E. L. Doctorow 1931–
(Full name Edgar Laurence Doctorow) American novelist, short story and novella writer, editor, essayist and dramatist.
The following entry provides an overview of Doctorow's career through 1995. See also E. L. Doctorow Criticism (Volume 6) and E. L. Doctorow Criticism (Volume 15).
Doctorow's work has been characterized as fabulist and described as allegorical romance. Although much of his fiction focuses on historical fact, Doctorow has stated his preference to "mingle the Marvelous" with the real, as can be seen in his most famous work, Ragtime (1975). Doctorow has explored several genres of fiction: western, science-fiction, historical, and science-detection mystery. In doing so he has produced works that, while provoking critical thought, have also had commercial success. Political issues are often raised in his work—as in The Book of Daniel (1971), a look at the communist scare of the 1950s in America. While he often represents the values of the political left, he has also been critical of the left. A post-modern novelist, deconstructing and refashioning myths of American culture, Doctorow has also been portrayed as a literary descendant of Nathaniel Hawthorn and Edgar Allan Poe: a teller of tales that both reflect the writer's time and heritage, and invite readers to see with the light of critical thought.
Born January 6, 1931 in New York City, Doctorow was named after Edgar Allan Poe. He studied philosophy at Kenyon College, graduated with honors in 1952, and went on to perform graduate work at Columbia. From 1953 to 1955 Doctorow served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. During his army service he married Helen Esther Setzer, a writer, with whom he has three children. Doctorow's professional work has included a position as script reader for Columbia Pictures in New York City. During his time as a script reader he completed Welcome to Hard Times (1960), his first novel, which was later turned into a film starring Lou Chaney and Henry Fonda. In his native New York City, Doctorow worked in publishing, serving as senior editor at New American Library from 1959 through 1964, and as editor-in-chief, vice-president and publisher at Dial Press from 1964 until 1969. Big as Life (1966) and The Book of Daniel were completed during this period. The rest of his writing, including Ragtime, was completed while he held various academic positions. Doctorow was a visiting senior fellow at Princeton from 1980 through 1981 and has served as Glucksman Professor of English and American letters since 1982 at New York University in New York City.
Doctorow's first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, was written as a reaction to bad film scripts for westerns that he read as part of his duties at Columbia Pictures in the late 1950s. An idea for a short story became the first chapter of this novel which presents a revision of the spirit of the old West. Big as Life, Doctorow's second novel, is the mythical story of two naked human giants who materialize in New York City. Big as Life was not a commercial success, though it did gain critical praise, as did Welcome to Hard Times. The Book of Daniel focuses on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for espionage, and the anti-Communist atmosphere of the 1950s. The novel explores the spirit of survival of those persecuted in the attack on left-wing supporters. Doctorow's biggest success, both critically and commercially, is Ragtime, an amalgam of fictional and historical figures, including J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. The novel was adapted for the cinema in 1981 by Dino De Laurentiis and Milos Forman, and starred James Cagney. The mixture of history and fiction presented in Ragtime is a device which has characterized much of Doctorow's work, and through which he has raised issues about the writing of fiction and the nature of history. A focus on language has marked the majority of Doctorow's works. Language plays a prominent role in his play Drinks before Dinner (1979), which Doctorow claims to have conceived first with sounds in mind, then words, then the names of the characters. As he explained in an interview, the inspiration came from the writings of Gertrude Stein and Mao Tse-tung, particularly their "rhythm of repetition" and "flexible language with possibilities of irony and paradox." Loon Lake (1980) and Billy Bathgate (1989), although different in narrative detail, both question and evaluate the myths of success and the self-made man of American history. World's Fair (1985) and The Waterworks (1994) each contain elements of reminiscence and recreation of the New York City of Doctorow's childhood. The Waterworks, ostensibly a science-fiction mystery, has also been seen as an allegory of the Reagan era. In his Selected Essays 1977–1992 (1994), Doctorow covers a range of subjects that also appear in his fiction: for example, one essay deals with the effects of Reaganomics on American society, while another meditates on and describes 19th-century New York City.
Many critics assert that Doctorow is the quintessential postmodern novelist whose work re-examines received ideas and reflects on its own nature and structure. However, "traditional fiction values" are not subverted, according to Stanley Kauffmann, who emphasizes Doctorow's storytelling skills. "Every sequence is handled by a dramatist, [and] is understood to its conclusion," Kauffmann affirms. While telling tales, Doctorow also provokes critical thought: this is a strength repeatedly praised by reviewers. "Doctorow seeks a fiction," writes John G. Parks, "that is both politically relevant and aesthetically complex and interesting." Doctorow's mixing of historical reality and fiction is a feature generally admired by critics, who have asserted that the blend of fact and fiction provides fresh thought and breathes new life into mythical figures. Addressing this aspect of Doctorow's work, Michael Wutz praised Doctorow's "almost uncanny ability to reconstruct historical material and … spellbinding facility to tell a good tale." Commenting on Welcome to Hard Times, Stephen Cooper observed how Doctorow's portrayal of the early self-made men not as altruistic nation-builders but as "parasitic entrepreneurs" upset common perceptions of the mythical, and provoked readers to "struggle with our relationship to our society with an open, flexible, critical mind." Doctorow's revisionism, however, is an area that gives rise to arguments about his political sympathies. Reviewing The Book of Daniel, Kauffmann pointed out that the "political radicalism" America inherited from late 19th-century immigrants, many of them east European Jews, is the source of Doctorow's critical thought and his power to stimulate the reader. However, many critics, like Carol Iannone and Joseph Epstein, object to Doctorow's slant on American history and culture. "[T]he ideological attitudes of the left … compromise everything he has written," wrote Iannone; and Epstein suggested that Doctorow's fiction verges on the anti-American. Most critics, however, support a more balanced view of the political elements that pervade Doctorow's fiction, agreeing that he does "target reactionary history," but at the same time "his postmodern method also questions the left-wing interpretations of history."