E L Doctorow

Photo courtesy of EL Doctorow.com

E.L. Doctorow, Novelist, Dies at 84
| published July 22, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

Author E.L. Doctorow has died at the age of 84, according to his publisher, Random House, in statements released late Tuesday. Doctorow was a contemporary novelist whose fiction was often threaded heavily into fact-based events and American history. Among Doctorow’s novels are Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, both of which sold into the millions, and both of which became motion pictures.

Doctorow’s novels were known to delve deeply and sometimes unflinchingly into Americana at its best and sometimes it worst, and his stories often explored the great struggles faced by Americans through racial tension, poverty, the Great Depression, organized crime and the Mafia, and political corruption. But his novels were also broadly American in the sense that they presented a tableau of beauty and elegance to the American experiment with democracy and its promises and dreams.

Doctorow’s fiction was also atmospheric to a fault, with descriptions carefully steeped in his deep love of history and research about place and time. The New York Times called him a “literary time traveler.”

Doctorow was popularly understood to be a slow writer—with novels published only after a long interval between books, usually about five years. In fact, he was a perfectionist who labored intensely over his works, often crafting multiple drafts over a period of several years, then polishing final drafts for upwards of a year. He once told the Paris Review that none of his books had reached the publisher before at least six or eight drafts had been completed.

Doctorow’s other books include World’s Fair, for which he won the National Book Award in 1986; Loon Lake, which won extensive critical praise, and The Book of Daniel, a novelized retelling of the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Numerous of Doctorow’s books became films. Among the best known: Billy Bathgate, released in 1991 and directed by Robert Benton. It tells the story of a teenager from a tough, poor neighborhood in the Bronx of the 1930s, and how the determined young Billy is drawn into the world of criminal gang leader Dutch Schultz.

The film, like the book, closely follows the historical trajectory of real people from history, including Schultz, gangsters Lucky Luciano, Bo Weinberg and Otto Berman, and other characters. The fictional character of Billy is grafted upon the story of these legendary figures. The film starred Loren Dean as Billy, and Dustin Hoffman as Schultz; it also starred Stanley Tucci, Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, Steven Hill, and a young Nicole Kidman as Schultz’s mistress (and Billy’s love-interest), Drew Preston. Though the lavish and well-designed film was a critical success, Doctorow was dissatisfied by the changes made to his story by Benton and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.

Doctorow’s first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, came in 1960. He also wrote The Waterworks and Homer & Langley, along with several collections of short stories and a 1979 play, Drinks Before Dinner.

Trivia: Though he was popularly known as E.L., Doctorow’s full name was Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, homage by his Russian-born Jewish parents to their favorite American and English writers, Edgar Allen Poe and D.H. Lawrence.

Related Thursday Review articles:

J.R.R. Tolkien, A Life Inspired, Wyatt North; book review by Lisa K. Whitten; Thursday Review; January 8, 2015.

Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy, Joshua Corey; book review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review.