Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence)

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DOCTOROW, E(dgar) L(aurence)

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 6 January 1931. Education: Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, B.A. (honors) in philosophy 1952; Columbia University, graduate study in English drama, 1952-53. Military Service: United States Army: served in the Signal Corps, 1953-55. Family: Married Helen Esther Setzer in 1954; two daughters and one son. Career: Desk clerk, La Guardia Airport, New York, 1955-56; script reader, Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., New York, 1956-58; senior editor, New American Library, New York, 1959-64; editor-in-chief, 1964-69, and vice president and publisher, 1968-69, Dial Press, New York; faculty member, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, 1971-78. Since 1982 professor, New York University. Writer-in-residence, University of California, Irvine, 1969-70; creative writing fellow, Yale School of Drama, 1974-75; visiting professor, University of Utah, 1975; visiting senior fellow, Princeton University, 1980-81. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1973; Creative Artists Service fellow, 1973-74; National Book Critics Circle award and American Academy of Arts and Letters award, both in 1976, for Ragtime; National Book Critics Circle award, 1982, for Loon Lake, and 1989, for Billy Bathgate; National Book award, 1986, for World's Fair; 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, for Billy Bathgate; National Humanities medal, 1998; Commonwealth award, 2000. D.H.L.: Kenyon College, 1976, Brandeis University, 1989. D.Litt.: Hobart and William Smith College, 1979. Member: American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1984. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A. Address: c/o Random House Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.



Welcome to Hard Times. 1960; as Bad Man from Bodie, 1961.

Big As Life. 1966.

The Book of Daniel. 1971.

Ragtime. 1975.

Loon Lake. 1980.

World's Fair. 1985.

Billy Bathgate. 1989.

Three Complete Novels. 1984.

The Waterworks. 1994.

City of God. 2000.

Short Stories

Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella. 1984.


Drinks before Dinner (produced New York, 1978). 1979.


Daniel, 1983.


Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992. 1993.

Editor, with Katrina Kenison, The Best American Short Stories 2000. 2000.


Film Adaptations:

Welcome to Hard Times, 1967, 1991; Ragtime, 1981; Daniel, 1983, from the novel The Book of Daniel; Billy Bathgate, 1991.


E. L. Doctorow: An Annotated Bibliography by Michelle M. Tokarczyk, 1988.

Critical Studies:

"Marching Backward into the Future: Progress As Illusion in Doctorow's Novels" by David Emblidge, in Southwest Review, Autumn 1977, pp. 397-409; "Women and Tragic Destiny in Doctorow's The Book of Daniel " by Mildred Culp, and "Doctorow's The Book of Daniel: All in the Family" by Robert Forrey, both in Studies in American Jewish Literature, 2, 1982, pp. 155-73; E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, edited by Richard Trenner, 1983; E. L. Doctorow by Paul Levine, 1985; "E. L. Doctorow's 'Jewish' Radicalism" by Carol Iannone, in Commentary, 81(3), March 1986, pp. 53-56; "From the Lion's Den: Survivors in E. L. Doctorow'sThe Book of Daniel, " in Critique, 29(1), Fall 1987, pp. 3-15, and E. L. Doctorow's Skeptical Commitment, 2000, both by Michelle M. Tokarczyk; E. L. Doctorow: A Democracy of Perception: A Symposium with and on E. L. Doctorow, edited by Herwig Friedl and Dieter Schulz, 1988; E. L. Doctorow by Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson, 1990; E. L. Doctorow by John Parks, 1991; Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow, 1991, and Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, 1999, both by Christopher Morris; Understanding E. L. Doctorow by Douglas Fowler, 1992; Fiction As False Document: The Reception of E. L. Doctorow in the Postmodern Age by John Williams, 1996; "'The Jews,' Ragtime, and the Politics of Silence" by Michelle Persell, in Literature and Psychology, 43(4), 1997, pp. 1-15; Critical Essays on E. L. Doctorow, edited by Ben Siegel, 2000.

* * *

In his Newsweek magazine article, "A Vision of the American Zion," E. L. Doctorow rejoiced at the nomination of Sen. Joe Lieberman for U.S. vice president, crediting Lieberman's religion, or the rectitude of character that he traces to that religion, as the basis of his electability. Ruminating on anti-Semitism and the achievements of certain prominent Jews, Doctorow asked, "when did I stop writing about Jewish history and start writing about American history?" He rejected the otherness stigma of American Jews in "national life," including "national elective office." Hence, Jewish history and American history should be compatible ideas. Some Doctorow novels have offered a blending of Americana with the Jewish experience—The Book of Daniel (1971), portions of Ragtime (1975), World's Fair (1985), and especially City of God (2000). It is doubtful, however, that Jewish history and American history—considering the outcome of the 2000 presidential election—will have as close a link as suggested by Doctorow in his Newsweek article. But his religious flight of fancy in City of God , wherein a large cross is mysteriously stolen from an Episcopal church in New York City and inexplicably deposited on the roof of a building that houses a small synagogue, suggests in a remarkable way—through the Holocaust—the confluence of Jewish history with American history.

City of God is at once a critique of contemporary Christianity and contemporary Judaism. Christianity is faulted directly for not recognizing the immense scale of the Holocaust and therefore not doing nearly enough to make commensurate amends. Judaism is faulted for not evolving theologically and in practice—though, as City of God brings out, the universe has been evolving ever since the big bang, a "revelation" about the Judaeo-Christian religious systems may be evolving, and even God may be evolving. But this double-edged critique is background for Doctorow's grand effort at consciousness-raising, giving readers a detailed, indelible account of the Holocaust's horrors. Everett, the scriptwriter whose experiences, thoughts, and readings are so integral to the book, recasts and rewrites the narrative of a Jewish boy's survival in an Eastern European Nazi death camp, which is told to him by a young woman rabbi (daughter of a Holocaust survivor who originally provided the account). Everett sets the ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania, instead of in the actual Polish village of her father's story, and the woman recognizes his background source as the Kovno ghetto described in Avraham Tory 's diary. When she questions him about it, he admits his heavy reliance on that material.

Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary (1990), by Tory (translated by Jerzy Michalowicz), offered Doctorow a sizable body of Holocaust material that he could draw on directly and apply indirectly to structure the plot of his fragmented antinovel. In summer 1941 the German forces, moving through the Baltic region, established a local authority, known as an "Elders Council," in each ghetto they encountered, wherein Jewish "leaders" would collaborate with Nazi delegates (in anticipation of the Final Solution). In the Kovno ghetto Tory, a young lawyer and secretary to the council who had access to Nazi and Jewish leaders alike, secretly began to compile a collection of the council's transactions and relations with the German oppressors. Into this resource went his own descriptions and records of events, Nazi documents of all kinds, and whatever else he could obtain to preserve what was happening to the Kovno Jews. Tory hid the remarkable diary collection, which was subsequently traced and recovered. Doctorow, using the history as well as the contents of the diary, makes the search for the hidden (but lost) archive of the Kovno ghetto victims a minor mystery.

Appearing in New Yorker magazine, Doctorow's story "A House on the Plains" is a narrative by the son of a psychopathic mother who, in the early 1900s, successfully carried out an elaborate program of deceit, trickery, fraud, and serial murder in Illinois. Luring men (mostly unwitting Scandinavians) to their death for their money, she also murdered her three adopted children for their life insurance and burned down her mortgaged farmhouse to destroy the evidence. The story contains echoes and distorted elements of the Holocaust and its aftermath, including false identities, the idea of "inferior" Nordic men, destruction by fire of incriminating evidence, and the killer's escape to a new land and new identity.

—Samuel I. Bellman

See the essay on City of God.