Celebrated Novelist E.L. Doctorow Dies at 84

E.L. Doctorow, the acclaimed author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, has died at the age of 84 due to complications from lung cancer.

Doctorow rose to prominence during the 1970s, with the release of Ragtime. Later adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical, Ragtime is a sweeping examination of early 20th century America that follows a slew of characters — some elite, some lowly; some historical figures, some totally made up — as they navigate the prickly socio-political realities of New York. Emma Goldman has a cameo, as does Harry Houdini.

This work, arguably Doctorow’s best known, emblematizes his singular brand of historical fiction. In Doctorow novels, characters real and imagined shuffle through watershed moments — their peregrinations reanimating vanished landscapes, and bringing to the fore that which is often squelched in representations of epochs past. During a decade that brought us “Grease” and “Happy Days,” Doctorow — unflinching in his portrayal of bygone turmoil — provided an antidote to overweening nostalgia. The cultural critic Frederic Jameson called him “the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past.” In his review of Doctorow’s 1986 novel The March (that year’s winner of the National Book Award), Updike called him “not so much a reconstructor of history as a visionary who seeks in time past occasions for poetry.”

Those who disagreed with his more blatant off-the-page politics had less kind words for him, but Doctorow was staunch in his refusal to accept any of the labels foes and fans alike attempted to affix to him. He told the Times in 2006:

“People say to me, ‘A lot of your novels take place in the past. Are you a historical novelist?’ I don’t think of myself that way, but if you want to call me that, go ahead. Then someone will say, ‘There’s a certain political quality to a lot of your work. Would you call yourself a political novelist?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’ve never thought of myself as a political novelist, but if that suits you, why not?’ And then someone will say, ‘You’re a Jewish novelist’ — and yes, I guess that’s true, too. So I accept any kind of identity. I’m willing to participate in all of them, as long as none claims to be an exhaustive interpretation.”

If you haven’t already formed your own opinion about Doctorow, we encourage you to interrupt your regularly scheduled reading, and steep yourself in his pages — simultaneously portraits of history, and of a man who thrilled to “fiddle” with it.

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