E. L. Doctorow, the award-winning New York author who was renowned for his historical fiction and penned such unique works as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, City of God, and The Waterworks, died Tuesday in Manhattan. The New York Times reports the cause was “complications from lung cancer.” He was 84.
Doctorow, often looked at as one of the doyens of historical fiction, wrote 12 novels as well as a handful of short-story collections and a play. Several of his books were adapted as big-screen projects, including Welcome to Hard Times, Billy Bathgate, and Ragtime — the last of which also saw the stage and garnered four Tonys. His most recent release was last year’s Andrew’s Brain. He also occasionally wrote for such publications as The New York Review of Books, The Nation, the New York Times, and New York (some of those writings are available, archived here). When he recalled his Bronx upbringing for New York in 2013, he painted a vivid portrait of Great Depression–era youth and rebellious joie de vivre in the city:
Nobody in the neighborhood owned a car, and so the street belonged to the kids. It was our stickball field, our flea market. … Winter was finally the time of such exertion as to constitute a triumph over nameless cold evil. As dogged as Shackleton striding across Antarctica, my friends and I trekked the neighborhoods looking for the best snow street, and when we found it we took off with no further ceremony, running all out, our Flexible Flyers held aloft and, attaining launch speed, we threw ourselves and our sleds through the air and bellywhopped our way down the snow-packed avenue, the sticking snow flying into our grins and all the powers of life humming in our skinny little heart-pumping bodies.
Doctorow was born (Edgar Lawrence, reportedly after Edgar Allan Poe) and raised in the Bronx, where he learned and studied the power of fiction at an early age. After studying at Kenyon College with the poet John Crowe Ransom, Doctorow completed a year of graduate work at Columbia, was drafted to the Army during the Allied occupation, and worked a slew of odd jobs (including stints at an airport, as a script reader, and as a book editor), before making his first big break with 1960’s Welcome to Hard Times. Over the course of a leggy career that spanned nearly six decades, Doctorow nabbed a National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, two PEN Faulkner Awards, the PEN Saul Bellow Award, a National Humanities Medal, and the Gold Medal for Fiction (awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters), among many others. President Obama was among those grieving fiction’s great loss Tuesday evening:
In memoriam, here’s a clip of Doctorow speaking at the New York State Writers Institute last year:
The writer is survived by his wife, son, two daughters, and four grandchildren. RIP, Doctorow.