Novelist who juggled with American history

EL Doctorow: January 6th, 1931 - July 21st, 2015

 

EL Doctorow, who has died aged 84, was a leading figure in American literature whose popular and critically admired novels – including Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March – placed fictional characters in recognisable historical contexts and among identifiable historical figures.

The author of a dozen novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama, as well as essays and commentary on literature and politics, Doctorow was widely praised for the originality, versatility and audacity of his imagination.

Subtly subversive in his fiction, he consistently upended expectations with a cocktail of fiction and fact, clever and substantive manipulations of popular genres and myriad storytelling strategies.

Beginning with his third novel, The Book of Daniel (1971), ostensibly a memoir by the son of infamous traitors – the story mirrors that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed as Russian spies in 1953– Doctorow turned out a stream of literary inventions. His protagonists appeared to be in the grip of history but their stories featured alterations in accepted versions of the past.

In the book that made him famous, Ragtime (1975), set in and around New York as America hurtled toward involvement in the first World War, the war arrives on schedule but the actions of the many characters, both fictional and nonfictional (including escape artist Harry Houdini, anarchist writer and agitator Emma Goldman and novelist Theodore Dreiser) were largely invented.

Woven into the rollicking narrative of Ragtime are the dawn of the movies and the roots of the American labour movement, tabloid journalism and women’s rights.

Victimisation

In Billy Bathgate, a Depression-era Bronx teenager is seduced by the pleasures of lawlessness when he is engaged as an errand boy by the gangster Dutch Schultz, who is about to go on trial for tax evasion; it is not an allegory but, published in 1989, as the “greed is good” decade of the 1980s came to a close, the novel makes plain that Schultz’s corrupt entrepreneurism is of a piece with the avaricious manipulations of white-collar financiers, forerunners of a Wall Street run amok.

Most of Doctorow’s historical explorations involved New York and its environs, including Loon Lake (1980), the tale of a 1930s drifter; Lives of the Poets (1984), a novella and six stories that collectively depict the mind of a writer who has, during the 1970s, succumbed to midlife ennui; and The Waterworks (1994), a dark mystery set in Manhattan in the 1870s, involving a journalist who vanishes and an evil scientist.

More recently, in City of God (2000), Doctorow wrote about three characters and the search for faith in a cacophonous and especially hazardous age, using contemporary Manhattan as a backdrop. And in Homer and Langley (2009), he created a tour of 20th-century history from the perspective of a blind man, Homer Collyer, a highly fictionalised rendering of one of two eccentric New York brothers who became notorious after their deaths for their obsessive hoarding.

The March (2005) was Doctorow’s furthest reach back into history, and dealt with the destructive and decisive civil war campaign of Gen William T Sherman – the capture of Atlanta and the so-called march to the sea – with a plethora of characters. Black and white, wealthy and wanting, military and civilian, sympathetic and repugnant, they describe a veritable representation of the American people.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx in 1931. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father, David, sold musical instruments and his mother, Rose, played the piano.

Great minds

He was named for Edgar Allan Poe, a favourite of his father’s. “Actually, he liked a lot of bad writers, but Poe was our greatest bad writer, so I take some consolation from that,” Doctorow said in 2008. He remembered asking his mother in her old age: “Do you and Dad know you named me after a drug-addicted, alcoholic delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?’ and she said, ‘Edgar, that’s not funny.’”

Doctorow studied with the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College in Ohio, then at Columbia, where he met his future wife, Helen Setzer.

Doctorow’s political views (he described himself as “a leftist, but of the pragmatic social democratic left – the humanist left that’s wary of ideological fervor”) were often apparent in his fiction and led to his being characterised as a political novelist as often as he was called an historical one.

Several of Doctorow’s novels were adapted for the screen, notably The Book of Daniel, as simply Daniel, with Timothy Hutton), Ragtime, featuring James Cagney in his final role, and Billy Bathgate, starring Dustin Hoffman as Dutch Schultz.

He is survived by Helen, and by his son, Richard, and daughters, Jenny and Caroline.