E.L. Doctorow, a giant of American letters who uplifted the genre of the historical novel, died yesterday at the age of 84. The author of “Ragtime,” “World’s Fair,” “Billy Bathgate,” “The March,” “Welcome to Hard Times” and “Andrew’s Brain,” among many other works of fiction, will be much missed.
Doctorow was the recipient of the 2014 Library of Congress Prize for
American Fiction, which recognizes lifetime achievement in American letters. Librarian of Congress James Billington dubbed him “our very own Charles Dickens, summoning a distinctly American place and time, channeling our myriad voices.”
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, whose career spanned half a century, said as a child in the Bronx he “read everything I could get my hands on.” Early on, he started wondering what made the machinery of fiction tick – how to write it, in addition to enjoying it as a reader. “And so, I became a writer myself.”
Before he started work on what became a dozen novels, however, he studied philosophy and was involved in theater at college. He served in the Army in 1954 and 1955 then returned to the U.S. to work as a reader for the movie industry and later as an editor for the paperback publisher New American Library, where among other authors, he edited Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand.
Later, he was editor-in-chief at The Dial Press, where he published works by authors including James Baldwin and Norman Mailer. But in 1969, he left all that behind and became a fulltime writer.
The world was grateful for his career change: his work brought him the National Book Award for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In addition to awards for his individual works, his body of work has been honored with the National Humanities Medal (1998), the New York Writers Hall of Fame (2012), the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction (2012) and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters of the National Book Foundation (2013).
Doctorow received his Library of Congress award at last year’s Library of Congress National Book Festival. Here he is, at the festival, being interviewed about his work, and also speaking at the festival’s “Great Books to Great Movies” session, talking about what it’s like as an author to have your work adapted for the silver screen.