Born in the Bronx to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1931, Edgar Lawrence “E.L.” Doctorow’s journey into the hall of fame of American letters was enabled by his reputation as a writer of historical fiction. Doctorow, however, preferred to see himself as a writer of “geographical fiction”. Given that his 12 novels, in a career spanning more than five decades, cover a century and a half of American history, from the Civil War to the present, and the American expanse from the Dakotas to Georgia and New York, Doctorow’s status as a “national writer” is, in fact, a bit too literal.
By the time he died of lung cancer in New York on Tuesday, Doctorow had been one of the most decorated American writers, having won the lifetime Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction last year. His bestselling Ragtime (1975) opened up new roads for historical fiction. Set in the run-up to the US entry into World War I, the novel brings to life historical figures like Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, among others, and interweaves their characters with the main story of an affluent New Rochelle family. Both Ragtime and Billy Bathgate (1989), which narrated a Bronx kid’s career as a criminal during the Depression, were made into films that disappointed Doctorow so much that he turned against the medium, convinced of the superiority of the written text. But his most critically acclaimed novel, The March, would have to wait till 2005. It won Doctorow his third National Book Critics Circle Award and reconstructed General William Sherman’s “scorched earth” advance through the South in all its brutality.
Doctorow had remained politically engaged, with scores of essays to his credit. A vocal critic of the two Presidents Bush, his sinister formulation of the presidency is both warning and advice: “With each new president, the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul.”