Celebrated American author EL Doctorow dies at 84

Writer EL Doctorow

Writer EL Doctorow, who wryly reimagined the American experience in such novels as Ragtime and Billy Bathgate has died aged 84.

His son, Richard Doctorow, confirmed he died at a New York hospital from complications of lung cancer. He lived in New York and Sag Harbor.

Considered one of the major authors of the 20th century, Doctorow enjoyed critical and popular success over his 50-year career.

He won the National Book Award for fiction in 1986 for World’s Fair and the National Book Critics Circle award in 1989 for Billy Bathgate and in 2005 for The March.

Besides his 10 novels, he published two books of short stories, a play called Drinks Before Dinner and numerous essays and articles.

“I don’t know what I set out to do,” Doctorow said in 2006 after the publication of The March, his acclaimed Civil War novel.

“Someone pointed out to me a couple of years ago that you could line them up and in effect now with this book, 150 years of American history … And this was entirely unplanned.”

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born on January 6, 1931, in New York. He was named after Edgar Allan Poe, whom he often disparaged as America’s “greatest bad writer”. His father, David Doctorow, ran a music store, and his mother, Rose Doctorow, was a pianist.

Young Edgar Doctorow read widely and decided he would become a writer when aged nine.

“I began to ask two questions while I was reading a book that excited me,” he recalled.

“Not only what was going to happen next, but how is this done? How is it that these words on the page make me feel the way I’m feeling? This is the line of inquiry that I think happens in a child’s mind, without him even knowing he has aspirations as a writer.”

Doctorow graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He attended graduate school at Columbia University but left without completing a doctorate. He also served in the US Army, stationed in Germany.

In the 1950s Doctorow worked as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, reading novels and summarising them for possible film treatment. That job led him to his first novel, Welcome To Hard Times, a Western published in 1960.

He spent a decade as a book editor at New American Library and then as editor in chief at Dial Press, working with such authors as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.

Doctorow’s second novel, a science fiction work called Big As Life, was published in 1966 and was unsuccessful. But his third, The Book Of Daniel, published in 1971, catapulted him into the top rank of American writers.

Ragtime in 1975 served up a Dickensian stew of Gilded Age New York, mixing historical figures such as JP Morgan, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman with invented ones. The central character, Coalhouse Walker Jr, was a black musician victimised by racism.

Historical and made-up characters also peopled 1989’s Billy Bathgate, featuring the real-life gangster Dutch Schultz, and The March, which he called his “Russian novel” because of its epic scope.

Several of Doctorow’s novels including Ragtime and Billy Bathgate were made into films, but Doctorow was generally not pleased with the screen versions. Ragtime was made into a Broadway musical in 1998.

Doctorow married Helen Setzer in 1954. They had two daughters and a son.

President Barack Obama praised Doctorow on Twitter as “one of America’s greatest novelists”.

He wrote on hisPOTUS account: “His books taught me much, and he will be missed.”

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