E. L. Doctorow

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E. L. Doctorow
Doctorow in 1986
Doctorow in 1986
BornEdgar Lawrence Doctorow
(1931-01-06)January 6, 1931
New York City, U.S.
DiedJuly 21, 2015(2015-07-21) (aged 84)
New York City, U.S.
Notable works
Helen Setzer
(m. 1953)

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (January 6, 1931 – July 21, 2015) was an American novelist, editor, and professor, best known for his works of historical fiction.

He wrote twelve novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama, including 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 and short stories were also adapted for the screen, including Welcome to Hard Times (1967) starring Henry Fonda, Daniel (1983) starring Timothy Hutton, Billy Bathgate (1991) starring Dustin Hoffman, and Wakefield (2016) starring Bryan Cranston. His most notable adaptations were for the film Ragtime (1981) and the Broadway musical of the same name (1998), which won four Tony Awards.[note 1]

Doctorow was the recipient of numerous writing awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award which he was awarded three different times (for Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The March). At the time of his death, President Barack Obama called him "one of America's greatest novelists".[2]

Early life[edit]

Doctorow was born January 6, 1931,[3] 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.[4] His father ran a small music shop.[5] He attended city public grade schools and the Bronx High School of 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.[6]

Doctorow attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom, acted in college theater productions and majored in philosophy. While at Kenyon College, Doctorow joined the Middle Kenyon Association, and befriended Richard H. Collin.[7][8] After graduating with honors in 1952, he completed a year of graduate work in English drama at Columbia University before being drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. In 1954 and 1955, he served as a corporal in the Signal Corps in West Germany.[9][10]

Back in New York after military service, Doctorow worked as a reader for a motion picture company; reading so many Westerns inspired his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. Begun as a parody of western fiction, it evolved into a reclamation of the genre.[11] 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."[12]

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."[13]


"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[14]

To support his family, Doctorow spent nine years as a book editor, first at New American Library 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.[15][16][17] During this time he published his second novel Big As Life (1966), which Doctorow has, subsequently, not allowed to be republished.[18][note 2]

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),[19] 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.[20]

Doctorow in 2014

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.[21] 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".[22] 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.[22]

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."[22]

Personal life and death[edit]

In 1954, Doctorow married fellow Columbia University student Helen Esther Setzer while serving in the U.S. Army in West Germany.[23][24] The couple had three children.[15]

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. In the opinion of the library's director, Marvin Taylor, Doctorow was "one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century".[25]

Doctorow died of lung cancer on July 21, 2015, aged 84, in Manhattan.[26] He is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Awards and honors[edit]



Short story collections[edit]



  • 1978: Drinks Before Dinner: A Play[54]
  • 1982: American Anthem (photographic essay)[55]
  • 2003: Three Screenplays (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) ISBN 9780801872013
  • 2004: How Then Can He Mourn?, essay criticizing George W. Bush for his pre-emptive war on Iraq.[56]
  • 2008: "Wakefield" (Archived) (short story), The New Yorker, January 14, 2008
  • 2012: "Unexceptionalism: A Primer" (op-ed), The New York Times, April 28, 2012


  1. ^ To be precise, the film version of Ragtime did not use the screenplay adaptation that Doctorow wrote. According to the publisher’s note for Three Screenplays (see the Bibliography section), Doctorow wrote screenplay adaptations of three of his works― The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Loon Lake: “Each of these screenplays has undergone a different fate. Doctorow's script for Daniel was made into a feature film by director Sidney Lumet in 1983. The monumental Ragtime screenplay he wrote for director Robert Altman was to have been filmed as either a six-hour feature film or a ten-hour television series. When Altman was replaced on the project by Milos Forman, a shorter, more conventional script was commissioned from another writer. In 1981, Doctorow adapted Loon Lake, but this challenging work has yet to be filmed.”
  2. ^ Though Doctorow believed that Big as Life was a failure, in an interview from 1991 Doctorow said he thought he could fix the novel and “make it work,” implying that he wouldn’t let it back in print until it was revised.


  1. ^ a b "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. ^ "UPI Almanac for Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019". United Press International. January 6, 2019. Archived from the original on September 11, 2019. Retrieved September 10, 2019. author E.L. Doctorow in 1931
  4. ^ Wutz, Michael. "The E.L. Doctorow I Remember", Newsweek, July 22, 2015
  5. ^ Intersections: E.L. Doctorow on Rhythm and Writing, June 28, 2004.
  6. ^ American Conversation: E.L. Doctorow Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, September 25, 2008.
  7. ^ "Literary giant". Kenyon News. Gambier, OH: Kenyon College. July 22, 2015. Archived from the original on November 4, 2015. Retrieved November 4, 2015.
  8. ^ "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. July 22, 2015. Retrieved November 4, 2015.
  9. ^ "Beloved Historical Fiction Author E.L. Doctorow Dead At 84", Huffington Post, July 21, 2015
  10. ^ "E.L. Doctorow, acclaimed author of historical fiction, dies at 84", PBS, July 21, 2015
  11. ^ "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.
  12. ^ Williams, Wirt. "'Welcome to Hard Times'", The New York Times, September 25, 1960
  13. ^ "EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, dies in New York aged 84", The Guardian, U.K., July 22, 2015
  14. ^ "E.L. Doctorow’s Longtime Editor: 'No One Could Possibly Say a Bad Word About Him'", Vanity Fair, July 22, 2015
  15. ^ a b "E L Doctorow, author – obituary". The Telegraph. July 22, 2015. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  16. ^ a b c Homberger, Eric (July 22, 2015). "EL Doctorow obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  17. ^ Jones, Malcolm (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow's Readers Were Guaranteed a Good Time". The Daily Beast. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
  18. ^ Epplin, Luke (March 12, 2014). "Big as Life: E.L. Doctorow's prescient, forgotten sci-fi novel". Paris Review.
  19. ^ Robinson, Will (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime author, dies at 84". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
  20. ^ Review of 'The Book of Daniel', The New York Times, June 7, 1971.
  21. ^ "Modern Library: 100 Best Novels". Random House. Retrieved September 5, 2008.
  22. ^ a b c "E.L. Doctorow's gift", CNN, July 22, 2015
  23. ^ Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists: A Bio-critical Sourcebook (1997) by Joel Shatzky and Michael Taub, pp. 54
  24. ^ Woo, Elaine (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow dies at 84; 'Ragtime' author turned history into myth". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  25. ^ "From Ragtime to Our Time E.L. Doctorow Donates His Papers to NYU’S Fales Library", New York University, April 19, 2001
  26. ^ Weber, Bruce (July 21, 2015). "E.L. Doctorow, Author of Historical Fiction, Dies at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  27. ^ Ragtime wins the National Book Critics Circle Award. History Channel. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  28. ^ "National Book Awards – 1986". NBF. Retrieved March 26, 2012.
  29. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  30. ^ "New York State Author and State Poet Awards". Albany University.
  31. ^ "E.L. Doctorow - Artist". MacDowell.
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ "Doctorow's 'Bathgate' Wins Faulkner Award". The New York Times. April 7, 1990. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  34. ^ The William Dean Howells Medal Archived March 14, 2015, at the Wayback Machine. American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  35. ^ "Winners of the National Humanities Medal and the Charles Frankel Prize". National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Archived from the original on July 21, 2011. Retrieved September 5, 2008.
  36. ^ "National Humanities Medal: Nominations", NEH.gov. Retrieved March 26, 2012.
  37. ^ E.L. Doctorow. Tulsa Library Trust's Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  38. ^ "Kenyon Review for Literary Achievement". Kenyon Review.
  39. ^ "Beloved Historical Fiction Author E.L. Doctorow Dead At 84". The Huffington Post. July 21, 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  40. ^ Thompson, Bob (February 21, 2006). "Doctorow's 'The March' Wins Top Honor". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  41. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved May 14, 2021.
  42. ^ "Saint Louis Literary Award". SLU.edu. Saint Louis University. Archived from the original on August 23, 2016. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  43. ^ Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Noted Novelist E.L. Doctorow to be Honored as 41st Annual Saint Louis Literary Award Recipient". Archived from the original on September 20, 2016. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  44. ^ 2012 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. PEN American Center. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  45. ^ James McBride wins US National Book Award, BBC News, November 21, 2013
  46. ^ Gold Medal Archived October 13, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  47. ^ Alison Flood. "E.L. Doctorow wins Library of Congress prize for American fiction", The Guardian, April 17, 2014. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  48. ^ 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.
  49. ^ Scott, A. O. (March 5, 2000). "A Thinking Man's Miracle". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  50. ^ Kaufman, Leslie (March 28, 2013). "A New Doctorow Novel". The New York Times.
  51. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (November 6, 1984). "Lives of the Poets". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  52. ^ "'Jack London, Hemingway and the Constitution'", The New York Times, November 4, 1993
  53. ^ Powers, Ron (September 24, 2006). "Text Messages". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  54. ^ Eder, Richard (November 24, 1978). "Stage: Doctorow's 'Drinks Before Dinner'". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2015.
  55. ^ Conversations with E.L. Doctorow (1999) by E.L. Doctorow and Christopher D. Morris, chronology
  56. ^ Doctorow, E.L. (September 9, 2004). "How Then Can He Mourn?".

Further reading[edit]

  • Arana-Ward, Marie (April 17, 1994). "E.L. Doctorow". Washington Post. p. X6.
  • Baba, Minako (Summer 1993). "The Young Gangster as Mythic American Hero: E.L.Doctorow's Billy Bathgate". Varieties of Ethnic Criticism. 18 (2). Oxford University Press: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS): 33–46. doi:10.2307/467932. JSTOR 467932.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (2001). E.L. Doctorow. Chelsea House. ISBN 978-0791064511.
  • E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations. Chelsea House. 2001. ISBN 978-0791063439.
  • Fowler, Douglas (1992). Understanding E.L. Doctorow. University of South Carolina. ISBN 9780872498198.
  • Girgus, Sam B. (1984). The New Covenant: Jewish Writers and the American Idea. University of North Carolina Press.
  • Harter, Carol C.; Thompson, James R. (1996). E.L.Doctorow. Gale Group.
  • Henry, Matthew A. Problematized Narratives: History as Friction in E.L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate. Critique Magazine.
  • Jameson, Frederic. (1991). Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press.
  • Leonard, John (June 10, 2004). The Prophet. The New York Review of Books.
  • Levine, Paul (1985). E.L. Doctorow. New York: Methuen.
  • Matterson, Stephen. "Why Not Say What Happened: E.L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets". Critique.
  • McGowan, Todd (2001). "In This Way He Lost Everything: The Price of Satisfaction in E.L. Doctorow's 'World's Fair'". Critique. 42.
  • Miller, Ann V. "Through a Glass Clearly: Vision as Structure in E.L. Doctorow's Willi". Studies in Short Fiction.
  • Morgenstern, Naomi (2003). "The Primal Scene in the Public Domain: E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel". Studies in the Novel. 35.
  • Morris, Christopher D. (1999). Conversations with E.L. Doctorow. University of Mississippi Press.
  • Morris, Christopher D. (1991). Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E.L. Doctorow. University of Mississippi Press. ISBN 9780878055241.
  • Porsche, Michael. (1991). Der Meta-Western: Studien zu E.L. Doctorow, Thomas Berger und Larry McMurtry (Arbeiten zur Amerikanistik). Verlag Die Blaue Eule.
  • Pospisil, Tomas (1998). The Progressive Era in American Historical Fiction: John Dos Passos' 'The 42nd Parallel and E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Brno: Masarykova univerzita.
  • Shaw, Patrick W. (2000). The Modern American Novel of Violence. Whiston Press.
  • Siegel, Ben (2000). Critical Essays on E.L. Doctorow. G.K. Hall & Company.
  • Tokarczyk, Michelle M. (1988). E.L. Doctorow: An Annotated Bibliography. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities.
  • Tokarczyk, Michelle M. (2000). E.L. Doctorow's Skeptical Commitment. Peter Lang.
  • Trenner, Richard. (1983). E.L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Ontario Review Press.
  • Williams, John. (1996). Fiction as False Document: The Reception of E.L. Doctorow In the Post Modern Age. Camden House.

External links[edit]

Book reviews[edit]