The EL Doctorow I Remember

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

American novelist E L Doctorow dies aged 84 following complications from lung cancer.

The American writer EL Doctorow, who died on Tuesday in New York at the age of 84, represented a series of paradoxes. Doctorow was considered one of the most respected and critically-acclaimed authors of historical fiction, having written 12 novels and a handful of short stories and plays.In 1960 in The New York Times Book Review, Wirt Williams reviewed a “first novel by a philosophy major.” The book was “Welcome to Hard Times” by E. Doctorow at a press conference in Rome, Italy, in 2007, on the eve of his reading at the Festival of Literatures in ancient Roman Basilica di Massenzio.

Doctorow was the author of a number of historical novels, most notably 1975’s Ragtime, which followed three families over the course of the early 20th century as they interacted with famous Americans. 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.

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… 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. 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. Over a career spanning half a century, Doctorow published 12 novels, three volumes of short fiction, and a stage play, as well as countless political and literary essays and articles.

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. 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 said. 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. 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’s debut “taut and dramatic, exciting and successfully symbolic.” Eleven years later, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The Times that, with “The Book of Daniel,” Mr.

But it’s got to be close to this passage from “The Book of Daniel:” “IT SO TERRIBLE NOT TO KEEP THE MATTER IN MY HEART, TO GET THE MATTER OUT OF MY HEART, TO EMPTY MY HEART OF THIS MATTER? Doctorow had “leaped into the first rank of contemporary American writers.” That novel was loosely based on the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Americans executed for treason in 1953. His father named him after his favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe, who Doctorow once called “our greatest bad author.” For a journalism assignment in high school, a young Doctorow interviewed a German-Jewish refugee named Karl who worked as a stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. The piece was replete with detail, down to how the old man drank his tea, sucking it through a cube of sugar in his teeth, the melting crystals sweetening each sip. Lehmann-Haupt wrote: “One contemplates most novels based on controversial public happenings with a sinking heart: fictionalization tends to trivialize such events: the public record weighs like sandbags on the imagination.

This embodied the central Doctorow paradox of being regarded largely as a historical novelist, even though he freely and deliberately played loose with any concept of the truth of the past. 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. It was his first attempt at the kind of writing that would make him famous, inventing fictional characters to inhabit real places and times. “I was a child who read everything I could get my hands on,” he told the Guardian. “Eventually, I asked of a story not only what was to happen next, but how is this done?

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. 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. As a modernist, he believed that all written accounts – contemporary documents, memoirs, newspapers, novels – are different varieties of invention.

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.” 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. Doctorow not only suggests in ‘World’s Fair’ that the process of remembering is by definition a process of invention, he rejects altogether the notion that imagination and memory are ever pure of each other.” Writing about a collection of Mr. 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.

Just as most of my peers love and idolize R.E.M. and the Smiths without realizing how much of their jangly guitar sound was borrowed wholesale from the Byrds’ mid-60s albums, in contemporary fiction we’ve become so used to colorful, madcap, slightly skewed novelizations of American history — from ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ to ‘Chang and Eng,’ from ‘Underworld’ to ‘Drop City’ — it’s easy to forget this method didn’t simply appear out of nowhere, disco-like, around 1975. 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.

The March depicted William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas through the vantage point of, among others, Sherman, a mixed-race freed slave girl, a battlefield surgeon and two Confederate prisoners. 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. 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. 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.

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. It tends to the simplest moral reasoning.” Doctorow 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, but took several more years to establish himself as a writer. 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.

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