E.L Doctorow was often described as a writer of historical fiction, but he disliked that term and preferred to say that he was “an American novelist writing about my country.”
Last week, President Obama eulogized Doctorow, who died on July 21st, as “one of America’s greatest novelists.”
Doctorow penned a dozen novels, including such award-winning works as “Book of Daniel,”“Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate,” each of which was adapted for film. He was awarded numerous literary awards beginning with the first of three National Book Critics Circle Awards in 1975 to his most recent Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction last year.
Doctorow was a New Yorker –- he was born in the Bronx in 1931, and lived in recent years in New Rochelle. His parents, second-generation Russian-Jewish Jews, while often financially strapped, provided young Edgar with a cultured and book-focused childhood — he was named after Edgar Allan Poe, his father’s favorite author. As Doctorow said in a 2008 interview, he became interested in writing at the Bronx High School of Science, where vying with other “very smart children…some quite insufferable…predicting in some cases correctly that they were gonna win the Nobel Prize in Physics… I fled down the hall to the literary magazine.”
At Kenyon College in Ohio, he majored in Philosophy. “I’ve always been interested in the major philosophical questions that don’t seem to have an answer that everyone agrees on,“ he told The Guardian last year. He studied drama for a year at Columbia University and was then drafted into the Army in Germany, where he married Helen Setzer, an aspiring actress he had met during his Columbia days.
After the Army, Doctorow became a reader for Columbia Pictures in New York. Westerns were very popular in those days and he wrote what he thought was a parody of them, although he had never been west of Ohio. The parody turned into “Welcome to Hard Times,” published to positive reviews in 1960.
In 1969, he left a publishing career to pursue writing full-time and in 1971, he completed “The Book of Daniel (1971). My own personal favorite out of Doctorow’s extensive opus, it is an account of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, relayed through their fictionalized counterparts, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson and their children, Daniel and Susan. Written in four parts with Daniel as the principal narrator, the book shifts between time periods, from the Cold War years of the late 40s/early 50s to the revolutionary foment of the late 60s.It’s impossible not to get caught up in the book’s mixing of past and present; the questions of what is history and what is truth pervade both this book and those that followed. "We live in the past to an astonishing degree, the myths we live by, the presumptions we make," Doctorow commented. "Nobody can look in the mirror and not see his mother or father. So maybe there's not such a distinction to be made."
Doctorow’s novels are notable for their mingling of historical characters with fictional ones. In “Ragtime” for instance, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Houdini, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman and Theodore Dreiser are woven seamlessly into the central story of the revenge of an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician. Although he certainly didn’t focus primarily on Jewish themes or issues, and was not thus labeled as a “Jewish” writer, he often portrayed Jewish life as part of the backdrop for his many characters, both imagined and real.
“Billy Bathgate” takes its inspiration from one of those real characters, the notorious gangster Dutch Schultz, but goes on to tell the story of its fictional hero, a Depression-era Artful Dodger who becomes part of Schultz’s underworld gang. Once again, Doctorow transforms fact into fiction, blurring the lines between them. "We live in the past to an astonishing degree, the myths we live by, the presumptions we make," Mr. Doctorow said. "Nobody can look in the mirror and not see his mother or father. So maybe there's not such a distinction to be made."
Perhaps his most recurrent character, though, is the city of New York itself. Many a reviewer has noted that Doctorow’s novels, in each of their chronological settings, create a portrait of New York over the last century. "It's nothing I planned, of course," Mr. Doctorow said in an interview with The New York Times. "I thought I was writing about life. But in my mind, life and New York are the same."
Till the end, Doctorow kept thinking and writing about the ideas that interested him, most recently in “Andrew’s Brain,” published last year. In this novel, Doctorow takes the reader on a journey into the mind and voice of Andrew, who like so many of the author’s characters must respond “to the history of my times.” As we watch Andrew peel back the layers of his life story, we must question, as in so many of Doctorow’s works, the line between truth and history, memory and reality and about our own response to what’s between the lines. Doctorow’s writings provide us with a ready-made epitaph, the ultimate spinner of history and fiction.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.