E.L. Doctorow, an author beloved for his works of historical fiction including “Ragtime,” “World’s Fair,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The March,” died Tuesday of complications from lung cancer, according to his son.
Doctorow grew up in the Bronx in New York City and attended the Bronx High School of Science. Doctorow said early encouragement from his teachers had helped him pursue writing in an interview with Roger Rosenblatt at the 92nd St. Y in New York City. He attended Kenyon College, then served in the U.S. Army from 1954-55 as a corporal stationed in Germany.
Doctorow’s work interweaved characters and historical details from both past and present, lending new perspective to both. His novel “The Book of Daniel” (1971), his third book and one of his first widely-known works, told the story of a couple loosely based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the U.S. for treason in 1953.
He drew public acclaim for his novel “Ragtime” (1975), which explored life in New York City in the years before World War I. “It works so well that one devours it in a single sitting as if it were the most conventional of entertainments,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupth of The New York Times wrote in a review of the book shortly after it was published. The novel would later be adapted into a Broadway musical by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally.
His novel “World’s Fair” (1985) drew on his own experiences, forming what Doctorow called “a portrait of the artist as a very young boy.” David Leavitt of The New York Times wrote in a 1985 review that “World’s Fair” contained “dazzling prose” in its exploration of the nature of memory:
By flaunting the artificial line dividing the true from the imagined, Mr. Doctorow not only suggests in ”World’s Fair” that the process of remembering is by definition a process of invention, he rejects altogether the notion that imagination and memory are ever pure of each other.
Doctorow’s described his process in an interview with The Paris Review. He said that having begun a project, he usually had no idea where it was going to end:
It’s not a terribly rational way to work. It’s hard to explain. I have found one explanation that seems to satisfy people. I tell them it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
President Obama called Doctorow “one of America’s greatest novelists” in a tweet Tuesday night. “His books taught me much, and he will be missed,” he wrote.
He was the Winner of twp Pen/Faulkner Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Saul Bellow Award, a National Humanities Medal and the Gold Medal for Fiction as well as a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.