Death of E. L. Doctorow, a master of historical fiction

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Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (January 6, 1931 — July 21, 2015) – a master of historical fiction – died at 84 in Manhattan of lung cancer complications, according to his son, Richard. His death is a great loss for the literary world.  He was born in the Bronx to parents of Russian descent who named him after Edgar Allan Poe.

“Actually, my father liked a lot of bad writers, but Poe was our greatest bad writer, so I take some consolation from that,” Mr. Doctorow said in 2008. “He died many years ago. My mother lived into her 90s, and I remember asking her in her old age — I finally dealt with the question of my name — “Do you and Dad know you named me after a drug-addicted?”

His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father, David, had a store for musical instruments in the old Hippodrome building in Midtown Manhattan; his mother, Rose, played the piano. Though the family struggled for money, Edgar had a childhood he later described as pleasant, with stoop ball games in the street, summers at camp, frequent trips to the theatre and the Museum of Modern Art and a general immersion in the perfervid atmosphere of intellect and culture that distinguished New York even more than it does today.

“As a boy I went matter of factly to plays, to concerts,” he recalled in a mid-1990s interview with The Kenyon Review. “And as I grew up I was a beneficiary of the incredible energies of European émigrés in every field — all those great minds hounded out of Europe by Hitler. They brought enormous sophistication to literary criticism, philosophy, science, music. I was very lucky to be a New Yorker.”

“The distinguished characteristic of E. L. Doctorow’s work is its double vision,” the critic Peter S. Prescott wrote in Newsweek in 1984. “In each of his books he experiments with the forms of fiction, working for effects that others haven’t already achieved; in each he develops a tone, a structure and a texture that he hasn’t used before. At the same time, he’s a deeply traditional writer, reworking American history, American literary archetypes, and even exhausted sub-literary genres. It’s an astonishing performance, really.”

Graduated with honours in 1952 and then went for a master at Columbia University, was then drafted into the United States Army. He served as a corporal in the signal corps in Germany 1954–55. He returned to New York after his military service and took a job as a reader for a motion picture company, where he later said to have read so many ‘Westerns’ scrips that he was inspired to write one which became his first novel, ‘Welcome to Hard Times’.

Doctorow spent nine years as a book editor, first at NAL working with Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand among others; from 1964, as editor-in-chief at The Dial Press, he published works by James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Ernest J. Gaines and William Kennedy.

In 1969, Doctorow left publishing in order to write full time, accepting a position as Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine, where he completed The Book of Daniel (1971), a freely fictionalized consideration of the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Doctorow’s next book was Ragtime (1975). Loon Lake (1980); Then World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989); The Waterworks (1994); ; The March (2005); two books of short fiction, ‘Lives of the Poets I (1984); City of God (2000); Sweetland Stories (2004); and two volumes of essays, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution (1993); Creationists (2006). Homer & Langley (2009); Andrew’s Brain (2014);

“The March” (2005) was Doctorow’s farthest reach back into history, and it expanded his geographical reach, populating the destructive and decisive Civil War campaign of General William T. Sherman — the capture of Atlanta – with a plethora of characters. Black and white, wealthy and wanting, military and civilian, sympathetic and repugnant, they are a veritable representation of the American people.

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