E. L. Doctorow Doctorow, E. L. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Welcome to Hard Times (novel) 1960
Big as Life (novel) 1966
The Book of Daniel (novel) 1971
Ragtime (novel) 1975
Drinks before Dinner (drama) 1979
Loon Lake (novel) 1980
Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (short fiction) 1984
World's Fair (novel) 1985
Billy Bathgate (novel) 1989
Selected Essays 1977–1992 (nonfiction) 1994
The Waterworks (novel) 1994

Wirt Williams (review date 25 September 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bad Man from Bodie," in New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1960, p. 51.

[In the following review, Williams outlines the conflict and theme of Welcome to Hard Times.]

"Once again, the legend of the Old West has been rescued for a serious literary purpose," say the publishers of this first novel by a philosophy major. Inevitably, they invoke The Ox-Bow Incident—a practice followed by many reviewers, who seldom fail to pronounce the work at hand the first serious fiction about the West since—well, almost always since The Ox-Bow Incident (e.g.: The Authentic Death of Dendry Janes, Carrington, A Distant Trumpet, Warlock). It is time...

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Gwendolyn Brooks (review date 10 July 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Menace," in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, July 10, 1966, p. 17.

[In the following review, Brooks provides a sketch of the plot, characters and ideas in Big as Life.]

One day a gigantic, nude man and woman arrive in New York. They lean against the horizon. They are beautiful, burnished, odorous, and they have a powerful effect on the town, which proceeds to tumble over itself, to huddle, to pray. The town cries NO.

What can be done? Consultation, defense command, intellectual research, jetliner, helicopter, and practical philosophy are brought to bear. The President, the Cabinet, and the governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania are interested, make suggestions.

Through the screen of hysteria we see most plainly Wallace Creighton, a professor of history at Columbia University, jazz bass king Red Bloom and Red Bloom's love, Sugarbush. These people inch their way through the violence, death, blanks, and quavers of their predicament and emerge, shredded, with new creeds. Thoughtful Creighton is at first convinced that the new people are unendurable, that they are overwhelmingly repulsive and subtly dangerous; for there is the possibility of mysterious and awful infection, and even though it is discovered that an hour of "normal" time is a month or two of giant time, there is the certainty that eventually the nameless ones will become aware of their small oppressors and will simply stamp them out. But after considerable mullings and veerings, Creighton decides that the invaders have become actually necessary, that they are stimulating the beginning of a "real history," that the net result may be "nice" for posterity, may improve the prospects of that little son Red and Sugarbush are expecting. To tamper with them might "touch some nerve, some key connection." Red, although still awed after a year of the mighty presences, decides that it will be all right if the big beauties remain. He can no longer imagine their non-existence. "I think if you take them away they'll still be there."

As for Sugarbush—her creed is comprised of Red, "love" with Red, housework, the coming baby, and making-the-best-of-things. In Essential Woman we meet the solving heart of things, the blood of this book. Making-the-best-of-things is E. L. Doctorow's recommendation. It is a good recommendation, so we water down our regret that his characters and style are servants to his message.

Stanley Kauffman (review date 5 June 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wrestling Society for a Soul," in New Republic, June 5, 1971, pp. 25-7.

[In the following review, Kauffman explains the intricacies of The Book of Daniel, revealing it as "a work of historic and psychic currents."]

This is less a review than a celebration. [With The Book of Daniel,] E. L. Doctorow has written the political novel of our age, the best American work of its kind that I know since Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey. Doctorow could hardly be less like Trilling in style or temper, but that's part of the point; it helps to make this novel the quintessence of the '60s, as Trilling, in 1947, fixed the political '30s....

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Joseph Catinella (review date 17 July 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Daniel, in Saturday Review, Vol. 54, No. 29, July 17, 1971, pp. 32, 61.

[In the following review, Catinella comments on the devices and concerns of The Book of Daniel.]

A dozen years after Paul and Rochelle Isaacson have been electrocuted for passing atomic secrets to the Russians, their son, Daniel, sits in the library at Columbia University, ostensibly working on his Ph.D. thesis. But he's actually jotting down notes about life in the Fifties and early Sixties, recalling how he and his sister, Susan, reacted to their parents' fate, wondering where the reckless course of late twentieth-century history is plunging America and the...

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Patrick Parrinder (review date 4 April 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cover Stories," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 6, April 4, 1985, pp. 15-16.

[In the following excerpt, Parrinder discusses Doctorow's narration in the tales that make up Lives of the Poets.]

'Here's something out of the quaint past, a man reading a book,' remarks E. L. Doctorow's narrator as he rides the New York subway. The other passengers in the subway are not readers but listeners, hooked to their earphones and tape-players, 'listening their way back from literacy'. And before literacy? 'The world worked in a different system of perception, voices were disembodied, tales were told.' If tale-telling is the sign of a primitive culture, we—this...

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Richard D. Beards (review date Summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Lives of the Poets, in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 427-8.

[In the following review, Beards provides a brief survey of the stories collected in Lives of the Poets.]

Subtitled "A Novella and Six Stories," E. L. Doctorow's collection of short works Lives of the Poets challenges the reader to create a heuristic writer whose imagination contains this conglomeration of fictions. The stories employ a variety of narrative stances and voices: first person, omniscient; journalist, police reporter, social psychologist.

The first story, "The Writer in the Family" (the title can be read to underscore...

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Marvin J. LaHood (review date Winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of World's Fair, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1987, p. 101.

[The following review provides a brief report of the contents and concerns of World's Fair.]

Novels that are truly evocative of childhood are rare. It takes a special kind of talent to remember what the world looks and feels like through the sensibilities of a child. When it is done well, the remembrance resonates through the reader's own being in a way that is both pleasant and painful. World's Fair is one of the finest novels of this kind published in recent memory. It is a nostalgic and beautifully modulated look at New York City in the thirties through...

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Michelle M. Tokarczyk (essay date Fall 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From the Lion's Den: Survivors in E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel," in Critique, Vol. 29, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 3-15.

[In the following essay, Tokarczyk offers a psychological analysis of the characters in The Book of Daniel.]

Upon its publication, The Book of Daniel was praised by reviewers for its stylistic excellence and imaginative treatment of a daring theme. Although the novel has received relatively little critical attention in subsequent years, it continues to be regarded as outstanding and insightful. In her article on The Book of Daniel, Barbara Estrin rightfully states the book is "… a description of the hysteria of...

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John G. Parks (essay date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Polyphony: The Fiction of E. L. Doctorow," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 454-63.

[In the following essay, Parks applies recent critical theory to a study of the political and historical elements of Doctorow's fiction.]

"The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy," R. G. Collingwood remarks in his Autobiography, "is to reckon with twentieth-century history." In the fifty years since Collingwood wrote those words that "reckoning" with history has become increasingly problematic, especially when considering the situation of the contemporary writer. Describing the writer's alienation from history...

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Derek Wright (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ragtime Revisited: History and Fiction in Doctorow's Novel," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1993, pp. 14-16.

[In the following essay, Wright considers Doctorow's narrative melding of historical fact and fiction in Ragtime and the themes that are developed in the novel.]

Perhaps the crucial difference between E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (1976) and other, more thoroughgoing fictional reinventions of history such as Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966) or Rushdie's Shame (1983) is that the latter use history to say something about fiction—they display the endlessly fertile capacity of the novelistic imagination to...

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Stephen Matterson (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Why Not Say What Happened? E. L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets," in Critique, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 113-25.

[In the following essay, Matterson addresses the ideas about writing suggested by the stories in Doctorow's Lives of the Poets.]

Lives of the Poets, E. L. Doctorow's seventh work, first published in 1984, occupies a unique space in his writings. Its most obvious difference from the other work is announced in its subtitle, A Novella and Six Stories, because, apart from the 1979 play, Drinks before Dinner, Doctorow's previous work had been in the novel form. A case could be made for considering Lives of the...

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Stephen Cooper (essay date May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cutting Both Ways: E. L. Doctorow's Critique of the Left," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 58, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 111-25.

[In the following essay, Cooper examines the political concerns of Doctorow's work.]

The experimental, "postmodern" elements in E. L. Doctorow's novels are remarked upon by virtually all his critics. In most of his major novels the narrative voice is self-conscious and calls attention to itself. In his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), the narrator Blue is writing his story in old ledgers and reflects on his penchant, even obsession, for record keeping and wonders if the truth of events can be captured in words. Daniel...

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Ann V. Miller (essay date Summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Through a Glass Clearly: Vision as Structure in E. L. Doctorow's 'Willi'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 337-42.

[In the following essay, Miller provides a detailed analysis of "Willi," from Lives of the Poets, pointing out its psychological complexities.]

In his significant work on Remembrance of Things Past, Roger Shattuck argues that three principles of vision clarify the division of Proust's book and constitute its most fundamental structure. Borrowing his terms from film, Shattuck names these principles cinematographic, montage, and stereoscopic. The young see through only one lens: their first...

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Stephen Fender (review date 27 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novelist as Liar," in Times Literary Supplement, May 27, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review, Fender considers points raised in essays in Poets and Presidents and discusses the thematic and aesthetic aspects of The Waterworks in relation to Doctorow's previous fiction.]

"The development of civilizations", writes E. L. Doctorow in the earliest of the essays in Poets and Presidents, "is essentially a progression of metaphors." At this level of abstraction, the narratives of history and fiction are indistinguishable. On a more specific level, they diverge. The difference is that novelists are "born liars", who are to be trusted...

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John Whitworth (review date 28 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Wonderful Town, Even Then," in Spectator, Vol. 272, No. 8655, May 28, 1994, p. 33.

[In the following review, Whitworth informs the reader of the style and thematic concerns of The Waterworks.]

The Waterworks is a marvellous book, gathering such momentum that I read the last 120 pages in one go at four o'clock in the morning. Doctorow has given us a novel of the prelapsarian state, a late 19th-century novel, something out of Conrad and James, out of Stevenson and Wells and Conan Doyle. Of course it's a bit of a cheek, taking this American for our own, for this is a book about New York in the years after Lincoln's assassination. And perhaps Doctorow...

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Jonathan Franzen (review date 19 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Where Our Troubles Began," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 19, 1994, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Franzen discusses the setting, character and plot of The Waterworks and compares the book to Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The Book of Daniel.]

The imaginative universe of E. L. Doctorow is as unbounded in time as it is spatially restricted by his love and hatred of New York. He travels through history by means of inference, from old buildings. His characters are like genies conjured up by the mental stroking of New York City landmarks—the Morgan Library in Ragtime, Bathgate Avenue in Billy Bathgate, the fairgrounds in...

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Simon Schama (review date 19 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "New York, Gaslight Necropolis," in New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1994, p. 1.

[In the following review, Schama focuses on the historical aspects of The Waterworks.]

"The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince." Thus begins "One Summer Night," one of Ambrose Bierce's most wicked short stories: two pages long, a coffin-side view of an exhumation. An exhumation also plays an important part in E. L. Doctorow's startling and spellbinding new novel, The Waterworks. But what Mr. Doctorow has truly exhumed are the remains of the 19th-century genre of the...

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Mark Shechner (review date 10 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A 'Gothic Fantasia' from E. L. Doctorow," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 10, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following review of The Waterworks, Shechner takes account of the novel's strengths and failings.]

The germ of The Waterworks is a four-page vignette of the same title that appeared in E. L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets (1984). In that sketch the body of a drowned child is plucked from a reservoir, presumably the Croton in New York's Central Park, and whisked away in a horse-drawn carriage, while the silent narrator looks on.

I am fond of Lives of the Poets, the least celebrated of Doctorow's books, because it pretends...

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Andrew Delbanco (review date 18 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Necropolis News," in New Republic, Vol. 211, Nos. 3 & 4, July 18, 1994, pp. 44, 46-8.

[In the following review, Delbanco presents an appreciation of the symbolic features of The Waterworks and comments briefly on the essay collection Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution.]

Everybody's favorite stage set this year has been old New York. It first turned up in Martin Scorsese's movie of The Age of Innocence, which made viewers feel as if they were inside a meticulously accurate diorama of Edith Wharton's fashionable Manhattan in the 1870s. Then Caleb Carr enlarged the set for his murder mystery of the 1890s. The Alienist, to...

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William Hutchings (review date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Waterworks, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 138-39.

[In the following brief review, Hutchings outlines the elements of The Waterworks and considers its literary predecessors.]

Walking down Broadway in 1871, a young freelance journalist named Martin Pemberton notices a horse-drawn omnibus containing several old men dressed in black. Among them, he recognizes his dead and supposedly buried father—a businessman who was as notoriously corrupt as he was socially eminent; his fortune, based in part on slave-trading and war-profiteering, has been mysteriously unlocatable since his death. While pursuing his...

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E. L. Doctorow with Michelle M. Tokarczyk (interview date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The City, The Waterworks, and Writing: An Interview with E. L. Doctorow," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 32-7.

[In the following interview, Doctorow discusses his views of The Waterworks and elaborates some ideas on writing fiction.]

The author of nine novels—Welcome to Hard Times, Big as Life, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, and The Waterworks, as well as a play, Drinks before Dinner, and a collection of essays, Hemingway, Poe and the Constitution—E. L. Doctorow grew up in New York City and was educated at Kenyon College and Columbia...

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Michael Wutz (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Waterworks, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 177-78.

[In the following review, Wutz outlines the elements of The Waterworks and considers its place in Doctorow's oeuvre.]

An almost uncanny ability to reconstruct historical material and a spellbinding facility to tell a good tale—these are the qualities that have made E. L. Doctorow one of America's most distinguished literary practitioners and the qualities that are again evident in The Waterworks, a fascinating science-detection mystery centered in post-bellum New York City. Framed by the atmospherics of a city bulging out of its seams,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Iannone, Carol. "E. L. Doctorow's 'Jewish' Radicalism." Commentary 81, No. 3 (March 1986): 53-6.

Considers the impact of Doctorow's Jewish heritage on his work.

Jones, Malcolm Jr. "A Gothic Tale of Horror in Old New York." Newsweek (27 June 1994): 53.

Provides a synopsis of the plot of The Waterworks, and considers the novel's borrowings from works in the horror/science fiction mystery genre.

Rovit, Earl. "The Miraculous Conjunction." Sewanee Review 104, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 325-29.


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