EL Doctorow: Writer whose work blended historical fact with fictional characters in order to reveal greater universal truths

Doctorow was the award-winning author of a dozen novels, three short story collections and countless commentaries on culture and politics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The assignment was to interview a "colourful person" and the teenage Edgar Doctorow had just the man. His name was Karl, a German-Jewish refugee who worked as a stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. Young Edgar's report on the elderly man was replete with dramatic and intimate details: how Karl was a great lover of music and a favourite among the artists who frequented the concert hall. How every evening he would arrive at work with a lunch in a brown bag and a thermos full of tea, which he drank in the Old World style, putting a cube of sugar in his teeth and drinking through the melting crystals.

His high school journalism teacher loved the story and wanted to run it in the school paper. Doctorow replied that that wasn't a good idea, he recalled. "I said, 'Well, Karl is very shy.' And she said, 'Shy? Well, he talked to you, didn't he?'" he recalled more than six decades later. "I said, 'Not exactly. There is no Karl. I made him up.'"

Though he didn't know it then, that exchange was a "portent", Doctorow has said. It was his first attempt at the kind of storytelling that would win him popularity among the reading public and critical acclaim, inventing fictional or fictionalised characters who animate places and times that are very real.

The award-winning author of a dozen novels, three short story collections and countless commentaries on culture and politics has died of lung cancer. That he would become a writer was a foregone conclusion even before the "Karl" incident. His father had named him for Edgar Allan Poe, and by the time he was nine he had decided that writing was his future.

"At that age, something else happens if you're going to be a writer," he said in 2004. "You're reading for the excitement of it ... and then another little line of inquiry comes into your head: 'How is this done?' "

So he devoted himself to the study of books – "everything I could get my hands on" – books from the shelves of his family's Bronx home, from the public library, books that were sometimes above his level of reading or maturity level ("Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier ... made my ears red. Very sexy book," he recalled).

He was born in New York in 1931. His father, David, ran a music store, while his mother, Rose, was a pianist. He left the Bronx at 16 to attend Kenyon College in Ohio, then returned to New York for a year of graduate school at Columbia University, where he met his wife, Helen Setzer. He was conscripted into the US Army and stationed in Germany during the mid-1950s, then eventually found himself back in the city of his birth, working as a "reader" for a film studio.

The job was straightforward but tedious, he recalled. He was assigned to read Western novels and determine whether they were good enough to be adapted for film. "I found myself reading these awful, terrible Westerns day after day. I thought I'd become seriously ill," he said in 2008.

He became a critic of the medium of film, partly because the adaptations of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate were disappointments. But he also believed in books as a superior art form.

"Fiction goes everywhere, inside, outside, it stops, it goes, its action can be mental. Nor is it time-driven," he wrote in his 2000 novel City of God. "Film is time-driven, it never ruminates, it shows the outside of life, it shows behaviour. It tends to the simplest moral reasoning."

An effort to vent his creative frustration with reading bad books for a living by writing a parody turned into the first chapter of a more serious novel set in Dakota Territory during its 19th century boom. That was Welcome to Hard Times, which came out in 1960.

Others soon followed — the weird science fiction story Big As Life in 1966 (his only book to be out of print); then his critical breakthrough with his 1971 reworking of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, The Book of Daniel.

Doctorow became famous with Ragtime (1975), which tracks the intersecting lives of New Yorkers famous and fictional through the early years of the 20th century. Harry Houdini makes an appearance, as do Sigmund Freud and the anarchist Emma Goldman. Henry Ford gives an unscrupulous JP Morgan a talking-to, while the "younger brother" in the novel's central family (the members of which are never named) is in love with real-life socialite Evelyn Nesbit. The book was eventually adapted into a film and a Tony Award-winning musical.

In his review of Ragtime for the Chicago Tribune, John Brooks commented that Doctorow's characters — even the historical ones — were "alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required... Ragtime is not social history disguised as a novel; rather it is the novel as social history, an imaginative flight based on the facts of the past but released rather than confined by them."

Not everyone was as enamoured. "It smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets, and turned the historical novel into a gravity-free, faintly sadistic game," John Updike wrote in the New Yorker in 2005.

But Doctorow bristled at the notion that he was an historical novelist or that he exploited historical figures by telling stories about them that weren't verifiably true. History is always being fought over and "fiddled" with, he explained. He was simply the person willing to challenge it in the open.

"What most people think of as history is its end product, myth," he told the Paris Review in 1986. "So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth... Everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it."

Though he experimented with subject and style, Doctorow continued to "fiddle" with history for most of his subsequent novels. Sometimes that history was his own, as in World's Fair, which won the US National Book Award, or the history of Bronx mobsters in the 1920s (Billy Bathgate) or Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman's bloody march through the South (The March).

Updike, who disparaged Doctorow's "fiddling" in Ragtime, loved it in The March. "It offers an illumination, fitful and flickering, of a historic upheaval that only fiction could provide," he wrote in his New Yorker review. "Doctorow here appears not so much a reconstructor of history as a visionary who seeks in time past occasions for poetry."

But Doctorow's vision was about more than spinning a good yarn. He plumbed the past for its politics, and his "fiddling" with history often worked to bring its problems – and the present's – into focus. "EL Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past," the cultural critic Frederic Jameson wrote.

Doctorow tended to dismiss that kind of analysis of his books, but beyond the page he was much more vocal about his left-leaning politics. In 2004 he was booed during a charged graduation speech at Hofstra University. He had been discussing the issue he often found himself talking about – that history is formed from the telling of stories – but this time, he accused President George W Bush of telling the wrong kind. "We went off to war on the basis of these stories" about Iraq, he said. "Sadly, they are not good stories the president tells."

Doctorow taught creative writing at New York University and was an instructor at Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of California, Irvine.

Unlike most of its predecessors, his last novel, Andrew's Brain, is not set in the past. But it retains his other books' obsession with it. As Andrew and his unnamed psychiatrist rehash his history, the psychiatrist keeps asking, "Did this really happen?"

It is a question that irritates Andrew, as it probably irritated Doctorow. What "really happened" was never his main concern. "The historian will tell you what happened," he told Time. "The novelist will tell you what it felt like."

SARAH KAPLAN

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, author: born New York 6 January 1931; married 1953 Helen Esther Setzer (three children); died New York 21 July 2015.

© The Washington Post