Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) 1931-
DOCTOROW, E(dgar) L(aurence) 1931-
PERSONAL: Born January 6, 1931, in New York, NY; son of David R. (a music store proprietor) and Rose (a pianist; maiden name, Levine) Doctorow; married Helen Esther Setzer (a writer), August 20, 1954; children: Jenny, Caroline, Richard. Education: Kenyon College, A.B. (with honors), 1952; Columbia University, graduate study, 1952-53.
ADDRESSES: Home—New Rochelle, NY. Office— Department of English, New York University, 19 University Pl., New York, NY, 10003. Agent—Amanda Urban, I.C.M., 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: New American Library, New York, NY, senior editor, 1959-64; Dial Press, New York, NY, editor-in-chief, 1964-69, vice president and publisher, 1968-69; University of California—Irvine, writer-inresidence, 1969-70; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, member of faculty, 1971-78; New York University, New York, NY, Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters, 1982—. Script reader, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., 1956-58; creative writing fellow, Yale School of Drama, 1974-75; visiting professor, University of Utah, 1975; visiting senior fellow, Princeton University, 1980-81. Military service: U.S. Army, Signal Corps, 1953-55.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Authors Guild, PEN, Writers Guild of America, Century Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1973; Creative Artists Service fellow, 1973-74; National Book Critics Circle Award and American Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1976, both for Ragtime; L.H.D., Kenyon College, 1976; Litt.D., Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 1979; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1982, for Loon Lake, and 1989, for Billy Bathgate; National Book Award, 1986, for World's Fair; L.H.D., Brandeis University, 1989; Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction, and New York State Author, both 1989-91; PEN/Faulkner Award, and William Dean Howells Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, both 1990, both for Billy Bathgate; National Humanities Medal, 1998.
Welcome to Hard Times, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1960, published as Bad Man from Bodie, Deutsch (London, England), 1961.
Big as Life, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1966.
The Book of Daniel, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Ragtime, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Loon Lake, Random House (New York, NY), 1980.
World's Fair, Random House (New York, NY), 1985.
Billy Bathgate, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
Three Complete Novels, Wings (New York, NY), 1994.
The Waterworks, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.
City of God, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
Drinks before Dinner (play; first produced off-Broadway at Public Theater, 1978), Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
(Author of text) American Anthem, photographs by Jean-Claude Suares, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 1982.
Daniel (screenplay; based on author's The Book of Daniel; also see below), Paramount, 1983.
Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
(Author of text) Eric Fischl, Scenes and Sequences: Fifty-eight Monotypes (limited edition), Peter Blum (New York, NY), 1989.
Reading and Interview (sound recording), American Audio Prose Library (Columbia, MO), 1991.
The People's Text: A Citizen Reads the Constitution (limited edition), with wood engravings by Barry Moser, Nouveau Press (Jackson, MS), 1992.
Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
(Editor, with Katrina Kenison) The Best American Short Stories 2000, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.
(Author of text) Lamentation 9/11, photographs by David Finn, Ruder-Fin Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Reporting the Universe (essays), Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2003.
Three Screenplays (includes Daniel, Ragtime, and Loon Lake), introduction, commentaries, and interviews by Paul Levine, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 2003.
Sweet Land Stories (short stories), Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
ADAPTATIONS: In 1967 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a movie version of Welcome to Hard Times, written and directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Henry Fonda. Doctorow was involved, for a time, with the film version of Ragtime, released in 1981 and directed by Milos Forman from a screenplay by Michael Weller; it starred James Cagney in his last screen performance. Ragtime was adapted as a musical, with book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Stephen Flahery and Lynn Ahrens, and produced on Broadway in 1998. A film of Billy Bathgate, written by Tom Stoppard, directed by Robert Benton, and starring Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, and Bruce Willis, was released by Touchstone in 1991.
SIDELIGHTS: E. L. Doctorow is a highly regarded novelist and playwright known for his serious philosophical probings, the subtlety and variety of his prose style, and his unusual use of historical figures in fictional works, among them Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in The Book of Daniel, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, and others in Ragtime, and Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate. Novelist Anne Tyler called Doctorow "a sort of human time machine" in an assessment of the latter novel for the New York Times Book Review. Times Literary Supplement critic Stephen Fender, meanwhile, observed that "The project of Doctorow's fiction has been to deconstruct crucial episodes in American political history and to rebuild them out of . . . his own speculative imagination," and Listener commentator Andrew Clifford remarked that "Doctorow's trademark of using historical fact to brew up brilliantly imaginative fiction has helped him stake a claim to be the present-day Great American Novelist." His work as a teacher and editor and his nonfiction essays on social and political issues have further contributed to Doctorow's reputation as one of the most important literary figures of the late twentieth century.
Doctorow's father, a lover of literature, named his son after Edgar Allan Poe. Young Edgar quickly developed a passion for words as well; he was in third grade when he decided to make writing his career, he once told an interviewer. He wrote plays while serving in the U.S. Army, and when he left the service he got a job as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, an assignment that led to his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. In an interview for the Miami Herald, he told Jonathan Yardley that he "was accursed to read things that were submitted to this company and write synopses of them. . . . I had to suffer one lousy Western after another, and it occurred to me that I could lie about the West in a much more interesting way than any of these people were lying. I wrote a short story, and it subsequently became the first chapter of that novel."
The resulting book, unlike many Westerns, is concerned with serious issues. As Wirt Williams noted in the New York Times Book Review, the novel addresses "one of the favorite problems of philosophers: the relationship of man and evil. . . . Perhaps the primary theme of the novel is that evil can only be resisted psychically: when the rational controls that order man's existence slacken, destruction comes. [Joseph] Conrad said it best in Heart of Darkness, but Mr. Doctorow has said it impressively. His book is taut and dramatic, exciting and successfully symbolic." Similarly, Kevin Stan, writing in the New Republic, remarked that Welcome to Hard Times "is a superb piece of fiction: lean and mean, and thematically significant. . . . [Doctorow] takes the thin, somewhat sordid and incipiently depressing materials of the Great Plains experience and fashions them into a myth of goodandevil. . . . He does it marvelously, with economy and with great narrative power."
After writing a Western of sorts, Doctorow turned to another form not usually heralded by critics: science fiction. In Big as Life two naked human giants materialize in New York harbor. The novel examines the ways in which its characters deal with a seemingly impending catastrophe. Like Hard Times, Big as Life won substantial critical approval. A Choice reviewer, for example, commented that "Doctorow's deadpan manner . . . turns from satire to tenderness and human concern. A performance closer to James Purdy than to [George] Orwell or [Aldous] Huxley, but in a minor key." In spite of praise from critics, however, Big as Life, like Welcome to Hard Times, was not a significant commercial success.
The Book of Daniel, Doctorow's third book, uses yet another traditional form: the historical novel. It is a fictional account based on the relationship between Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their children. The Rosenbergs were Communists who were convicted of and executed for conspiracy to commit treason. Many feel that they were victims of the sometimes hysterical anticommunist fever of the 1950s. As with Welcome to Hard Times and Big as Life, Doctorow modified the traditional form to suit his purposes. The work is not an examination of the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs but, as David Emblidge observed in Southwest Review, a look at the central character Daniel's psychology, his attempts to deal with the trauma he suffered from his parents' death. Thus many critics considered the book, unlike typical historical novels, to be largely independent of historical fact. In Partisan Review, Jane Richmond wrote that "if Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had never existed, the book would be just as good as it is." In like manner, Stanley Kauffmann, in the New Republic, remarked, "I haven't looked up the facts of the Rosenberg case; it would be offensive to the quality of this novel to check it against those facts."
Kauffmann joined several other critics in deeming The Book of Daniel a novel of high quality indeed. Kauffmann termed 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." P. S. Prescott in Newsweek added that The Book of Daniel is "a purgative book, angry and more deeply felt than all but a few contemporary American novels, a novel about defeat, impotent rage, the passing of the burden of suffering through generations. . . . There is no question here of our suspending disbelief, but rather how when we have finished, we may regain stability." And Richmond called it "a brilliant achievement and the best contemporary novel I've read since reading Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes. . . . It is a book of infinite detail and tender attention to the edges of life as well as to its dead center."
In Ragtime Doctorow delves further into historical territory. The novel interweaves the lives of an upper-middle-class white family, a poor European immigrant family, and the family of a black ragtime musician together with historical figures such as Morgan, Houdini, Goldman, Henry Ford, and Evelyn Nesbit. Doctorow shows famous people involved in unusual, sometimes ludicrous, situations. In the Washington Post Book World, Raymond Sokolov noted that "Doctorow turns history into myth and myth into history. . . . [He] continually teases our suspicion of literary artifice with apparently true historical description. . . . On the one hand, the 'fact' tugs one toward taking the episode as history. On the other, the doubt that lingers makes one want to take the narrative as an invention." Sokolov argued that Doctorow "teases" the reader in order to make him try "to sort out what the author is doing. That is, we find ourselves paying Doctorow the most important tribute. We watch to see what he is doing."
Newsweek's Walter Clemons also found himself teased by Ragtime's historical episodes: "The very fact that the book stirs one to parlor-game research is amusing evidence that Doctorow has already won the game: I found myself looking up details because I wanted them to be true." George Stade, in the New York Times Book Review, expressed an opinion similar to Sokolov's. "In this excellent novel," Stade wrote, "silhouettes and rags not only make fiction out of history but also reveal the fictions out of which history is made. It incorporates the fictions and realities of the era of ragtime while it rags our fictions about it. It is an anti-nostalgic novel that incorporates our nostalgia about its subject."
Ragtime also is a deeply political story, and some reviewers, especially those writing for conservative publications, looked less than favorably on its political viewpoint, considering it far-left and simplistic. Hilton Kramer of Commentary, for instance, thought that "the villains in Ragtime, drawn with all the subtlety of a William Gropper cartoon, are all representatives of money, the middle class, and white ethnic prejudice. . . . Ragtime is a political romance. . . . The major fictional characters . . . are all ideological inventions, designed to serve the purposes of a political fable." Similarly, Jeffrey Hart, writing in the National Review, made the case that Doctorow judges his revolutionary and minority characters much less harshly than the middle-and upper-class figures, which results in "what can be called left-wing pastoral," a form of sentimentality.
In Loon Lake Doctorow continues to experiment with prose style and to evoke yet another period in American history: the Great Depression. The novel's plot revolves around the various relationships between an industrial tycoon, his famous aviatrix wife, gangsters and their entourage, an alcoholic poet, and Joe, a young drifter who stumbles onto the tycoon's opulent residence in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. The novel works on several levels with "concentrically expanding ripples of implication," according to Robert Towers in the New York Times Book Review. For the most part, however, it is Doctorow's portrait of the American dream versus the American reality that forms the novel's core. As Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times explained, Loon Lake "is a complex and haunting meditation on modern American history."
Time contributor Paul Gray believed that "Doctorow is . . . playing a variation on an old theme: The American dream, set to the music of an American nightmare, the Depression." Lehmann-Haupt saw a similar correlation and elaborated, "This novel could easily have been subtitled An American Tragedy Revisited. . . . Loon Lake contains [several] parallels to, as well as ironic comments on, the themes of [Theodore] Dreiser's story. . . . Had Dreiser lived to witness the disruptions of post-World War II American society—and had he possessed Mr. Doctorow's narrative dexterity—he might have written something like Loon Lake."
Doctorow's narrative style generated much critical comment. "The written surface of Loon Lake is ruffled and choppy," Gray remarked. "Swatches of poetry are jumbled together with passages of computerese and snippets of mysteriously disembodied conversation. Narration switches suddenly from first to third person, or vice versa, and it is not always clear just who is telling what." A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune found such "stylistic tricks" annoyingly distracting. "We balk at the frequent overwriting, and the clumsy run-on sentences," he observed. "We can see that Doctorow is trying to convey rootlessness and social unrest through an insouciant free play of language and syntax . . . the problem is that these eccentricities draw disproportionate attention to themselves, away from the characters and their concerns."
Doctorow's play Drinks before Dinner seems to have been created through an analogous act of exploration. In the Nation, Doctorow stated that the play "originated not in an idea or a character or a story but in a sense of heightened language, a way of talking. It was not until I had the sound of it in my ear that I thought about saying something. The language preceded the intention. . . . The process of making something up is best experienced as fortuitous, unplanned, exploratory. You write to find out what it is you're writing." In composing Drinks before Dinner, Doctorow worked from sound to words to characters. Does this "flawed" method of composition show a "defective understanding of what theater is supposed to do?" he wondered. His answer: "I suspect so. Especially if we are talking of the American theater, in which the presentation of the psychologized ego is so central as to be an article of faith. And that is the point. The idea of character as we normally celebrate it on the American stage is what this play seems to question."
When the play was produced, Village Voice critic Michael Feingold observed that in Drinks before Dinner, Doctorow "has tried to do something incomparably more ambitious than any new American play has done in years—he has tried to put the whole case against civilization in a nutshell." Feingold, however, found the ambition thwarted by a "schizoid" plot and "flat, prosy, and empty" writing. "I salute his desire to say something gigantic," Feingold concluded, "how I wish he had found a way to say it fully, genuinely, and dramatically." Richard Eder of the New York Times responded more positively: "Doctorow's turns of thought can be odd, witty and occasionally quite remarkable. His theme—that the world is blindly destroying itself and not worrying about it—is hardly original, but certainly worth saying. And he finds thoughtful and striking ways of saying it." Eder added, "and Mr. Doctorow's [ideas] are sharp enough to supplement intellectual suspense when the dramatic suspense bogs down."
Doctorow's novels World's Fair and Billy Bathgate are set in 1930s New York, and both received much critical acclaim. World's Fair relates a boy's experiences in New York City, growing up in a loving, if somewhat financially stressed, Jewish family during the Great Depression, and ends with his visit to the 1939 World's Fair. Numerous reviewers considered it autobiographical—the young protagonist and narrator has Doctorow's first name, Edgar; his parents, like Doctorow's, are named Rose and David; David runs a music store, as Doctorow's father did. Doctorow confirmed that the novel had autobiographical origins. World's Fair "is really a story about memory," he told Herbert Mitgang in an interview for the New York Times. "I started writing it before I knew what I was doing. The title came to me one-third of the way through the book."
"'World's Fair' is E. L. Doctorow's portrait of the artist as a young child," commented Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "The author's alter-ego, Edgar Altschuler, grows into an awareness that the world stretches far beyond the protective confines of a Bronx Jewish household." While "the subject of growing up is not so much a literary theme as a literary subspecies," Eder continued, Doctorow's "implacable intelligence" makes this novel stand out among the ranks of coming-of-age stories, "not necessarily in front, but unmistakably by itself." Doctorow, he remarked, "has renewed an old theme in his quite individual way." Edmund White, reviewing for the Nation, also found World's Fair distinctive. "In so many autobiographical novels the writer is tempted to gift himself with nearly perfect recall and to turn his early experiences into signs of his own later genius," White observed. "Doctorow avoids these temptations and sticks close to memory, its gaps and haziness as well as its pockets of poetic lucidity. He never divines in his Jewish middle-class Bronx childhood of the 1930s the extraordinary eloquence and wisdom he was later to win for himself." The novel, White added, "never becomes just an excursion down memory lane," with Edgar's recollections instead "constructing the anthropology of twentieth-century America." The critic concluded, "Doctorow finds feelings that are deep in the settings of a more innocent past. His past purrs and hisses and is capable of scratching deep enough to draw blood."
Billy Bathgate has the same setting as World's Fair, but where that book, as Anne Tyler put it in the New York Times Book Review, was a "lingering, affectionate, deeply textured evocation of the Bronx in the 30s . . . with a memoir's loose, easygoing story line, this new book has a plot as tightly constructed as that of 'Huckleberry Finn.' It is Mr. Doctorow's shapeliest piece of work: a richly detailed report of a fifteen-year-old boy's journey from childhood to adulthood, with plenty of cliff-hanging adventure along the way." Indeed, although World's Fair received the American Book Award, some critics laud Billy Bathgate as an even greater achievement. The story of teenager Billy Behan's initiation into the world of organized crime under the mentorship of Dutch Schultz is a "grand entertainment that is also a triumphant work of art," according to Pete Hamill, writing in the Washington Post Book World. Certain reviewers especially appreciated Doctorow's ability to avoid cliched characters. "Even the various gangsters are multidimensional," Tyler remarked. The completion of Billy Bathgate was also a milestone for its author. While discussing the novel in the Washington Post, Doctorow revealed that he felt he had been "liberated by it to a certain extent. . . . Certain themes and preoccupations, that leitmotif that I've been working with for several years. I think now I can write anything. The possibilities are limitless. I've somehow been set free by this book."
In The Waterworks, Doctorow imaginatively revisits old New York of the 1870s, an era of widespread corruption in a city which enjoyed great prosperity because of profiteering during the U.S. Civil War. In this novel, Doctorow's protagonist is a journalist named McIlvaine, who investigates reports that a wealthy man, believed deceased, has been spotted in public on at least two occasions in the city. To his horror, McIlvaine discovers several such specimens of the living dead as well as their reanimator—a rogue scientist named Wrede Sartorius who is either a madman or a genius ahead of his time. Sartorius is capable of bringing to life the recently deceased, using "fluids" obtained from anonymous street urchins held captive in his lair. Major scenes are set at the municipal waterworks, the holding reservoir into which flows Manhattan's water supply from upstate. In this novel, explained Luc Sante in the New York Review of Books, the waterworks facility "is identified with the machinery of civilization, a matter of considerable ambiguity. It is both the locus of possibly nefarious deeds and a marvel of engineering no less impressive today than it was then. Within its precincts Sartorius carries out his experiments, which are futuristic and quaint, morally questionable and straightforwardly inquisitive." Paul Gray, reviewing for Time, found The Waterworks "an entertaining and sometimes truly haunting story," while Spectator critic John Whitworth called it "a marvelous book," a novel "of the prelapsarian state, a late nineteenth-century novel, something out of Conrad and James, out of Stevenson and Wells and Conan Doyle."
The story of Doctorow's City of God "is at first difficult to discern," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "because the abruptly changing voices are not identified. But the episodic selections prove to be passages in a notebook" kept by Doctorow's protagonist, a writer named Everett. Time's Gray commented that after thirty pages, the reader "will get the hang of things." In the story, Everett is looking for something to write about and finds an idea that interests him: an incident involving a brass cross that was stolen from an Episcopal church tended by a faith-doubting Thomas Pemberton. The cross turns up on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism. Pemberton is murdered after a trip to eastern Europe, and Everett eventually becomes attracted to Pemberton's widow. The plot does not come across so straightforwardly, however. City of God, explained New York Times Book Review critic A. O. Scott, "features shifting narrative points of view and loose ends scattered like snippets of telephone wire, as well as extended passages of philosophical speculation, theological rumination and blankish verse." Among the topics Doctorow explores, observed Mark Harris in Entertainment Weekly, are "the origins of the known universe and of life on earth, the fathomless horror of the Holocaust, the place of Jewish and Christian worship and of religious faith in general at the dawn of a new millennium, jazz, desire, movies, war, writing . . . in other words, one of our senior literary lions has decided to grapple with cosmic questions."
"Through all its convolutions," noted John Bemrose in Maclean's, "City of God creates a gripping sense of the moral and spiritual dilemmas faced by humans at the turn of the millennium." Nation contributor Melvin Bukiet called the novel Doctorow's "most vital—and most difficult—work yet. . . . Without linear plot or unified voice, City of God is tessellated, a mosaic touching on love and loneliness, faith and physics. It glints and glimmers, reflecting off rather than building upon itself, and adding up to a sum greater than its multifarious parts." Francine Prose, reviewing for People, wrote that "City of God puts great faith in the intelligence and patience of its readers." Prose felt that readers who "rise to the challenge" will find the novel rewarding. Writing in Library Journal, Mirela Roncevic termed the novel "courageous" and, praising Doctorow for sensitivity and perceptiveness, described the work as "essential reading." Gray concluded in Time that "the true miracle of City of God is the way its disparate parts fuse into a consistently enthralling and suspenseful whole. In such novels as Ragtime (1975) and Billy Bathgate (1989), Doctorow mixed historical and fictional figures in ways that magically challenged ordinary notions of what is real. His new novel repeats this process, with even more intriguing and unsettling consequences."
Doctorow's subsequent publications include collections of screenplays, essays, and short stories. ThreeScreenplays features the screenplay for Daniel—for which Doctorow did see his script used—as well as his unproduced adaptations of Ragtime and Loon Lake. When Ragtime was being prepared for film by director Robert Altman, Doctorow worked for a time on the screenplay, but he left the project after Milos Forman replaced Altman, as Forman and Doctorow disagreed on several aspects of the production. In the preface to Three Screenplays, Doctorow reveals that he dislikes writing film scripts: the screenplays, he says, "were motivated only by my desire to protect my work from oversimplification, bowdlerization, and general mauling by other hands."
The essay compilation Reporting the Universe and the short-fiction collection Sweet Land Stories find Doctorow in literary forms he apparently enjoys more than screenwriting. The pieces in Reporting the Universe, originally a series of lectures delivered by Doctorow at Harvard University, deal with some of the subjects that have informed his fiction: his boyhood, American social and political culture, spirituality, freedom of expression. Doctorow's arguments "are brilliantly reasoned and beautifully expressed," related Amanda Heller in the Boston Globe. Both this collection and Sweet Land Stories show the author "burrowing hard toward the Big Questions," commented Art Winslow in Chicago's Tribune Books, adding: "When he examines the role of the writer in society in 'Reporting the Universe,' one can turn to 'Sweet Land Stories' and see how those ideas play out in his fiction." Doctorow's characters in the short stories include murderers, a self-anointed prophet, an abandoned child, and people who abandon or abduct children. "One of Doctorow's great strengths," Winslow remarked, "is in presenting the aberrant mind and antisocial act as relatively rational, under the circumstances. . . . The characters speak to us engagingly from the Dark Fields of Doctorow's Republic." In Sweet Land Stories, Doctorow is "boring like a laser into the failures of the American dream," a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed, while Library Journal contributor Barbara Hoffert reported that "Doctorow takes a simple story and creates a universe," and the collection as a whole "reminds one of the distinction between merely good and truly great authors."
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Village Voice, July 7, 1975; August 4, 1975; December 4, 1978; November 26, 1985.
Wall Street Journal, February 7, 1986.
Washington Post, March 9, 1998.
Washington Post Book World, July 13, 1975; September 28, 1980; November 11, 1984; November 17, 1985; February 19, 1989.*