Stirring past into fiction

American writer E.L. Doctorow, in a file picture taken in 2007, died of complications from lung cancer.
American writer E.L. Doctorow, in a file picture taken in 2007, died of complications from lung cancer.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

American author E.L. Doctorow was lauded for mixing fiction and fact in subversive and experimental novels

NEW YORK • E.L. Doctorow, a leading figure in contemporary American letters whose popular, critically admired and award-winning novels - including Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March - situated fictional characters in recognisable historical contexts, among identifiable historical figures and often within unconventional narrative forms, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 84.

The cause was complications from lung cancer, his son, Richard, said.

The author of a dozen novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama, he was widely lauded for the originality, versatility and audacity of his imagination.

Subtly subversive in his fiction, he consistently upended expectations with a cocktail of fiction and fact,remixed in book after book; with clever and substantive manipulations of popular genres such as the western and the detective story, and with his myriad storytelling strategies.

Deploying, in different books, the unreliable narrator, the stream-of- consciousness narrator, the omniscient narrator and multiple narrators, he was one of contemporary fiction's most restless experimenters.

In World's Fair (1985), a book that hews closely to his autobiography and which he once described as "a portrait of the artist as a very young boy" (but also as "the illusion of a memoir"), he depicts the experience of a Depression-era child of the Bronx and his awakening to the ideas of America and of a complicated world.

Beginning with his third novel, The Book Of Daniel (1971), an ostensible memoir by the son of infamous accused traitors - their story mirrors that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as Russian spies in 1953 - Doctorow turned out a stream of literary inventions. His protagonists lived in the seeming thrall of history but their tales, for the convenience - or better, the purpose - of fiction, depicted alterations in accepted versions of the past.

In the book that made him famous, Ragtime (1975), set in and around New York as America hurtled towards involvement in World War I, the war arrives on schedule, but the actions of the many characters, both fictional and non-fictional (including escape artist Harry Houdini, anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman and novelist Theodore Dreiser) were largely invented.

In Billy Bathgate (1989), a Depression-era Bronx teenager is seduced by the pleasures of lawlessness when he is engaged as an errand boy by gangster Dutch Schultz, who is about to go on trial for tax evasion.

Most of Doctorow's historical explorations involved New York and its environs, including Loon Lake (1980), Lives Of The Poets (1984), The Waterworks (1994) City Of God (2000) and Homer And Langley (2009).

The March (2005) was his farthest reach back into history, populating the destructive and decisive Civil War campaign of General William T. Sherman with a plethora of characters. Winner of the PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction (also won by Billy Bathgate) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (also won by Ragtime and Billy Bathgate), a finalist for the National Book Award (won by World's Fair) and the Pulitzer Prize, The March was recognised as a signature book, treated by critics as the climactic work of a career.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx on Jan 6, 1931. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father, David, had a store that sold musical instruments in midtown Manhattan; his mother, Rose, played the piano. His was a family of readers; he was named for Edgar Allan Poe, a favourite of his father's.

Doctorow studied with poet and critic John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he earned a bachelor's degree, then spent a year in the graduate programme in drama at Columbia, where he met his wife, Helen Setzer, then an aspiring actress. (She published a novel, Pretty Redwing, in 1982 under the name Helen Henslee.) They married in Germany while Doctorow, who had been drafted, was in the army. In addition to his wife and son, Doctorow is survived by two daughters and four grandchildren.

Several of his novels were adapted for the screen, including Welcome To Hard Times, a 1967 film starring Henry Fonda that Doctorow (and most critics) assessed as dreadful. Better films were made of The Book Of Daniel (the 1983 movie starring Timothy Hutton was called, simply, Daniel), Ragtime (the 1981 film featuring James Cagney) and Billy Bathgate (the 1991 movie starring Dustin Hoffman).

In writing a novel, Doctorow once said, it was his technique to stand at a remove, to invent a voice and let the voice speak, "to create the artist and let the artist do the work".

"The image I like is the one from cartoons," he added in an interview in The New York Times Magazine in 1985. "You see the artist's hand drawing a little mouse. It colours in the jacket and the pants, and then it gives him a little goose and the mouse scoots away down the road."

"Well," he said, "the hand is drawn too."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2015, with the headline 'Obituary Stirring past into fiction'. Print Edition | Subscribe