Doctorow, E. L.
E. L. Doctorow
Addresses: Publisher—Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. Website—http://www.nyu.edu/fas/Faculty/DoctorowE.html.
Served in the U.S. Army in Germany, early 1950s; reader for Columbia Pictures, 1956–59; senior editor, New American Library, 1959–64; published first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, 1960; editor-in-chief, Dial Press, 1964–69; teacher at several colleges and universities, including Sarah Lawrence College, Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, New York University, and the University of California, Irvine, 1969–.
Awards: National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, National Book Critics Circle, for Ragtime, 1975; award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1976; National Book Award, National Book Foundation, for World's Fair, 1986; Edith Wharton Citation of Merit, New York State Writers Institute, 1989–91; William Dean Howells Medal, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, for Billy Bathgate, 1990; National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, National Book Critics Circle, for Billy Bathgate, 1990; PEN/Faulkner Award for best novel, The PEN/Faulkner Foundation, for Billy Bathgate, 1990; National Humanities Medal, 1998; PEN/Faulkner Award for best novel, The PEN/Faulkner Foundation, for The March, 2006; National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, National Book Critics Circle, for The March, 2006.
E. L. Doctorow is one of the most accomplished American novelists of the second half of the 20th Century, often considered in an elite company with Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth and only a few others. His epic historical fiction evokes the 19th and 20th centuries, often boldly introducing historical figures into imagined situations. His reimagining of the Civil War, the Rosenberg spy trial, and the era before World War I have attracted a huge following and critical respect. "Doctorow now occupies one of the narrowest subsets in American letters," declared David Segal in the Washington Post: "the million-selling author who is taken seriously."
Named for Edgar Allen Poe, Doctorow was born in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science. While there, an English teacher gave him an assignment to write about a colorful person. The young Doctorow turned in such a vivid description of a doorman at Carnegie Hall whom the famed classical musicians playing there admired, his teacher wanted to photograph the man and run the story and photo in the high school newspaper. Doctorow had to admit he had invented the man. His teacher gave him an F. "The outlines of Doctorow's future as a novelist were scrawled like body chalk around this failure as a reporter," wrote Segal in the Washington Post. "The impish disregard for the wall between fact and fiction, the cross-thatching of real celebrities and invented characters, a slight sentimental streak."
Doctorow graduated from Kenyon College with honors in 1952, then did some graduate work at Columbia University, but did not earn another degree. He joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany for a time. In 1954, he married Helen Setzer, with whom he has three children. For three years, Doctorow worked for Columbia Pictures as a sort of literary talent scout. His job was to read books and let Columbia know which could be turned into films. It became unfulfilling for him, since he recommended several books, but only one became a film, and he considered it awful. He moved on in 1959 to become a senior editor at New American Library.
But working for Columbia gave Doctorow the confidence to become a novelist. He became convinced that he could write at least as well as the authors whose work he scouted. Sure enough, he got his first novel published in 1960. Entitled Welcome to Hard Times, it was a Western, set in the Dakota Territories in the 1870s, about a stranger wreaking havoc on a frontier town. Working for a movie studio must have got Doctorow thinking cinematically; his book later became a film that starred Henry Fonda.
For a while, Doctorow's career as an editor seemed to go better than his work as a novelist. He became editor-in-chief of Dial Press in 1964. Meanwhile, his second novel, Big as Life, a science fiction satire set in New York and published in 1966, was a critical and commercial failure. It took his third novel, The Book of Daniel, published in 1971, to establish his reputation as a major novelist. It was inspired by the real-life story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of stealing atomic secrets for the Soviet Union in a controversial case in the 1950s and executed. The book alternated between the 1950s and 1960s, following Paul and Roselle Isaacson, stand-ins for the Rosenbergs, then flashing ahead to their son, Daniel, confronting his family history in the late 1960s while a graduate student.
Doctorow explained his decision to create fictional characters similar to the Rosenbergs at a discussion sponsored by Fordham Law School at the Time Warner Center in New York City in 2006. "I didn't want to write about the Rosenbergs," he told the audience, according to Adam Liptak of the New York Times. "I wanted to write about what happened to them." The Book of Daniel was adapted into a film, Daniel. Released in 1983, it was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Timothy Hutton.
Ragtime, his 1975 novel, may be his most admired and popular work. Set before World War I, it features historical figures of that time such as Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and U.S. President William Howard Taft, plus various fictional characters. It won the National Book Critics Circle award and sold 4.5 million copies. It not only became a film in 1981, it was also adapted into a Broadway musical in 1998.
The idea for the novel started when Doctorow was living in a house in New Rochelle, New York, that had been built in 1908. Tormented by writer's block, he forced himself to write about the walls of his house, then started thinking about his neighborhood and what it had looked like in 1908 and the trolley tracks that connected New Rochelle to New York. "I was imagining what things were like in that time, with awnings on the windows and trolley cars going down the hill to the [Long Island] Sound and people in straw boaters and women with parasols," he told Lisa W. Foderaro of the New York Times when he sold the house in 1999. "One image led to another, and I was off the wall and into the book."
Some critics questioned the way Doctorow placed historic characters in fictional situations in Ragtime, such as when he portrayed famed psychologists Freud and Carl Jung taking a ride together on the Tunnel of Love at the New York City amusement park Coney Island. On the other hand, that mischievous boldness was a key element readers liked about the novel. "The feeling of Ragtime was a rebellious feeling," Doctorow told Janet Maslin of the New York Times. In the mid-1970s, non-fiction was threatening to displace fiction as the center of literary ambition and attention, and Doctorow said he felt the need to take a stand for fiction. "My feeling was, 'if they want facts, I'll give 'em facts like they've never had before,'" he told Maslin.
During the 1980s, Doctorow's novels continued to explore the 20th Century. Loon Lake, published in 1980, was set in the Great Depression, while the semi-autobiographical novel World's Fair, from 1985, was about a boy coming of age in the Bronx in the 1930s. The more personal novel won him the National Book Award. Billy Bathgate, a 1989 novel set in the era of Prohibition gangster Dutch Schultz, was a major critical success, winning him several awards.
Two years after Billy Bathgate was published, it became a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman. Though Doctorow has had several of his books made into films, he has usually been disappointed in the results. "People have always said my work is cinematic, except the directors I've worked with," Doctorow told Segal in the Washington Post. "They tell me how difficult it is to translate because so much of my books are interior. So much of the action is in the mind, in the moral realm."
New York City is Doctorow's favorite setting and subject. His detective story The Waterworks, from 1994, is set there in the 1870s and centered on a mystery involving an evil scientist and a missing reporter. In City of God, published in 2000, he marked the turn of the millennium by turning his usual historical novel approach backward, showing three main characters in the present day, looking back on their lives in the 20th Century and the way history affected them. In 2002, he also paid tribute to the city by writing the text for Lamentation: 9/11, a book of photographs of the personal messages, posters, and signs posted in the city immediately after the World Trade Center was destroyed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
When Doctorow chose to go farther back in American history than ever, to the Civil War, he came back with another major work. The March imagines Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's destructive march through Georgia and the Carolinas toward the end of the Civil War. During the march, which scarred and infuriated Southerners for generations, his troops waged a total war on the land, looting and burning plantations and factories in order to destroy the economy of the South. As research for the book, Doctorow read Sherman's writings and asked medical experts about battlefield surgery during the Civil War. He also had a Civil War historian read a draft of the book and warn him about any inauthentic details. Yet he described the novel's relationship to reality as similar to a Van Gogh painting of a landscape—meaning the reality had been transformed by imagination. "Although the novel is less inventive, less innovative than his 1975 classic Ragtime, it showcases the author's bravura storytelling talents and instinctive ability to empathize with his characters, while eschewing the self-conscious pyrotechnics and pretentious abstractions that have hobbled his recent books," declared Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. The March won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner prize and was nominated for a National Book Award. "I've wondered for many years if awards are good for literature," Doctorow said upon receiving the National Book Critics Circle award, according to CNN.com. "But I find when I'm offered an award I tend to accept it."
Doctorow has long been known as an openly political writer. Critics have sometimes complained that his work can lapse into moments of polemic argument. In 2004, while giving the commencement speech at Hofstra University, he warned graduates that they needed to question authority, especially political authority. He pointed to U.S. President George W. Bush's arguments in favor of invading Iraq in 2003, challenging Bush's assertions that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was in league with the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. Many in the crowd booed, and the university's president had to step to the microphone to ask the crowd to let Doctorow finish.
The same point was still on his mind in 2006, when he and playwright Tony Kushner discussed questions of truth and fiction in literature and public discourse at the Fordham Law School at the Time Warner Center. Doctorow and Kushner decried what they saw as a trend in American culture and politics toward more tolerance of lying and the blurring of fact and fiction. That created an irony, since both writers have used historical figures as characters in their fictional writing. "Our justification and our salvation is that people know we're liars," Doctorow explained, according to Liptak of the New York Times. "The kind of genre-blurring done by the president of the United States is quite different. He is a storyteller, a fabulist, and presents as truth and facts stuff that is totally fictive."
So when Doctorow published a collection of essays called Creationists, it might be expected that he was jumping into the political debate about whether the biblical creation story belongs in science classrooms. Instead, it is about literary and scientific creation, mostly about American writers. In one essay, Doctorow compares Ernest Hemingway's typically American portrayal of the Spanish Civil War in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls to French writer Andre Malraux's treatment of the same war. In another, he examines his namesake, Edgar Allen Poe, as a quint-essentially American writer. "My father liked Poe's work very much," Doctorow told Lev Grossman of Time to explain his name. "He liked a lot of bad writers. But Poe is our greatest bad writer, so that's my consolation."
Doctorow's attempts to define America through its great writers, its past, and its present politics, while common among the elite of American fiction writers, often contrast with the work of his students, whom he complains too often write cramped first novels of limited vision. Epic stories of the past, far from being escapist, reveal the roots of today's culture and conflicts, he believes. "Any time you set a book in the past you're inevitably writing about the present," he told Bruce Weber of the New York Times.
Welcome to Hard Times, Simon & Schuster, 1960.
Big as Life, Simon & Schuster, 1966.
The Book of Daniel, Random House, 1971.
Ragtime, Random House, 1975.
Loon Lake, Random House, 1980.
American Anthem (with Jean-Claude Suares), Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1982.
World's Fair, Random House, 1985.
Billy Bathgate, Random House, 1989.
The Waterworks, Random House, 1994.
City of God, Random House, 2000.
The March, Random House, 2005.
Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella, Random House, 1984.
Sweet Land Stories, Random House, 2004.
Drinks Before Dinner, Random House, 1979.
Essays and Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1983.
Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977–1992, Random House, 1993.
Creationists: Selected Essays: 1993–2006, Random House, 2006.
Lamentation: 9/11 (with David Finn), Ruder Finn Press, 2002.
Three Screenplays: Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Reporting the Universe, Harvard University Press, 2003.
New York Times, December 2, 1999, p. B17; March 9, 2000, p. E1; September 20, 2005, p. E1; September 27, 2005, p. E1; January 21, 2006, p. B7.
Publishers Weekly, June 12, 2006, p. 40.
Time, February 26, 2006.
U.S. News & World Report, October 10, 2005, p. 22.
Washington Post, May 25, 2004, p. C1; October 1, 2005, p. C1.
"E. L. Doctorow," Fantastic Fiction, http://fantasticfiction.co.uk/d/e-l-doctorow/ (August 19, 2006).
"E. L. Doctorow," New York State Writers Institute, http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/doctorow.html (August 19, 2006)
"Featured Author: E. L. Doctorow," New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/05/specials/doctorow/html (August 19, 2006).
"'The March' wins National Book Critics Circle prize," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/03/03/book.award.ap/index.html (March 7, 2006).