Writer EL 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 yesterday 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 US 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.