Doctorow, E.L., 1931-

Alternative names
Birth 1931-01-06

Biographical notes:

American author.

From the description of Typewritten letter signed, dated New York, N.Y., 8 September 1993, to Joan Peyser, 1993 Sept. 8. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270992398

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in New York City on January 6, 1931. He grew up on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx and attended the Bronx High School of Science, where he showed an early interest in the arts. Doctorow graduated with honors from Kenyon College in 1952, receiving a B.A in Philosophy, before continuing with a year of graduate work at Columbia University. He married Helen Seltser during a two-year stint in the U.S. Army (1953-55); they had three children: Jenny, Caroline, and Richard.

After a brief stint as a reservations clerk at LaGuardia Airport, Doctorow worked primarily in arts-related fields. He began as a staff reader for Columbia Pictures and CBS Television (1956-1959), writing synopses and reader's reports for books being considered as potential movie concepts. During this time, he experimented with multiple literary genres, producing a collection of short fiction, plays, and television scripts; however, it was his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960), that had the most success, and was later adapted into a movie starring Henry Fonda.

From 1959-1964, Doctorow served as senior editor for the New American Library, and from 1964-1969 as the editor in chief of Dial Press. During this time he wrote his second novel, Big As Life (1966), a satire set in a future New York. The result was less successful. Doctorow admits that it was "a rather weak book," and it has not been reissued since its original publication.

Since 1969, Doctorow has devoted his time to writing and teaching. He has been associated with several colleges and universities, including the University of California, Irvine; Sarah Lawrence College; Yale University Drama School; and Princeton University; however, he has made his permanent home at New York University where he holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters. He is a member of P.E.N American Center, and was appointed as a member to the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984.

Doctorow's third novel, The Book of Daniel (1971), won critical acclaim and a nomination for a National Book Award. The Book of Daniel is a fictionalized account of the Rosenberg children, whose lives are haunted by the Atom Spy Trials of their parents and by the general paranoia introduced into American culture during the McCarthy era. The book was adapted into a movie in 1983 directed by Sidney Lumet.

Ragtime (1975), written while Doctorow was a Guggenheim fellow and a Creative Artists Service fellow, was one of the most highly anticipated and critically acclaimed novels of 1976, as well as one of the fastest selling and most popular American books of all time. Ragtime uses historical figures as characters (Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and many others), but it interweaves these personalities with a fictional narrative in order to expose a more ominous political and cultural threat that is always central to Doctorow's general critique of American life. Ragtime received the first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976 and the Arts and Letters Award given by the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters. It was later adapted into both a movie directed by Robert Altman and a Broadway musical.

Three of Doctorow's subsequent novels are set in the 1930s, though each has its own perspective: Loon Lake (1980) is the story of a young man who is cast adrift during the Depression years; World's Fair (1986) is a memoir of a 1930s New York City boyhood; and Billy Bathgate (1989) explores the underground of gangsterism and crime. Loon Lake was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and was nominated for the National Book Award; World's Fair was the winner of the 1986 National Book Award; Billy Bathgate was the winner of the 1990 P.E.N./Faulkner Award and was adapted into a movie by Tom Stoppard directed by Robert Benton. Doctorow's other projects include two additional novels, The Waterworks (1994) and City of God (2000), a play, Drinks Before Dinner (1979) that was first produced by Joseph Papp under the direction of Mike Nichols, and a collection of short fiction, Lives of the Poets (1984). Additionally, Doctorow has written a number of non-fiction pieces for various periodicals, including The New York Times, The Nation, Newsday, Playboy, Harper's, and The New Yorker . In 1993, Doctorow published a collection of these non-fiction pieces in Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution .


Yardley, Jonathan, "Mr. Ragtime," The Miami Herald, 21 December 1975. Wutz, Michael, "An Interview with E.L. Doctorow," Weber Studies 11 (Winter, 1994). Baker, John F., "PW Interviews: E.L. Doctorow," Publisher's Weekly 207 (30 June 1975).

From the guide to the E. L. Doctorow Papers, 1931-2002, (© 2009 Fales Library and Special Collections)


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  • Poetry
  • Authors and publishers--United States
  • American fiction--20th century
  • American drama--20th century


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