Skip to main content

Awards & Honors: 1998 National Humanities Medalist

E. L. Doctorow

The writer E. L. Doctorow does not believe in the idea of progress. Nor does he believe in the absolute sanctity of historical fact. “Where mythology and history converge, that’s where I start my novels,” he says.

Above all a novelist, Doctorow has rejected easy labels, political tags, ideological affiliations, and literary descriptions over the past thirty-five years. For him, the artistic commitment of being a novelist is primary. Others may see in his work an ideology or political statement; he does not. He is equally adamant that he does not write documentary fiction or the historical novel.

”To think that I am writing to advance a political program misses the point,“ he says. ”To call a novel political today is to label it, and to label it is to refuse to deal with what it does. My premise is that the language of politics can’t accommodate the complexity of fiction, which as a mode of thought is intuitive, metaphysical, mythic.”

The author of such critically acclaimed novels as The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1975), Loon Lake (1980), World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The Waterworks (1994), Doctorow learned his artistic vocabulary in his undergraduate years at Kenyon College, then a bastion of the ”new criticism.” He studied under the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom who advanced the theory that only the text is the proper focus of literary study. The author’s intent is of little value, Ransom argued.

Doctorow was born in 1931 in New York. He attended Bronx High School and was graduated from Kenyon College in 1952 with honors. Graduate study followed at Columbia University. His early career as an editor at Dial Press brought him into contact with some of the leading American writers of midcentury — James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Vance Bourjaily, and Tom Berger.

He grew up in a family of second- generation Russian immigrant Jews that venerated books and music. His father, who owned a music store, had a prodigious knowledge of classical music and was often consulted by the leading artists of the day.

Informing much of Doctorow’s work is his concept of history in the context of the novel. He subordinates fact to invention, a recurring theme in his work over the past three decades. He subscribes to the absolute belief that the novelist’s imagination is autonomous, even primary.

For instance, Ragtime, a masterly chronicle of America inexorably moving towards the First World War, is embellished with unlikely “Doctorovian” occurrences. Secret meetings between Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan, Freud and Jung, appropriately enough, boating through the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island, and an encounter between Harry Houdini and the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the ill-fated heir to the Austrian throne, are all part of its fantastical landscape. These same qualities translated brilliantly to the lyric stage, and “Ragtime” the musical is a current Broadway hit.

“I have always been a writer who invents,” Doctorow says, drawing a comparison with an artistic observation of Henry James. “I think books are something you make,“ he adds. ”I make books for people to live in…I lived in it by writing it. Now it’s the reader’s turn.”

Doctorow’s contribution to American letters has been his ability to advance the narrative of a story freed from the traditional convention of plot. His works by consequence often take on the feel of music, not unusual since music was an emotional core of his growing up. Rhythms, cadences, and lyricism in his prose often carry the narrative forward as in verse. He likens this achievement to doing the circus high-wire act, without the lights, without the music, without the drum roll, and ultimately without the wire itself.

Doctorow argues that the purpose of fiction as an art transcends the vaunted objectivity of history. He is more concerned with the way a time feels, smells, sounds, the way people move and the way they speak. He studies paintings and photographs more than historical data. “We live in the past to an astonishing degree,“ Doctorow says. ”Nobody can look in the mirror and not see his mother and father.” It is to these people that E. L. Doctorow gives voice across the distance of time and memory.

By Richard Carter