E.L. Doc­torow dies in New York at 84

Au­thor of ‘Rag­time’ and ‘Billy Bath­gate’

Cape Breton Post - - IN MEMORIAM - NEW YORK

Writer E.L. Doc­torow, who wryly reimagined the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence in such nov­els as “Rag­time” and “The March” and ap­plied its lessons to the past and the fu­ture in fic­tion and non­fic­tion, has died. He was 84.

He died Tues­day at a New York hos­pi­tal from com­pli­ca­tions of lung can­cer, his son, Richard Doc­torow, con­firmed.

Con­sid­ered one of the ma­jor au­thors of the 20th cen­tury, Doc­torow en­joyed crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess over his 50-year ca­reer. He won the Na­tional Book Award for fic­tion in 1986 for “World's Fair” and the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle award in 1989 for “Billy Bath­gate” and in 2005 for “The March.”

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama praised Doc­torow on Twit­ter as “one of Amer­ica's great­est nov­el­ists.”

“His books taught me much, and he will be missed,” Obama wrote on his POTUS ac­count.

Be­sides Doc­torow's 10 nov­els, he pub­lished two books of short sto­ries, a play called “Drinks Be­fore Din­ner” and nu­mer­ous es­says and ar­ti­cles.

“I don't know what I set out to do,” Doc­torow said in 2006 af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of “The March,” his ac­claimed Civil War novel. “Some­one pointed out to me a cou­ple of years ago that you could line them up and in ef­fect now with this book, 150 years of Amer­i­can history. ... And this was en­tirely un­planned.”

Edgar Lawrence Doc­torow was born Jan. 6, 1931, in New York. He was named af­ter Edgar Allan Poe, whom he of­ten dis­par­aged as Amer­ica's “great­est bad writer.” His fa­ther ran a mu­sic store, and his mother was a pi­anist. As a young­ster he read widely and de­cided he would be­come a writer at age 9.

“I be­gan to ask two ques­tions while I was read­ing a book that ex­cited me,” he re­called. “Not only what was go­ing to hap­pen next but how is this done? How is it that these words on the page make me feel the way I'm feel­ing? This is the line of in­quiry that I think hap­pens in a child's mind, with­out him even know­ing he has as­pi­ra­tions as a writer.”

Doc­torow grad­u­ated from the Bronx High School of Science and from Kenyon Col­lege in Gam­bier, Ohio. He at­tended grad­u­ate school at Columbia Univer­sity but left with­out com­plet­ing a doc­tor­ate. He also served in the U.S. Army, sta­tioned in Ger­many. In the 1950s Doc­torow worked as a script reader for Columbia Pic­tures, read­ing nov­els and sum­ma­riz­ing them for pos­si­ble film treat­ment. That job led him to his first novel, “Welcome to Hard Times,” a Western pub­lished in 1960.

He spent a decade as a book editor at New Amer­i­can Li­brary and then as editor in chief at Dial Press, work­ing with such au­thors as Nor­man Mailer and James Bald­win.

Doc­torow's sec­ond novel, a science fic­tion work called “Big as Life,” was pub­lished in 1966 and was un­suc­cess­ful. But his third, “The Book of Daniel,” pub­lished in 1971, cat­a­pulted him into the top rank of Amer­i­can writ­ers.

A fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of the Rosen­berg case, “The Book of Daniel” probed the cen­tral char­ac­ter's strug­gles over the deaths of his par­ents, ex­e­cuted as Com­mu­nists in the 1950s. New Re­pub­lic critic Stan­ley Kauff­mann called it “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.”'

“Rag­time” in 1975 served up a Dick­en­sian stew of Gilded Age New York, mix­ing his­tor­i­cal fig­ures such as J.P. Mor­gan, Harry Hou­dini and Emma Gold­man with in­vented ones. The cen­tral char­ac­ter, Coal­house Walker Jr., was a black mu­si­cian vic­tim­ized by racism.

His­tor­i­cal and made-up char­ac­ters also peo­pled 1989's “Billy Bath­gate,” fea­tur­ing the real-life gang­ster Dutch Schultz, and “The March,” which he called his “Rus­sian novel” be­cause of its epic scope.

“The March” de­picted Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man's march through Ge­or­gia and the Caroli­nas from the van­tage points of Sher­man him­self, a mixed-race freed slave girl, a bril­liant but dis­pas­sion­ate bat­tle­field sur­geon, two Con­fed­er­ate pris­on­ers who adopt var­i­ous dis­guises and oth­ers. The main char­ac­ter was in a sense the Union army and the hu­man flot­sam and jet­sam it picked up along the way.

Sev­eral of Doc­torow's nov­els in­clud­ing “Rag­time” and “Billy Bath­gate” were made into movies, but Doc­torow was gen­er­ally not pleased with the screen ver­sions. “Rag­time” was made into a Broad­way mu­si­cal in 1998. Doc­torow mar­ried He­len Set­zer in 1954. They had two daugh­ters and a son.

Doc­torow taught cre­ative writ­ing at New York Univer­sity and taught at sev­eral other in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing Yale Univer­sity Drama School, Prince­ton Univer­sity, Sarah Lawrence Col­lege and the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine.


In this April 2004 photo, Amer­i­can au­thor E.L. Doc­torow smiles dur­ing an in­ter­view in his of­fice at New York Univer­sity in New York. Ac­cord­ing to Doc­torow’s son Richard, the au­thor died Tues­day in New York from com­pli­ca­tions of lung can­cer. He was 84.

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