Remembering E.L. Doctorow and his incredible life’s work

There’s sad news for book lovers today: E.L. Doctorow, the award-winning American novelist, passed away on Tuesday. He will be missed by numerous fans of his work, from myself to President Obama, who once called Doctorow his favorite author after Shakespeare.

Edgar Lawrence “E.L.” Doctorow was born in the Bronx in 1931 and named after Edgar Allen Poe, a namesake which few others could have lived up to quite so well. Over the course of his fifty-year career, he wrote 12 novels, three volumes of short fiction, a stage play, and multiple essays.

One of his most famous novels is The Book of Daniel, which fictionalizes the story of the Rosenberg trial during the Cold War. (The case involved American couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed for selling nuclear secrets to the Russians.) The novel focuses on their fictional child, haunted by memories of his parents as he pursues his Ph.D.

The novel is pretty typical of the gravity of the topics he covered in his work. He once told The Guardian that he likes to tackle “the major philosophical questions that don’t seem to have an answer that everyone agrees on,” and that focus is definitely reflected in his novels.

Some of his other books you might have read or heard of include Ragtime in1975, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate in the 1980s, and most recently The March in 2005, all of which won numerous awards. He even received the Library of Congress prize for American fiction, solidifying his place as one of the great contemporary novelists.

Doctorow’s path to becoming a writer is far from easy. He once compared writing a novel to driving a car at night, because you “can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” He made the trip successfully so many times that it can be hard to imagine his lack of foresight, but he never originally intended to become an author.

After spending the 1950s as a corporal in Germany during the Allied occupation, he came back to the US and started working as a reader for a film company. He got so sick of reading what he called “lousy western[s]” that he wrote his own parody “in a fit of rage,” he told The Guardian. The editor liked it, and the rest is history.

You can see his impatience for clichés and excess in his writing style. He once explained his writing style by telling The Guardian, “I like commas. I detest semi-colons — I don’t think they belong in a story. And I gave up quotation marks long ago. I found I didn’t need them, they were fly-specks on the page. If you’re doing it right, the reader will know who’s talking.”

Doctorow died at the age of 84, leaving behind a wife and three children as well as countless fans across the country and the world. If you haven’t read his work yet, now is the time to start.

[Image via National Book Foundation, by Francesca Magnani]