EL Doctorow

Deemed "one of America's greatest novelists"1  by former President Barack Obama, E. L. Doctorow (1931-2015) was a literary titan in his own right. Doctorow produced twelve novels in his lifetime, many of which were award-winning. Several went on to become successful movies and stage plays. He also wrote three short story collections and a number of essays. Today, Doctorow is best remembered for his postmodernist novels, such as Ragtime (1975) and The Book of Daniel (1971).

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Contents
Table of contents

    E.L. Doctorow Biography

    Edgar Lawrence (E.L.) Doctorow was born to Russian Jewish parents in the Bronx in 1931. He was named after the 19th-century poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe. Doctorow's father owned a music store, and his parents shared their love of music and books with him at a young age.

    Doctorow attended Bronx High School of Science, where he found his niche in the school's literary magazine and journalism classes. After graduation, he earned his B.A. at Kenyon College, then attended graduate school at Columbia University for one year before being drafted into the army in 1954.

    E.L. Doctorow, The Bronx Terminal Market, StudySmarterDoctorow grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City, Unsplash

    After returning from the service, Doctorow worked in the film industry reading scripts. His first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), was inspired by the Westerns he read while working for Columbia Pictures. It was initially supposed to be a parody of western fiction, but it eventually became a serious novel that was met with positive reviews. Welcome to Hard Times was adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda in 1967.

    For much of the 1960s, Doctorow worked in the publishing industry. He began working as an editor at New American Library and climbed the ranks to become editor-in-chief at Dial Press in 1964. While working at Dial Press, Doctorow met many famous writers of the day, such as James Baldwin, Tom Berger, Norman Mailer, and William Kennedy, among others.

    James Baldwin was a famous African American writer who was known for his semi-autobiographical novels about race, sexuality, and politics.

    Doctorow left publishing in 1969, intending to focus on furthering his own writing career. In 1971, he completed The Book of Daniel, a historical fiction novel told from the perspective of Daniel, the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He then wrote Ragtime (1975), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Many of Doctorow's later novels were award-winning, including World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005)

    In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American citizens executed for espionage during the Cold War. As the Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in an arms race, any American suspected of supporting communism was seen as a threat. The Rosenbergs, who were devoted communists, were accused of passing along secret information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

    Although they claimed they were innocent, the couple was sentenced to death via the electric chair. Their death was a subject of mass controversy. McCarthyism, a vicious campaign to find and punish communists in government and non-government industries, was at an all-time high as government officials accused various American citizens of being Soviet sympathizers and thus a threat to the United States.

    Doctorow's literary career spanned decades and included twelve novels, a play, three short story collections, and several essay collections. He taught at Princeton University, the Yale School of Drama, the University of California, Irvine, the University of Utah, and Sarah Lawrence College. Doctorow died in 2015 due to complications from lung cancer.

    E.L. Doctorow Novels

    Doctorow wrote twelve novels in his lifetime. Two of his most celebrated are Ragtime (1975) and The Book of Daniel (1971).

    Ragtime (1975)

    Ragtime is set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. It centers around three families: an upper-middle-class white family, a working-class black family, and a poor immigrant family. Members of the white family are referred to as Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the little boy instead of given actual names. The family owns a business that mass produces flags and fireworks, profiting off the country's exuberant patriotism.

    When Mother discovers a Black baby buried in her yard, she takes him in as well as his mother, Sarah. Sarah is a single mother, but the child's father, Coalhouse Walker, hopes that she will marry him. Coalhouse is a professional musician; he visits frequently and plays ragtime music for the white family to earn their trust. When his Model-T Ford is destroyed by a racist fire crew, Coalhouse turns first towards legal action and then towards violence when he realizes he won't win a court case. When Sarah approaches the Vice-President for help, she is struck in the chest and eventually dies. Distraught over Sarah's death and still angry about his car, Coalhouse bombs the fire station and kills firemen in the process.

    E.L. Doctorow, Model T Ford, StudySmarterThe central conflict of the novel centers around the destruction of Coalhouse's Model T Ford, pixabay

    Coalhouse leads a group of vigilantes who resolve to destroy the Morgan Library if Coalhouse's Ford is not restored. Coalhouse eventually surrenders to the authorities to protect his men, but is shot and killed. His son is adopted by Mother, who falls in love with an Eastern European immigrant after Father dies in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. The newly integrated family moves to California.

    The RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner that was sunk by a German U-boat in World War I. Roughly 500 people died in the sinking, including 123 Americans, enraging the nation and pulling the United States into the war.

    The Book of Daniel (1971)

    The Book of Daniel centers around Daniel Isaacson, the grown son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson (who stand in for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Daniel is a graduate student with a wife and a baby. As he works on his doctoral thesis about the American Old Left, he considers his family's history with the U.S. government. The book flashes from the present to the past as Daniel in 1967 revisits his parents' conviction and execution in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Daniel records his relationships with his parents, wife, child, and younger, politically-radical sister Susan while also investigating the controversy over his parents' guilt. Unable to fully cope with his parents' deaths, Daniel rethinks his position in American society and what he thought he knew about the political Left.

    E.L. Doctorow, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, StudySmarterThe novel is a semi-fictional account of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's conviction and execution for espionage and. treason, Wikimedia commons (public domain)

    Other Books by E.L. Doctorow

    In addition to novels, Doctorow also wrote essay collections (such as Reporting the Universe (2004)) and short story collections (such as All the Time in the World (2011)).

    Reporting the Universe (2004)

    Part autobiographical, part political, and part literary, Reporting the Universe is a collection of Doctorow's essays published by the Harvard Press in 2004. In this collection, Doctorow reflects on his childhood and time at Kenyon College, a liberal arts school in Ohio. He also speaks to the political and social issues of the day, especially America's identity in the years following the terrorist attack of 9/11. This essay also includes some of Doctorow's literary criticism as he responds to fellow writers and literature.

    Other famous alums from Kenyon include Rutherford B. Hayes, John Greene, Robert Lowell, and Josh Radnor!

    All the Time in the World (2011)

    All the Time in the World is a collection of twelve short stories by Doctorow, six of which were previously unpublished and the rest of which were already well-received. The short stories center around protagonists who are in conflict with the world around them. From a wealthy lawyer who hides from his family to see how they interact without him to a young immigrant who gets caught up in criminal activity after marrying a crime boss's daughter for money, the characters don't quite fit into the ordinary American way of life.

    E.L. Doctorow, One game piece isolated from a group, StudySmarterAll the Time in The World features characters who are removed from their society in some way, pixabay

    E.L. Doctorow Short Stories

    Doctorow published three collections of short fiction in his lifetime: Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (1984), Sweet Land Stories (2004), and All the Time in the World: New And Selected Stories (2011). Of these collections, two of his most famous short stories are "Wakefield" (2008) and "Heist" (1997).

    "Wakefield"

    Doctorow's "Wakefield" is a modern retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1835 novel by the same name. In Doctorow's short story, a lawyer from New York gets home late from work because his train broke down. When Wakefield does get back to his home, he sees his wife and daughters eating dinner without him. He decides that he enjoys watching them from afar and hides in their storage room so as not to be found. Initially, his wife is worried that he is missing and has the police get involved. Eventually, she and their daughters move on with their lives while Wakefield continues haunting his own house. Doctorow's short story was made into a movie starring Bryan Cranston in 2016.

    E.L. Doctorow, Woman in another room with her back turned, StudySmarterWakefield spies on his family from afar as they live their daily lives, Unsplash

    "Heist"

    Doctorow had eight short stories published in The New Yorker, with "Heist" being his first in 1997. In this short story, an Episcopal priest struggles to keep his parish afloat. Rev. Thomas Pemberton gave up his upper-class life when he joined the priesthood, romanticizing the idea of modern martyrdom. He was, however, not prepared to lead a parish in the New York slums. Robbers ransack his church, eventually taking the crucifix. Pemberton spends the majority of the short story searching for the lost artifact. He finally finds it above a synagogue. The story ends with the revelation that the real mystery wasn't to find the crucifix, but to find God himself.

    "Heist" was later expanded upon for Doctorow's 2000 novel City of God.

    E.L. Doctorow Quotes

    Below are some of Doctorow's famous quotes about politics, writing, and literary authenticity.

    To think that I am writing to advance a political program misses the point. To call a novel political today is to label it, and to label it is to refuse to deal with what it does. My premise is that the language of politics can’t accommodate the complexity of fiction, which as a mode of thought is intuitive, metaphysical, mythic.”2

    Although many of his novels respond to political and social events of Doctorow's time, Doctorow was adamant that his works were not to be labeled as political or ideological. Doctorow believed that his commitment to the art of writing far outweighed political and social agendas. For Doctorow, the meaning of the novel should be found in the words and art alone.

    “One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing.”3

    In this quote, Doctorow speaks to his writing process. At time, such as when he was writing The Book of Daniel, Doctorow would get frustrated with his work. When that happened, he believed it was necessary to allow the characters to tell their own stories.

    "I was a child who read everything I could get my hands on. Eventually, I asked of a story not only what was to happen next, but how is this done? How am I made to live from words on a page? And so I became a writer."4

    Doctorow credits his early love of reading for his drive to write compelling stories. More than a source of entertainment, words became something that he lived by and used to sustain himself as a writer.

    E. L. Doctorow - Key takeaways

    • E.L. Doctorow was born in the Bronx in 1931.
    • His career in the literary world began in the publishing industry before he left to pursue writing full-time.
    • Doctorow was a famous novelist, writing 12 novels, including Ragtime and The Book of Daniel.
    • He also wrote short stories, including "Wakefield" (which was made into a movie in 2016) and "Heist" (which inspired one of his later novels in 2000).
    • Doctorow's famous quotes center around politics, writing, and literary authenticity.

    References

    1. "US novelist EL Doctorow dies at 84", BBC, July 22, 2015
    2. "E. L. Doctorow: National Humanities Medal." The National Endowment for the Humanities, 1998.
    3. "EL Doctorow Obituary." The Guardian, 22 July 2015.
    4. "EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, dies in New York aged 84", The Guardian, U.K., July 22, 2015
    Frequently Asked Questions about EL Doctorow

    Where was EL Doctorow from?

    Doctorow was born in the Bronx borough of New York City.

    Who is EL Doctorow?

    Doctorow was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, who wrote in the late 20th and early 21st century. 

    Is Cory Doctorow related to EL Doctorow?

    Cory Doctorow said he is not aware of any relation to EL Doctorow. 

    What did EL Doctorow write?

    EL Doctorow wrote novels (such as Ragtime and The Book of Daniel) as well as short stories (such as "Heist" and "Wakefield") and collections (such as All the Time in the World and Reporting the Universe). 

    What is Ragtime by EL Doctorow about?

    Ragtime is about the intersection of the lives of three families at the start of the 21st century. The novel features a white family, black family, and Jewish immigrant family. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: E.L. Doctorow was named after Edgar Allen Poe

    What inspired Doctorow's first novel? 

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