IN MEMORIAM

EL Doctorow: History’s Darling

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The great time-traveller of American fiction
Acclaimed American novelist EL Doctorow, three-time National Book Critics Circle Award winner and National Humanities Medal awardee, died in New York City on Tuesday, 20 July, at the age of 84. Doctorow, who was known for popular historical novels including Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, died of complications from lung cancer. Among the many honours in an illustrious career are the National Book Award, two PEN/Faulkner Awards, The Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the National Humanities Medal and the PEN/ Saul Bellow Award. In 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Letters conferred the Gold Medal for Fiction on him. “Writers are witnesses,” said Doctorow in a 1984 interview to The Paris Review. “The reason we need writers is because we need witnesses to this terrifying century. Novelists have always written about intimacies, about personal relationships. Since in the 20th century one of the most personal relationships to have developed is that of the person and the state, we have to write about it, and some of us have. It’s become a fact of life that governments have become intimate with people, most always to their detriment.”

The author of 12 novels, four short story collections and a play, Doctorow has a full oeuvre spanning more than 50 years (he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize honouring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, in 2009). The Book of Daniel (1971) fictionalised the conviction of a couple as Soviet spies, and was made into a film directed by Sidney Lumet—but the big hit came a few years later. Bringing the era between the turn of the century and World War I to life, the landmark Ragtime (1975) took Doctorow to the heart of his readership, with a magical plot featuring Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud, later adapted into a prominent film of the same name with several big stars. Billy Bathgate (1989), a coming-of-age tale set in Depression-era New York, chronicles the life of a young chancer who apprentices himself to a gang, later adapted into the 1991 film of the same name. Doctorow then moved to the 1800s in The March (2005), his fictional account of General Sherman’s march through the South. Last year he gave us Andrew’s Brain, about a neuroscientist whose life has fallen apart.

‘[W]hat struck me was the audacious quality of Doctorow’s historical investigations. He wants us to know about crucial events of American history, but he also wants us to experience them imaginatively,’ said novelist Jane Smiley in her review in The Guardian (the verdict: ‘still at it, still ambitious, still sinuous, intimate, conversational’), taking the long view of his work. ‘He is, therefore, always walking that tightrope between what is accurate and what is compelling.’

Born in the Bronx to second-generation Americans of Russian Jewish extraction, Doctorow served as a corporal in the signal corps during the Allied occupation. He returned to New York as a reader for a film company, which inspired his work in the genre of the Western in his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960). Doctorow worked in publishing—as an editor at New American Library and then Dial Press, where he became editor-in-chief—before turning to fiction full-time.

‘Edgar’s work has always been ascendant, always steeped in the new, with original language, surprising storytelling, rigorous thought and standards of truth. Through books of great beauty and power, and characters I’ll never forget, he showed us America’s great flaws and its astonishing promise, and our own,’ said Kate Medina, Doctorow’s editor at Random House, in a statement. ‘Edgar was fun, even as he [held] us to the high standards he set for himself. To be with him was to be at one’s best; to read him was to discover, again and again, the joy of reading a master.’