Novelist EL Doctorow, author of ‘Ragtime,’ dies at 84

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Ragtime’ author E.L. Doctorow dies in New York at 84.

Born in the Bronx to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1931, Edgar Lawrence “E.L.” Doctorow’s journey into the hall of fame of American letters was enabled by his reputation as a writer of historical fiction. 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.

Doctorow, who died on Tuesday at 84, was a former book editor who quit his job as publisher at the esteemed Dial Press in 1969 to concentrate on his own writing. Given that his 12 novels, in a career spanning more than five decades, cover a century and a half of American history, from the Civil War to the present, and the American expanse from the Dakotas to Georgia and New York, Doctorow’s status as a “national writer” is, in fact, a bit too literal. 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. Student of political and literary history and how they tell us who we are now. “Underlying everything — the evocative flashes, the dogged working of language — is the writer’s belief in the story as a system of knowledge,” he wrote in the introduction to his essay collection “Creationists,” published in 2006. “This belief is akin to the scientist’s faith in the scientific method as a way to truth.” Doctorow was among the most honored authors of the past 40 years. The novelist Don DeLillo said that Doctorow’s work reflects “the reach of American possibility, in which plain lives take on the cadences of history…

Despite being a longtime academic whose photograph would perfectly have illustrated a dictionary entry for “professor”, his sure populist touch resulted in his novels becoming bestsellers and being adapted into Hollywood movies and a Broadway musical. By the time he died of lung cancer in New York on Tuesday, Doctorow had been one of the most decorated American writers, having won the lifetime Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction last year. In Doctorow’s wonderful Paris Review interview, published in 1986, he tells George Plimpton the origin of that novel’s remarkable opening chapter—the one you likely still remember, with its amused omniscient voice, which begins with the description of a three-story house in New Rochelle and perfectly encapsulates a certain blinkered view of the turn of the century: Teddy Roosevelt was President. Doctorow’s prose tends to create its own landscape, and to become a force that works in opposition to the power of social reality.” Doctorow said once, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog.

Yet, although these works brought him unusually broad audiences for a serious novelist, Doctorow never quite achieved the fame of his contemporaries such as Philip Roth and John Updike. The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms.

You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For those who have admired Doctorow’s work for decades it’s difficult to explain what his passing feels like. Doctorow also published far fewer books than Norman Mailer, Updike and Roth, his relatively short shelf partly due to a slow, meticulous composition not restricted to professional texts. And this was entirely unplanned.” A balding man with a soft goatee and impish expression, Doctorow was little known to the general public before age 40, but by late middle age was not just a popular author but a kind of wise man and liberal conscience. 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. Bush and urge him not go to war against Iraq or, to some boos, criticize the second President Bush and second Iraq War in a commencement speech at Hofstra University on Long Island. “With each new president, the nation is conformed spiritually.

It won Doctorow his third National Book Critics Circle Award and reconstructed General William Sherman’s “scorched earth” advance through the South in all its brutality. 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. Some reviewers – led, to the author’s irritation, by his revered fellow practitioner, Updike – fretted about how to know which bits of his books were history and which were just his story.

Named after Edgar Allan Poe, whom he praised and disparaged as “that strange genius of a hack writer,” young Edgar Doctorow read widely and decided he would become an author at age 9. “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? As a modernist, he believed that all written accounts – contemporary documents, memoirs, newspapers, novels – are different varieties of invention. 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.

One of his favourite tactics was to apply the storytelling tricks of postmodernism to a form – the historical novel – which, especially when he began writing, was often premodernist in its solemnity and claimed accuracy. Although movingly informed in some sections by the personal history of his Russian-Jewish immigrant family, Ragtime applies to past events a modern, sardonic voice that acknowledges what we know now – however, in the sort of complication that Doctorow enjoyed, later readers are, by now, experiencing one “then” viewed from the perspective of another. Billy Bathgate, though set in the 1930s, contrives a pay off that subtly indicts what the writer saw as the fiscal gangsterism of the Reagan era in which it was written. Yet, though their author was dismissive of the idea of realism, the books – unlike more openly experimental fiction – felt real to their readers, and were framed around mainstream elements (romances, crimes, family tensions, wars) that explain why Ragtime became both a film and a stage musical. 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 was fortunate enough to interview Doctorow, for radio and print, several times across a period of more than quarter of a century, from the publication of Billy Bathgate in 1989 to Andrew’s Brain, his final novel, last year. But he also championed books as a superior form of creativity, contrasting the budget for staging a battle on screen with the more probing and cost effective arrangement of a few hundred words on the page. “Fiction goes everywhere, inside, outside, it stops, it goes, its action can be mental. His respect for language led him to challenge ambiguity and loose phrasing in my questions, but he was courteous and drily funny and, above all, radiated a curiosity and intelligence, of which his readers and students were lucky beneficiaries. For instance, Andrew’s Brain, a dark comedy about cognitive science, was an exercise in making the relatively common literary device of unreliable narration even more complex and untrustworthy. 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.'” With “Ragtime,” published in 1975, he entertained readers and dismayed some scholars by mixing historical figures such as J.P.

As an octogenarian who was spending more time with doctors than he wished, the novelist was clearly contemplating the end, with one sentence in that final novel hard not to take as a valedictory, autobiographical nod: “I’ve always responded to the history of my times,” says the narrator to a listener called ‘Doc’, which, surely deliberately, is a nickname that must have been attached to the author at times in his life. In “The March,” he 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 and two Confederate prisoners who adopt various disguises. “History is the present. Asked how he researched the character of the financier J P Morgan, Doctorow said that he stared for hours at the portrait of the great banker by the photographer Edward Steichen. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth. “Everything in ‘Ragtime’ is true,” he said. “It is as true as I could make it.

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.

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