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Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Library of America remembers E. L. Doctorow and his “indelible” novels

Ragtime by
E. L. Doctorow
(Random House, 1975)
Writer E. L. Doctorow died in New York City on Tuesday, July 21, at the age of 84. He was born in the Bronx in 1931 and published his first novel, the spare, haunting neo-Western Welcome to Hard Times, in 1960. Over the next half-century he would continue to reexamine the American past, and simultaneously reanimate the form of the historical novel, in a string of contemporary classics that include The Book of Daniel (1971), a fictional treatment of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage case; Ragtime (1975), later adapted for both film and Broadway; Billy Bathgate (1989), a recreation of the Depression-era Bronx of his childhood; and The March (2005), which brought the author’s imagination to bear on the closing months of the Civil War.

Doctorow won the National Book Award, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, to name just a few of his many laurels. In 2012 he was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Literary critic and translator Liesl Schillinger offered this stirring tribute to him at the induction ceremony:
I first encountered E. L. Doctorow’s writing as a child in the 1970s and ’80s, pulling his novels from my parents’ shelves. I began with Ragtime, and was captivated by the flowing way Doctorow integrated historic events, the changing roles of women and African Americans, and—I’ll admit—raciness, into his storytelling. I was hungry for clues to what adults cared about; and to what being an American meant. His writing informed my understanding, and has stayed with me. The 20th century is over; but the American century lives on, and will endure in Doctorow’s magnificent body of work. . . . how lucky it is that those of us who wish to revisit the most significant touchpoints of our national history may do so not by hoarding towers of text, but by inhabiting the evocative world Doctorow has conjured in his indelible novels.
Doctorow was named for Edgar Allan Poe, whom he once characterized as “our greatest bad writer.” In a more charitable vein, he contributed an admiring introduction to The Library of America paperback edition of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which he praised as a “tour-de-force of symbolic transfiguration.”

In 2014, meanwhile, he read from Herman Melville’s 1850 essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses” at a public event co-presented by The Library of America and The Public Theater for the LOA anthology Shakespeare in America. Listen to Doctorow read what Melville said about Shakespeare, and then enjoy what Doctorow says about Melville, in the video below.

Related post:
Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow’s chronicles of the American century


  1. One of the greatest - and deserving of his own LOA volume.

  2. Writers shouldn't speak in public if they're going to read overwritten material that is meant to be read, not heard.


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