Thinking Man's Miracle". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  44. Kaufman, Leslie (March 28, 2013). "A New Doctorow Novel". The New York Times.
  45. Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (November 6, 1984). "Lives of the Poets". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  46. Eder, Richard (November 24, 1978). "Stage: Doctorow's 'Drinks Before Dinner'". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  47. Conversations with E.L. Doctorow (1999) by E.L. Doctorow and Christopher D. Morris, chronology
  48. "'Jack London, Hemingway and the Constitution'", The New York Times, November 4, 1993
  49. Powers, Ron (September 24, 2006). "Text Messages". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.

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