By Lily Rothman
July 22, 2015

The death on Tuesday of E.L. Doctorow ended a decades-long career built on emphasizing the “story” in history.

As TIME described it in a 1975 bio that accompanied the review of his masterwork Ragtime, the story of how he became a writer was one built on belief in himself: “Not long after he got out of the Army in 1954, E.L. (Edgar Lawrence) Doctorow sat down on a wooden crate in front of his typewriter and told his wife Helen, ‘This is the way we are going to survive.’ He had $135 to his name. Forty-eight hours later, he had $50 left and a lot of blank paper. For the next 20 years, Doctorow fought the blank page—and won four times.” During those decades he had several other jobs (airline clerk, editor, teacher) but from that point on he was what he had intended to be: a writer.

Here’s what TIME said about several of his best-known works:

The Book of Daniel (1971):The Book of Daniel, transparently based on the Rosenberg case, is a bold novel that, all things considered, is surprisingly successful. Doctorow‘s biggest gamble was sinking his energies into the Rosenberg case in the first place. Not that successful fiction cannot spring from old newspapers, as Dostoevsky and Dreiser both demonstrated. But the Rosenberg trial was a kind of drawn-out, draining and rather grisly national ordeal.”

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Ragtime (1975): “In Doctorow‘s hands, the nation’s secular fall from grace is no catalogue of sin, no mere tour de force; the novelist has managed to seize the strands of actuality and transform them into a fabulous tale.”

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Loon Lake (1980): “The written surface of Loon Lake is ruffled and choppy. Swatches of poetry are jumbled together with passages of computerese and snippets of mysteriously disembodied conversation. Narration switches suddenly from first to third person, or vice versa, and it is not always clear just who is telling what. Chronology is so scrambled that the aftereffects of certain key events are described before the events occur. Such dislocations are undeniably frustrating at first, but they gradually acquire hypnotic force. Reading the book finally seems like overhearing bits of an oddly familiar tune.”

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World’s Fair (1985): “Doctorow calls it a novel. But the book reads like a memoir, and is unmistakably based on the author’s early boyhood in the Bronx. The account begins with a bed wetting in the middle of the Depression and ends on the eve of World War II with a nine-year-old Edgar Altschuler burying a cardboard time capsule containing a Tom Mix decoder badge, his school report on the life of F.D.R., a harmonica and a pair of Tootsy Toy lead rocket ships, ‘to show I had foreseen the future.'”

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Billy Bathgate (1989): “[Doctorow] is mixing elements from his other novels in a manner that proves combustible and incandescent. Part of the allure springs from the subject, which plays upon the mysterious fascination that outlaws and gangsters have always held for law-abiding American citizens.”

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The Waterworks (1994): “Even longtime readers, though, are likely to find The Waterworks Doctorow‘s strangest and most problematic invention so far. The setting is New York City in 1871, although the story of what happened there and then is told at an indeterminate later date by a man named McIlvaine, who notes, at one point in his narrative, ‘I have to warn you, in all fairness, I’m reporting what are now the visions of an old man.’ A number of similar caveats are interspersed throughout the story, and taken together they add another level of mystery to the point he makes over and over again: he has been a witness to horror and lived to tell the tale.”

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City of God (2000): “The true miracle of City of God is the way its disparate parts fuse into a consistently enthralling and suspenseful whole. In such novels as Ragtime (1975) and Billy Bathgate (1989), Doctorow mixed historical and fictional figures in ways that magically challenged ordinary notions of what is real. His new novel repeats this process, with even more intriguing and unsettling consequences.”

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The March (2005): “History. James Joyce called it a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. But for E.L. Doctorow it’s more of an ill-defined dream state that he doggedly revisits, working all the while to get the thing decoded. In his best books, like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, Doctorow mixes historical figures with fictional characters to discover the submerged foundations of the American psyche. His spellbinding new novel, The March (Random House; 363 pages), is one to put beside those, a ferocious reimagining of the past that returns it to us as something powerful and strange.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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