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E(dgar) L(awrence) Doctorow Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1931. Education: The Bronx High School of Science; Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, A.B. (honors) in philosophy 1952; Columbia University, New York, 1952-53. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1953-55. Career: Editor, New American Library, New York, 1960-64; editor-in-chief, 1964-69, and publisher, 1969, Dial Press, New York; member of the faculty, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1971-78. Adjunct professor of English, 1982-86, and since 1987 Glucksman Professor of American and English Letters, New York University. Writer-in-residence, University of California, Irvine, 1969-70; Creative Writing Fellow, Yale School of Drama, New Haven, Connecticut, 1974-75; visiting professor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1975; Visiting Senior Fellow, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1980-81. Director, Authors Guild of America, and American PEN. Lives in New Rochelle, New York. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1972; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1973; National Book Critics Circle award, 1976, 1990; American Academy award, 1976; American Book award, 1986; Howells medal, 1990; PEN Faulkner award, 1990; National Humanities Medal, 1998; Commonwealth Medal, 2000. L.H.D.: Kenyon College, 1976; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1989; Litt.D.: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York, 1979. Member: American Academy, 1984. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Welcome to Hard Times. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1960; asBad Man from Bodie, London, Deutsch, 1961; published under original title, New York, Plume, 1996.

Big as Life. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966.

The Book of Daniel. New York, Random House, 1971; London, Macmillan, 1972; New York, Plume, 1996.

Ragtime. New York, Random House, and London, Macmillan, 1975.

Loon Lake. New York, Random House, and London, Macmillan, 1980.

World's Fair. New York, Random House, 1985; London, Joseph, 1986.

Billy Bathgate. New York, Random House, and London, Macmillan, 1989.

The Waterworks. London, Macmillan, 1994.

City of God. New York, Random House, 2000.

Short Stories

Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella. New York, RandomHouse, 1984; London, Joseph, 1985.

Plays

Drinks Before Dinner (produced New York, 1978). New York, Random House, 1979; London, Macmillan, 1980.

Screenplay:

Daniel, 1983.

Other

American Anthem, photographs by Jean-Claude Suarès. New York, Stewart Tabori and Chang, 1982.

Eric Fischl: Scenes and Sequences: Fifty-Eight Monotypes (text byDoctorow). New York, Abrams, 1990.

Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992. New York, HarperPerennial, 1994.

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Film Adaptations:

Welcome to the Hard Times, 1967; Ragtime, 1981; Daniel from the work The Book of Daniel, 1983; Billy Bathgate, 1991.

Bibliography:

E.L. Doctorow: An Annotated Bibliography by Michelle M. Tokarczyk, New York, Garland, 1988.

Critical Studies:

E.L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations edited by Richard Trenner, Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1983; E.L. Doctorow by Paul Levine, London, Methuen, 1985; E.L. Doctorow by Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson, Boston, Twayne, 1990; E.L. Doctorow by John G. Parks, New York, Continuum Press, 1991; Models of Misrepresentation: The Fiction of E.L. Doctorow by Christopher D. Morris, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1991; Fiction as False Document: The Reception of E.L. Doctorow in the Postmodern Age by John Williams. Columbia, South Carolina, Camden House, 1996; Conversations with E.L. Doctorow, edited by Christopher D. Morris. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999; Critical Essays on E.L. Doctorow, edited by Ben Siegel. New York, G.K. Hall, 2000.

* * *

Towards the end of E.L. Doctorow's novella Lives of the Poets his central character is discussing the art of writing with a fellow author. "Each book," he believes, "has taken me further and further out" so that the place or idea he started out from is now no more than "a weak distant signal from the home station." The same is only partly true of Doctorow himself. His novels for the most part revisit the same themes and places, in particular the America of the 1930s. What changes and excites is that the same themes and treatments when applied to different characters portray differing aspects of the America they are living through. Inevitably Doctorow's novels are considered very political.

Almost invariably (the exception being Lives of the Poets), Doctorow's central character is either a child or adolescent or else (World's Fair) an adult writing about his childhood. The central character is always a narrator. Again almost without exception, the child or adolescent becomes displaced from his roots, and the breakdown of family structure becomes a dominant ingredient in almost every novel. Doctorow himself may not have strayed "further and further out" as his novelist has, but his characters, seldom by choice, frequently do. In the more expressly political novel, especially The Book of Daniel and Loon Lake, this is a freedom granted to the character out of economic or political circumstances. Daniel's parents have been executed as Communists, while in Loon Lake the central character Joe is an economic migrant of the Depression, uprooted and adrift. In the less overtly political novels the circumstances behind the displacement become correspondingly less social. Billy Bathgate enjoys a freedom even Huckleberry Finn might envy due mainly to a mother who has little or no grasp either on him or on the world in general. Of the full-length novels, only World's Fair differs substantially, the displacement being one of time as the narrator looks back.

In each case Doctorow is drawing a parallel between the development of his central character and the development of America during the same period. Ragtime uses real historical figures as frequent landmarks in the narrator's childhood, intertwining his development and that of America. The Book of Daniel unfolds Daniel's discovery of the circumstances of his parents' execution alongside the portrayal of America's own discovery of Communism and the way the American government reacted to it. In Loon Lake the distorted, disjointed way Joe sees the world evokes the economic turmoil that has displaced him from his home. Similarly the World's Fair is both a forthcoming excitement for a small child and a symbol of hope for better times ahead. The displacement of the central figure in each case frees that figure to be a symbol of the wider environment, a product of the times. And, arguably, in each novel the child or adolescent learns whereas the world he has been thrown into does not: Billy Bathgate's era of childhood is ending as the era of gangsters is ending. He is a good luck charm who leaves the gangsters as the charm of childhood leaves him. By leaving, Billy is seen to have learned. He survives. The gang leader does neither.

As the central character in each novel develops and grows, the language with which that character expresses the narrative develops accordingly. The Book of Daniel begins in a confused manner, nonsequiturs exemplifying how Daniel takes in only exactly what he sees. He cannot yet put anything into context or draw conclusions. Similarly Loon Lake depicts the upheaval of the 1930s with sentences which lack formal structure, even verbs. It shows a time, historically, when established structure is shaken and falling. The effect of the language is like watching debris fall after an explosion. Slowly the language settles as in both novels the characters understand more of what has been happening. As with the history depicted, patterns emerge with time. In World's Fair time has elapsed, the language is therefore coherent, the patterns are clear. Ragtime uses both techniques side by side. Some parts are written in a style which would not be out of place in a straight historical narrative. Elsewhere Doctorow uses the pauseless—breathless—sentences of Billy Bathgate. And in Billy Bathgate itself Doctorow appears to be using this device to make a further point. As a young child Billy is comical in the way he expresses himself and the adult world he comes to inhabit sees him as such. As Billy begins to come of age, and just begins to become articulate, it is the world that has laughed at him which is shown up as comical. Billy has the last laugh. The characters in these novels, in their various ways, all offer what the wide-eyed Billy Bathgate at the end of his story calls "this bazaar of life."

Exemplary of Doctorow's wide-ranging interests is City of God, a novel so broadly based it is difficult to characterize at all. Written in the form of an author's notebook for a story to be written (this fact only emerges somewhere deep within the book), the novel is on one level the tale of a love triangle, and on another a deeply metaphysical series of questions about the meaning of religion at the end of the second millennium. One of the more understandable aspects of the plot is the relationship that develops between Fr. Thomas Pemberton and two Jewish rabbis, Joshua Gruen and Sarah Blumenthal. The two happen to be husband and wife, and "Pem" (as he is called) enters their lives after he gets caught up in the mystery of how a cross stolen from an Episcopal church in New York's East Village winds up on top of a synagogue across town.

—John Herbert

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