E.L. Doctorow, a leading figure in the literary scene best known for his works of historical fiction, passed away Tuesday. Born in the Bronx, Doctorow published his first literary endeavor in his high school’s literary magazine. Entitled, The Beetle, it was based on the work of Franz Kafka and illustrated the highly inventive style that would become his trademark.
Doctorow’s novels used their historical settings to tell greater truths about the human condition and the American story. Doctorow’s novels go beyond the strictures of the historical fiction genre. His breakout novel, Ragtime, tells the story of a New York family in the decades leading up to WWI. Peppered with recognizable historical figures like Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Henry Ford, the novel illustrates the roots of everything from the American Labor movement to the movies to the Civil Rights Movement. Doctorow’s sly social commentary runs under the engaging plot and though the events never took place the novel tells greater truths about the American narrative.
His most recent novel Andrew’s Brain, was a departure from his earlier historical works but not from his role as an American novelist. As Doctorow said in an interview with NPR last “I think of myself really as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country.” Andrew’s Brain has a tighter focus than Doctorow’s earlier historical works, focusing on a series of conversations between Andrew and his psychotherapist. The novel poses many questions about consciousness, the reliability of memory and free will.
Doctorow writings received multiple awards including the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as multiple nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. He was the recipient of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career places him in the highest rank of American Literature.” His was a unique voice that proved the power of fiction to illuminate the human condition and it will be missed.