E. L. Doctorow Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In what ways is the effect of E. L. Doctorow’s novels’ enhanced by his practice of creating representative characters who interact with historical figures?

Doctorow is usually classified as an urban writer. Which novels seem to justify that description? Which ones contradict it?

Few of Doctorow’s characters are heroic in the traditional sense, but several of them are admirable because they pursue self-knowledge as well as literal truth. Which characters of this type do you find most admirable?

Doctorow has sometimes been criticized for writing fiction that is too “political.” Which of his political positions are actually controversial? Why?

Doctorow has been compared to Theodore Dreiser, a major figure in American literary naturalism, because both have written sympathetically but unsentimentally about the seamiest side of American life. Dreiser’s view of society was extremely negative, and he seemed pessimistic about the human potential for creating or even appreciating pure beauty. What elements in Doctorow’s writing seem to focus on the dark side of human nature? Are there redeeming positive qualities in some or all of his unlikable characters? Which ones?

Sometimes praised for the lyrical quality of his prose, Doctorow has maintained that his writing has been as much influenced by his parents’ emphasis upon music as by his own voracious childhood reading. In which books can you detect the underlying influence of music? Is that influence more prevalent in his nonfiction than in his fiction?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

E. L. Doctorow (DOK-tur-oh) has seldom ventured outside the novel genre. He has, however, written a play, Drinks Before Dinner (pr. 1978) and has published two collections of short stories, Lives of the Poets (1984) and Sweet Land Stories (2004), as well as collections of essays, including Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992 (1993), Reporting the Universe (2003), and Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993-2006 (2006). Doctorow has also published a prose poem in a collection of photographs by David Finn, Lamentation 9/11 (2002).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ragtime, a popular and critical success, catapulted E. L. Doctorow into prominence as one of the finest and most exciting novelists of his generation. With Welcome to Hard Times and The Book of Daniel, he had already established a solid reputation, but the rave reviews he received for Ragtime and the subsequent film and Broadway musical adaptations of the novel secured his place in the contemporary culture. Ragtime won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, World’s Fair won the American Book Award in 1986, and Billy Bathgate—nearly as successful as Ragtime—won the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction the same year. Among the awards Doctorow has received for lifetime achievement are the 1996 Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club and the 1998 National Humanities Medal. The March, Doctorow’s highly praised Civil War novel, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Chelsea House, 2001. A collection of essays offering an overview of Doctorow’s career and works from a variety of perspectives. Intended as a starting point for students first reading the author.

Bloom, Harold, ed. E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” New York: Chelsea House, 2002. A collection of essays illuminating the historical context of Doctorow’s work as well as offering literary analysis.

Doctorow, E. L. Conversations with E. L. Doctorow. Edited by Christopher D. Morris. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. Part of the Literary Conversations series, this volume of interviews reveals Doctorow’s thoughts and goals.

Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Introduces the reader to Doctorow and his works on a basic level, surveying arguments of other critics and noting Doctorow’s links to other writers. This book emphasizes the extent to which family life is Doctorow’s most enduring thematic concern.

Friedl, Herwig, and Dieter Schulz, eds. E. L. Doctorow: A Democracy of Perception. Essen, Germany: Blaue Eule, 1988. Primarily essays by German and American writers from a 1985 symposium held in Heidelberg, Germany. Features the transcript of a...

(The entire section is 554 words.)