E. L. Doctorow Biography

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 751 words.)

E. L. Doctorow Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

E. L. Doctorow has shown himself to be a master stylist, an adept delineator of characters, a lyric portrayer of places and eras, and a shrewd commentator on popular genres and political themes who also maintains a strong sense of narrative and storytelling. Indeed, his work is a major evocation and critique of the American mythos and a brilliant creation of new American fables. His experiments with point of view and with the relationship between history and fiction have marked him as a major innovator.

E. L. Doctorow Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx in 1931, and his fiction returns again and again to urban themes, particularly to the life of New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century and in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He graduated from Kenyon College with a major in philosophy, and after serving in the U.S. Army he worked for publishers in New York City, editing important writers such as Norman Mailer. His philosophical training is evident in his novels, in which he tries to infuse serious ideas into popular genres such as the Western (Welcome to Hard Times), science fiction (Big as Life), and detective fiction (The Waterworks).

Identifying with the downtrodden, with immigrants, criminals, and political protesters, Doctorow fashions fiction with a leftist orientation, and on occasion he has joined in public protests against government censorship and other forms of tyranny. With residences in New York City and New Rochelle, New York, he divides his time between the city and the suburbs. He has taught at several colleges and universities, including Sarah Lawrence College and Princeton. In 1982, he began teaching at New York University, where he became Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters. He provides a partial account of his life in “Childhood of a Writer,” which is included in Reporting the Universe.

E. L. Doctorow Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

E. L. Doctorow (DOK-tur-oh) must be counted as one of the most significant novelists of the generation that began publishing in the 1960’s. All of his work is imbued with a sense of history, by an innovative unity of fact and fiction, and by an intense desire to comment upon the most important political events of the twentieth century. Doctorow was a philosophy major at Kenyon College, and his literary work is informed by a probing exploration of how human beings interpret reality.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was reared in the Bronx, the setting for World’s Fair, which contains many of the elements of his own family life. While not an autobiographical writer, Doctorow sometimes uses the materials of his own life just as he uses the conventions of history and literature for his unusual narratives. Having also worked as an editor in major New York publishing houses (he edited some of Norman Mailer’s books) and having taught at several colleges, including Sarah Lawrence and New York University, he has a certain didacticism that is tempered by an exquisite sense of style.

Doctorow’s first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, is a caricature of a Western. He had done some scriptwriting and had not liked much of what he had seen in the genre. (Ironically, many of his novels have been made into highly regarded films.) The book was an effort to write an unconventional Western, a sort of absurd version of High Noon, the 1952 film in which Gary Cooper plays the vulnerable town marshal who must fend off a gang of menacing outlaws. In fact, Doctorow’s novel implies, the West was chaotic, even demoniac, and order was not usually restored in the fashion of a Hollywood Western. The reality of American history has been much grimmer than its literature or its popular entertainment has ever acknowledged. Doctorow’s fiction shows again and again an America whose myths do not square with its history.

After Big as Life, a science-fiction spoof about monsters who destroy New York City (a book Doctorow regards as a failed work), he published The Book of Daniel. Based in large part on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953, the novel is narrated by their son, a 1960’s youth trying to understand his own tormented and destructive nature even as he investigates the past that led to his parents’ deaths. He is angry over their abandoning him for politics, yet politics serves as the metaphor for the divisions in family life. In other words, the private and public realms of society merge, just as the narrative swings between Daniel’s first-person (intimate) and third-person (impersonal) points of view. In his great trilogy U.S.A. (1937-1938), John Dos Passos separated the elements of history and fiction by creating discrete sections called “Camera Eye” and “Newsreel.” It is Doctorow’s achievement to have fused the personal and the...

(The entire section is 1203 words.)

E. L. Doctorow Biography

(Novels for Students)

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx, in New York City, in 1931. Both of his parents were children of Russian Jewish immigrants, and...

(The entire section is 401 words.)