E.L. Doctorow: remembered for bringing history alive in fiction

Doctorow, a literary alchemist who spun fictional characters and historical figures alike into transporting novels, died on Tuesday.

Mary Altaffer/AP
In this April 27, 2004, file photo, American author E.L. Doctorow smiles during an interview in his office at New York University in New York.

President Obama once named E.L. Doctorow his favorite author after Shakespeare.

The New York Times called him "one of contemporary fiction’s most restless experimenters."

And the Associated Press said he was "among the most honored authors of the past 40 years."

Mr. Doctorow, a literary alchemist who spun fictional characters and historical figures alike into transporting novels about ragtime stars, old time gangsters, and Cold War prisoners, died Tuesday at the age of 84.

Doctorow was known for his works of historical fiction like "Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate," and "World's Fair," in which he introduced fictional characters to historical settings or placed historical characters in fictional situations, to great effect.

Over a career spanning half a century, Doctorow published 12 novels, three volumes of short fiction, and a stage play, as well as countless political and literary essays and articles.

He achieved both commercial and literary success, receiving a number of awards including the National Book Award for fiction in 1986 for his novel "World’s Fair," the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989 for "Billy Bathgate," and again in 2005 for "The March," and the National Humanities Medal.

Upon hearing the news of his passing, a number of notable figures, including President Obama, remembered Doctorow.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in 1931 in the Bronx, the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia.

From birth, it seemed, he was destined to become a writer. His father named him after his favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe, who Doctorow once called "our greatest bad author."

In interviews, Doctorow said he knew by age nine that writing was his future.

For a journalism assignment in high school, a young Doctorow interviewed a German-Jewish refugee named Karl who worked as a stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. The piece was replete with detail, down to how the old man drank his tea, sucking it through a cube of sugar in his teeth, the melting crystals sweetening each sip.

When his teacher asked to publish the piece in the school paper, Doctorow confessed that he had made up Karl. It was his first attempt at the kind of writing that would make him famous, inventing fictional characters to inhabit real places and times.

As a child, naturally, he fed his interest in writing with books.

“I was a child who read everything I could get my hands on,” he told the Guardian. “Eventually, I asked of a story not only what was to happen next, but how is this done? How am I made to live from words on a page? And so I became a writer.”

As a 20-something reader sick of reading bad film scripts for Westerns, he decided to write his own parody, which turned into the first chapter of a more serious novel set in Dakota Territory during the 19th century boom, the 1960 "Welcome to Hard Times."

Mr. Obama has said that Doctorow's 1971 reworking of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, “The Book of Daniel," is among his favorite works.

And the author became famous with “Ragtime,” the splashy 1975 novel that chronicles the lives of famous and fictional New Yorkers in the early 20th century, figures like Harry Houdini, Siegmund Freud, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman.

His secret, Doctorow once explained to the Paris Review, was being fearless with history.

"History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew," he told The Paris Review in 1986. "But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. 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."

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