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Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (January 6, 1931 - July 21, 2015) was an American novelist, editor, and professor, best known internationally for his works of historical fiction. He has been described as one of the most important American novelists of the 20th century.
He wrote twelve novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama. They included the award-winning novels Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005). These, like many of his other works, placed fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts, with known historical figures, and often used different narrative styles. His stories were recognized for their originality and versatility, and Doctorow was praised for his audacity and imagination.
Doctorow was born January 6, 1931, in the Bronx, the son of Rose (Levine) and David Richard Doctorow, second-generation Americans of Russian Jewish extraction who named him after Edgar Allan Poe. His father ran a small music shop. He attended city public grade schools and the Bronx High School of Science where, surrounded by mathematically gifted children, he fled to the office of the school literary magazine, Dynamo, which published his first literary effort. He then enrolled in a journalism class to increase his opportunities to write.
Back in New York after military service, Doctorow worked as a reader for a motion picture company; reading so many Westerns inspired his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. Begun as a parody of western fiction, it evolved into a reclamation of the genre. It was published to positive reviews in 1960, with Wirt Williams of the New York Times describing it as "taut and dramatic, exciting and successfully symbolic."
When asked how he decided to become a writer, he said, "I was a child who read everything I could get my hands on. 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."
"When you'd read Edgar's manuscripts, it was done. That's just the kind of writer he was; he got everything right the first time. I can't think of any editorial problem we had. Even remotely. Nothing."
Novelist Jay Parini is impressed by Doctorow's skill at writing fictionalized history in a unique style, "a kind of detached but arresting presentation of history that mingled real characters with fictional ones in ways that became his signature manner". In Ragtime, for example, he arranges the story to include Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung sharing a ride at Coney Island, or a setting with Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan.
Despite the immense research Doctorow needed to create stories based on real events and real characters, reviewer John Brooks notes that they were nevertheless "alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required". Doctorow demonstrated in most of his novels "that the past is very much alive, but that it's not easily accessed," writes Parini. "We tell and retell stories, and these stories illuminate our daily lives. He showed us again and again that our past is our present, and that those not willing to grapple with 'what happened' will be condemned to repeat its worst errors."
1999 awarded the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature award, which is given annually to recognize outstanding achievement in American literature. As part of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, the day-long festival takes place in Rockville, Maryland, the city where Fitzgerald, his wife, and his daughter are buried.
Baba, Minako (Summer 1993). "The Young Gangster as Mythic American Hero: E.L.Doctorow's Billy Bathgate". Varieties of Ethnic Criticism. Oxford University Press: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS). 18 (2): 33-46. doi:10.2307/467932. JSTOR467932.