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...
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