E. L. Doctorow Biography

E. L. Doctorow refused to let anyone tell him to keep his mouth shut. The author grew up in a lively Jewish household where vigorous discussion was encouraged. He has said of his childhood that it was “a lower middle-class environment of generally enlightened socialist sensibility.” These early experiences helped shape Doctorow’s novels, which are a blend of social criticism and history. Well-educated, holding degrees from both Kenyon College and Columbia University, Doctorow did not focus on writing until some time after college. His job as a script reader at Columbia Pictures gave him a unique perspective on how to write structure that he later perfected in his own novels, particularly in his most famous book, Ragtime.

Facts and Trivia

  • Doctorow once worked at the reservations desk at LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
  • Doctorow’s novel Big as Life (1966) is a science fiction story that was trounced by critics. Doctorow eventually removed the novel from print.
  • Doctorow studied playwright Heinrich Von Kleist’s work while at Columbia and based his protagonist in Ragtime after a hero in one of Kleist’s books.
  • In its first year in print, Ragtime sold 200,000 hardcover copies and made a total of $2 million in paperback sales.
  • Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, his first commercial success, was based on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. His outrage at their execution fueled his writing of the novel.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751

Born in the Bronx in 1931, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow has written fiction set in almost every major historical era since the Civil War, but he has returned again and again to urban themes, to the life of New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century and in the...

(The entire section contains 751 words.)

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Born in the Bronx in 1931, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow has written fiction set in almost every major historical era since the Civil War, but he has returned again and again to urban themes, to the life of New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century and in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Greatly influenced by the radical politics of the Depression and by the work of John Dos Passos, Doctorow has chosen to write an updated version of proletarian fiction, reflecting his concern with the domination of the means of production by government and industry. Doctorow sides with the masses—the immigrants, the minorities, and all the downtrodden, underdog characters who populate his novels. Unlike the proletarian fiction of the 1930’s, however, Doctorow’s work is rarely sentimental. Rather, it is distinguished by an elegance and irony that perhaps are attributable to his formal education and to his early conventional and middle-class pursuit of a career. Writing a generation after the Palmer raids that rounded up and imprisoned radicals in the 1920’s and the great industrial strikes of the Depression, he has had the opportunity and the incentive to meditate on both the persecution of American radicals and the failure of the Left to mount a credible alternative to the capitalistic power structure.

Doctorow graduated from Kenyon College with a major in philosophy. Known for its prestigious literary review and the presence of important writers such as the poet John Crowe Ransom, Kenyon provided Doctorow with examples of literary careers he could emulate, for he was educated in a college generation that had exposure to writers who were, for the first time, being placed in significant numbers in faculty positions. Writers continued to be critics of society while being employed by society’s influential institutions. This dual and ambiguous role has had an impact on the marginalized consciousness of writers such as Doctorow who earn a living from the society they criticize, and it may explain his repeated use of journalists, or other detached observers, to narrate his fiction. Writers in this context are both inside and outside the system and are subject to the social and antisocial attitudes, the bifurcated points of view of the rich and the poor, that mark so much of Doctorow’s fiction.

After serving in the Army, Doctorow worked for publishers in New York City, editing the work of important writers, such as Norman Mailer, who came out of World War II with their hostility toward the status quo intact. Mailer, Doctorow has observed, was part of a wartime generation that believed that a writer had to fight for and win a reputation in a society more or less hostile toward writers. Doctorow, on the other hand, has eschewed Mailer’s military metaphors and his sense of embattlement for a vision of the writer as ironic commentator—an elusive fictional narrator who is implicated in and yet aloof from the action he describes.

Doctorow’s cool stance may also reflect his philosophical training. In his novels, he tries to infuse serious ideas into popular genres such as the Western in Welcome to Hard Times (1960), science fiction in Big as Life (1966), and detective fiction in The Waterworks (1994). Identifying with the disadvantaged and with the dissenters, he has fashioned fiction with a leftist orientation, and on occasion he has joined his voice to public protests against government censorship and other forms of tyranny.

Ragtime (1975), a popular and critical success, catapulted Doctorow into prominence as one of the finest and most exciting novelists of his generation. With Welcome to Hard Times and The Book of Daniel (1971), he had already established a solid reputation, but the rave reviews of Ragtime and the subsequent film adaptation of the novel secured his place in popular culture. World’s Fair (1985) won the American Book Award in 1986, and Billy Bathgate (1989)—nearly as successful as Ragtime—shows that Doctorow continues to explore the astute blending of fact and fiction and of history and literature that has distinguished his most important novels. City of God (2000) suggests a renewed interest in philosophical studies, and The March (2005) establishes Doctorow as a master at portraying historical events, while at the same time demonstrating their effect on the lives of everyday citizens.

With residences in New York City and New Rochelle, New York, he has divided his time between the city and the suburbs; he has taught at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University. Since 2004, he has occupied the Gluckman Chair in American Letters at New York University.

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