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...
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