E.L. Doctorow, 1931 - 2015

I’m afraid I owe E.L. Doctorow better than I will be able to muster here. You see his novel Ragtime was the first grown up book I ever read. It was 1976, I was twelve years old and visiting my grandparents for the summer. They had rented a cabin on Grand Lake near Alpena, Michigan. One afternoon when the adults were napping—resting up from their early morning fishing—and I had had my fill of swimming, I rummaged through the left-behind-by-renters books of the lodge’s meager library. The book was, as I recall, the only one there that neither dealt with the best ways to catch the biggest fish, nor having a picture of a muscular, bare-chested hunk and a swooning damsel on the cover. Doctorow did something that day for which I will always be indebted to him. He showed me that books written for adults were not necessarily like adults themselves: dull, prone to long, confusing lectures and all but inscrutable. This book moved.

It jumped from a polar expedition to a presidential assassination to an anarchist bombing, to yet another murder—this one motivated by jealousy and lust. Along the way, it dealt with the strange, inarticulateness of middle class families, racial injustice, patriotism that slumps into jingoism and more. I was hooked. I stole the book. I still have it almost forty years later.

If none of his other books, for me at least, ever quite measured up to Ragtime (and really, how could they?), it was not for lack of trying;  he was incredibly prolific. Nor was it because Ragtime was fundamentally different from the rest of his oeuvre; all of his novels shared his signature sensibility: a belief that both history’s slow tectonic movements and blink-of-an-eye earthquakes have real meaning for ordinary lives, as well as a belief in the converse--the idea that history is made by those same people. His characters, both historical and fictional, were meant to embody history (in a way that some critics found overly simplistic), but they were always adeptly rendered and rarely one dimensional. His characters breathed. But most of all, Doctorow had a populist's belief in the novel's obligation to be readable--enjoyable, even. He believed that the fact a novel was entertaining did not mean it couldn't have depth and nuance. 

It was more or less by default that Doctorow led me into a world of words that can create worlds of their own, and more importantly, can shape and deepen and make sense of the world that surrounds me—surrounds us. Looking back on it, the encounter with Doctorow that summer seems so accidental, It strikes me how easily I could have missed it. But in the end, reading, for many of us, always has that element—the ever-present possibility of a life-changing moment with each turn of the page.



Books by E.L. Doctorow
Loon Lake
World’s Fair
The Waterworks
Billy Bathgate
Welcome to Hard Times
The Book of Daniel
More Books by and about E.L. Doctorow

New York Times Obituary