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A major contemporary fiction writer, E. L. Doctorow achieved widespread recognition with the overwhelming critical and commercial success of Ragtime (1975), a novel that vividly recreates the turbulent years of pre-World War I America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing up Middle Class in The Bronx
The son of David Richard and Rose Levine Doctorow, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in New York City to a family with a strong radical bias. He characterizes the setting as ”a lower-middle-class environment of generally enlightened, socialist sensibility.” The family resided in the then-middle-class borough of the Bronx. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1948, Doctorow entered Kenyon College in Ohio. He had chosen Kenyon because he wanted to study with the poet and essayist john Crowe Ransom.
Doctorow majored in philosophy, not English, and he acted in campus dramatic productions instead of pursuing a literary apprenticeship and an academic career. After earning an AB degree with honors in 1952, he studied English drama and directing at Columbia University (1952-1953) and then served from 1953 to 1955 with the U.S. Army in Germany. He married Helen Setzer on August 20, 1954.
Editing, with a Side of Writing
Instead of going back to graduate school after leaving the Army, Doctorow struck out on his own, earning a living as an expert reader for film and television production companies in New York. It was exhausting piecework but a wonderful education. He read a book a day, seven days a week, and wrote a twelve-hundred-word synopsis-critique of each book, evaluating its potential for the visual media. An informal evaluation of a novel for Victor Weybright, the editor in chief of the New American Library, led Wey-bright to hire Doctorow as an associate editor in 1959.
Doctorow’s vision of ”what the West must really have been like,” Welcome to Hard Times (1960), not only attracted excellent reviews but was also adapted as a Hollywood movie in 1967. The novel is the story of a western massacre, the shaping of a ”family” from the survivors of that massacre, and the creation of a tiny parody of a village from the ashes. Of all Doctorow’s novels to date Welcome to Hard Times has excited the longest loyalties and the least dissent.
By 1964, he was a senior editor, and that same year he was hired as editor in chief at Dial Press, where he became a vice president and remained until 1969. Doc-torow’s next novel, an attempt at science fiction called Big as Life, was not published until 1966. ”Unquestion ably, it’s the worst I’ve done,” Doctorow later told one interviewer.
After leaving Dial Press, he became a writer in residence, or member of the faculty, at the University of California at Irvine (1969-1970). With his next novel, The Book of Daniel (1971), Doctorow tried yet another narrative form: the historical novel, using the spy trial and executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the early 1950s as the animating energy at the core of his tale. Daniel’s voice is also the voice of a generation that seems characterized everywhere by slogans and symbols of upheaval, by its frank, jovial, self-congratulatory rejection of every sort of established authority. The Book of Daniel demands that the reader respond to it as a political tract as well as a private description of experience. Some critics argue that the novel is unabashedly a work of leftist propaganda and highly charged with moral outrage.
Ragtime: Retelling History
Doctorow next published his most famous book, Ragtime (1975), delighting and puzzling readers at the same time. In contrast to The Book of Daniel, Ragtime took more liberties with history and identity. In this novel, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and a half-dozen other real people speak, think, and interact in ways that cannot be verified historically.
Doctorow followed Ragtime with a play, Drinks before Dinner (1978), and a novel Loon Lake (1980), an audacious book in style and construction. Doctorow returned to more traditional tones and narrative procedures for his next two books, Lives of the Poets and World’s Fair (1985). Doctorow won an American Book Award for World’s Fair. The fact that World’s Fair is most centrally concerned with Doctorow’s family relationships is of foremost importance in examining the book as an autobiography. World’s Fair is his tribute to family life itself, ”life as it is lived,” a family memoir more than a private memoir, created with neither propaganda nor sentimentality nor condescension. Doctorow won an American Book Award for World’s Fair, a blend of memoir and fiction. In the book, Doctorow’s life and this life of his protagonist (also names Edgar) converge and diverge against the backdrop of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York City, which both the real Doctorow and his fictional counterpart attended. The World’s Fair setting gives Doctorow the ability to present a slice of world history itself (including the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II) side by side with the lives of his own family members.
Ongoing Publications and Accolades
Doctorow’s subsequent work includes the National Book Critics Circle Award winner Billy Bathgate (1989). The ”disreputable genre materials” that inspired Billy Bathgate (1989) may have been the comic book and the Depression-era pulp thriller. Doctorow seems to have tried to give his novel the joyful velocity and preposterousness of what the literary establishment calls ”subliterature.”
After Billy Bathgate, Doctorow published a novel, The March (2005), two volumes of short fiction, Lives of the Poets I (1984), and Sweetland Stories (2004), and two volumes of essays. Of these, The March was most successful, winning the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle fiction award, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 2007, Doctorow was awarded the Chicago Tribune Literary Awards’ Literary Prize for lifetime achievement.
Works in Literary Context
Doctorow is known for his use of historical (and quasi-historical) figures and events in his work. His writing is influenced by the literary, political, and intellectual discussions he was immersed in while growing up, his family’s Jewish heritage, his experience working as an ”expert reader” for Columbia Pictures, and authors, including the German playwright Heinrich Von Kleist.
The American Dream
In Ragtime, as in much of his fiction, Doctorow presents a multilayered narrative and historical settings and personages while exploring issues important to contemporary society. Central to Doctorow’s work is his portrayal of characters who search for the material prosperity and social equality promised by the ”American Dream” yet become victims of the oppressiveness of class division and capitalism. For Doctorow, history is a cyclical process in which his characters fall prey to a future over which they have no control.
In addition to his contributions to American letters, Doctorow remains active in the literary community and is involved in political activism. Doctorow encourages his peers to speak out on issues that extend beyond the literary world. For example, in 2004, Doctorow criticized President George W. Bush during a commencement address he gave at Hofstra University. His voice continues to be influential in a variety of communities.
Works in Critical Context
Although Doctorow received little critical attention for his early novels, he was praised for his inventive approaches to the genres of the Western and science fiction as well as for his exploration of the relationship between good and evil. The Book of Daniel is considered by many to be a poignant critique of the anti-Communist climate during the McCarthy era.
Ragtime received high praise from critics and other reviewers. For example, George Stade of The New York Times Book Review claimed that Doctorow had achieved an impressive breakthrough in his invention of a technique that could capture ”the fictions and the realities of the era of ragtime.” Eliot Fremont-Smith, writing for the Village Voice, said that Doctorow’s novel was ”simply splendid” on one level and yet also ”complicatedly splendid” in its deeper levels of meaning, implication, and irony, ”a bag of riches, totally lucid and accessible, full of surprises, epiphanies, little time-bombs that alter one’s view of things.” Yet, the novelist’s meddling with objective historical facts made several reviewers uneasy. For example, Hilton Kramer distrusted the message he felt was concealed beneath the novel’s surface charm:
The stern realities of Mr. Doctorow’s political romance—its sweeping indictment of American life, and its celebration of a radical alternative— are all refracted, as it were, in the quaint, chromatic glow of a Tiffany lamp, and are thus softened and made more decorative in the process.
Martin Green leveled a similar charge, accusing Doctorow of taking ”gross liberties with history in the name of art” and of encouraging the reader to indulge himself in a radical chic daydream, ”to give ourselves the airs of revolutionaries, in purely fantasy and wish-fulfillment conditions.”
- Brienza, Susan D. ”Writing as Witnessing: The Many Voices of E. L. Doctorow.” Traditions, Voices and Dreams: The American Novel since the 1960s, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel. Newark, DE.: University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 168-195.
- Budick, Emily Miller. Fiction and Historical Consciousness: The American Romance Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989, pp.185-215.
- Claridge, Henry. ”Writing in the Margin: E. L. Doctorow and American History.” The New American Writing: Essays on American History, edited by Graham Clarke. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990, pp. 9-28.
- Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
- Harter, Carol C. and James R. Thompson. E. L. Doctorow. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
- Levine, Paul. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Methuen, 1985.
- Morris, Christopher D. Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1991.
- Parks, John G. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Continuum, 1991.
- Siegel, Ben. Critical Essays on E. L. Doctorow. New York: G. K. Hall & Company, 2000.
- Williams, John. Fiction as False Document: The Reception of E. L. Doctorow in the Postmodern Age. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1996.
- Cooper, Barbara. ”The Artist as Historian in the Novels of E. L. Doctorow.” Emporia State Research Studies 29 (Fall 1980): 5-14.
- Emblidge, David. ”Marching Backward into the Future: Progress as Illusion in Doctorow’s Novels.” Southwest Review 62 (Autumn 1977): 397-409.
- Hague, Angela. “Ragtime and the Movies.” North Dakota Quarterly 50, no. 3 (1983): 101-112.
- Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. ”E. L. Doctorow and the Technology of Narrative.” PMLA 100, no. 1 (1985): 81-95.
- Parks, John G. ”The Politics of Polyphony: The Fiction of E. L. Doctorow.” Twentieth Century Literature 37 (Winter 1991): 454-488.
- Persell, Michelle. ”The Jews, Ragtime, and the Politics of Silence.” Literature and Psychology 42 (Fall 1996): 1-15.
- Weber, Bruce. ”The Myth Maker: The Creative Mind of Novelist E. L. Doctorow.” New York Times Magazine (October 21, 1985): 25-31.
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