January 6, 1931, is the birthdate of E.L. Doctorow, the American writer known for such novels as “Ragtime,” “The Book of Daniel” and “The March,” each of which mixed fictional dramas into epochal moments in actual U.S. history.
- 1926: A writer about the Holocaust, and overriding humanity, is born
- 1927: Henry Ford says sorry for anti-Semitic spew
- 1886: Sigmund Freud opens a psychiatric office in Vienna, nobody comes
In the case of “Ragtime,” from 1975, Doctorow told a story of pre-World War I America, with guest appearances by Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and even Sigmund Freud, against a painful tale of racism-induced violence. “The Book of Daniel” (1969) was based on the atomic-spying case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, told from the point of view of a fictional son. “The March” (2005) looked at the campaign of “total war” led by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman as he pushed across Georgia toward the sea in late 1864, toward the end of the Civil War.
Named for a delusional misanthropic drug addict
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx, New York, and grew up there. His father, David Richard Doctorow, ran a musical-instrument shop in midtown Manhattan, and his mother, the former Rose Levine, herself played the piano in movie theaters.
Both were the U.S.-born children of Jewish immigrants from czarist Russia. They named him for Edgar Allan Poe, which apparently bothered young Edgar, though he only shared his thoughts on the topic with his mother, who lived into her 90s. “'Do you and Dad know you named me after a drug-addicted, alcoholic delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?’” Doctorow recounted to the New York Times. “She said, ‘Edgar, that’s not funny.’”
Edgar attended Bronx High School of Science, for gifted children. But not being scientifically inclined, he wrote for the school literary magazine, and took courses in journalism. After graduating in 1948, he entered Kenyon College, in Ohio, where he studied philosophy and acted, and was mentored by the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom.
That was followed by a master’s degree in English drama, at Columbia University, and service in the U.S. Army signals corps, in West Germany, in 1954-55.
During his time in Germany, Doctorow married Helen Esther Setzer, an aspiring actress whom he had met in graduate school. They remained married until his death, and had three children (one of whom is the New York folk musician Caroline Doctorow).
'I can lie better than these people'
Back in New York, Doctorow took jobs as a script reader for CBS Television and Columbia Pictures. The slush pile included a lot of Westerns, and feeling that “I can lie better than these people,” he tried his hand at writing one. The result was “Welcome to Hard Times” (1960), which was well-received critically and even adapted for the screen.
Wanting to continue his writing, Doctorow took work as an editor, first at the publisher New American Library, where his writers included Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand, and then as editor-in-chief and later publisher at the Dial Press. There, he worked with James Baldwin, Norman Mailer and other big hitters.
Finally, in 1969, he left publishing to focus on his writing. He would hit the big time with “Ragtime,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was turned into a highly successful film, directed by Milos Forman, and also later into a musical play.
Doctorow explained that the idea for the character of Coalhouse Walker, who is humiliated by racist firemen in New Rochelle, New York and then undertakes a campaign of revenge that cannot possibly have a happy ending, was based on the character of Michael Kohlhass, the eponymous protagonist of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novel. That in turn was based on the tragic episode of a real character in the 16th century.
Doctorow continued writing, interspersing that with regular academic appointments, publishing his final novel in 2014, the year before his death. It was a relatively experimental work called “Andrew’s Brain,” that looked at the question of human consciousness through the tale of a cognitive scientist.
Other novels included “Billy Bathgate” and “World’s Fair,” and he also wrote essays and short stories.
Additionally, Doctorow was a major backer, together with his college friend Paul Newman, of the Nation magazine and other left-wing causes, describing himself as belonging to “the humanist left that’s wary of ideological fervor.”
Doctorow died on July 21, 2015, of lung cancer, at age 84.