E.L. Doctorow will be forever remembered as the remarkable innovator who blended fictional characters with historic events in innovative and relevant ways in his award-winning and critically acclaimed novels, Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March. He passed away at the age of 84 yesterday, July 21, 2015.
Doctorow’s seemingly endless ingenuity, from Ragtime to World’s Fair, infused social commentary into captivating narratives; he brought our attention to important issues while giving us a ride on the pitching, churning sea of his imagination. Ragtime was the book that made his career and in it, we find a striking combination of fictional and real-life characters (including the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington), along with a dry, witty tone that pulses back and forth between aggressive and laconic. He was also the author of three volumes of short fiction, a stage drama and a variety of essays and commentary on literature and politics.
He was, in fact, America’s great experimenter. Amazingly enough, he seemed to succeed with every experiment, driving home both American history and deeply involving adventures. As critic Peter S. Prescott wrote in Newsweek in 1984 (cited by The New York Times):
“The distinguished characteristic of E. L. Doctorow’s work is its double vision. In each of his books he experiments with the forms of fiction, working for effects that others haven’t already achieved; in each he develops a tone, a structure and a texture that he hasn’t used before. At the same time, he’s a deeply traditional writer, reworking American history, American literary archetypes, even exhausted sub-literary genres. It’s an astonishing performance, really.”
Even President Obama has weighed in with his remembrance on Twitter:
E.L. Doctorow was one of America’s greatest novelists. His books taught me much, and he will be missed.
— President Obama (@POTUS) July 22, 2015
Doctorow won plenty of awards, had a successful career as an editor and writer, and enjoyed the prestige of which many authors can only dream. But as is the case with all great writers, E.L. Doctorow will be remembered for how he made people feel, and for making them think. He once said: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
Well done, Mr. Doctorow. We all feel more now, thanks to you.