Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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E. L. Doctorow | Biography


Edgar Lawrence "E.L." Doctorow was born in New York City on January 6, 1931, the second son of David and Rose Doctorow. Doctorow grew up poor during the Depression, yet his parents filled the home with books; in a 1985 interview Doctorow told the New York Times, "Books were important to them ... books and music." In many ways Doctorow's writing is akin to jazz or ragtime music, less bound to rules and order than the highly structured classical music of European traditions. His fiction is known for blending historical fact and fiction, elevating events from the American past to create a broader historical truth, even if the details he includes are not factual.

Blending fact with fiction is characteristic of Doctorow's entire life. In high school he wrote a story about an intriguing doorman at Carnegie Hall named Carl. His teacher found the story compelling and asked if she could publish it in the school paper. Doctorow then admitted there was no Carl—he'd made the story up. Clearly the teenage Doctorow already had a keen grasp of verisimilitude and persuasive prose.

Before publishing his first novel, The Book of Daniel, in 1971, Doctorow served in the army, which might have likely inspired his later reimagining of both the Civil War and World War I. He spent many years as a book editor and later as a script reader for CBS television. Of both jobs Doctorow said, "It's actually not a bad apprenticeship for a writer. You can't help but develop an editorial capability, doing that kind of work on a daily basis. It's also good for young writers to see how much bad stuff is published. It's very encouraging."

When Ragtime was first released in book form in 1975, after portions of the work had appeared in the literary journal American Review in 1974, reviewers harshly critiqued Doctorow's use of historic figures and events in inaccurate ways. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1986, Doctorow addressed this critique of his work saying, "We think [history is] Newton's perfect mechanical universe, out there predictably for everyone to see and set their watches by. But it's more like curved space, and infinitely compressible and expandable time. It's constant subatomic chaos." In the author's view, history is not a set of facts; it is open to interpretation. For his narrator, 1902 was a time when, "There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants," a history far different from what African-American character Coalhouse Walker or Jewish character Tateh would have recorded, but perhaps no less true. In the same Paris Review interview, Doctorow says, "History is a battlefield. It's constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew."

Over the course of his writing career, Doctorow published 12 novels and earned many prestigious writing awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1990), and The March (2005), the National Book Award for World's Fair (1986), two PEN/Faulkner awards, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2014. Many of his most successful novels were turned into films, although Doctorow was rarely satisfied with the interpretations. "[Directors] tell me how difficult [my work] is to translate because so much of my books are interior. So much of the action is in the mind, in the moral realm." Doctorow's literary success puts him on par with such other American writers as Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Philip Roth. A lifelong smoker, Doctorow died of lung cancer on July 21, 2015.

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