The assignment was to interview a “colorful person,” and the teenage E.L. Doctorow — back then, he was simply Edgar — had just the man.
His name was Karl, and he was a dear old German-Jewish refugee who worked as a stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. Young Edgar’s report on the elderly man was replete with details both dramatic and intimate: How Karl was a great lover of music and was a favorite among the artists who frequented the famous concert hall. How every evening he would arrive at work with a brown bag lunch and a thermos full of tea, which he drank in the Old World style, sticking a cube of sugar in his teeth and drinking through the melting crystals.
Edgar’s high school journalism teacher loved the story and wanted to run it in the school newspaper. Nervously, he responded that wasn’t a good idea.
“I said, ‘Well, Karl is very shy.’ And she said, ‘Shy? Well, he talked to you, didn’t he?'” he recalled in a National Archives interview more than six decades later.
“I said, ‘Not exactly. There is no Karl. I made him up,'” the adult Doctorow laughed.
Though he didn’t know it then, that exchange was a “portent,” Doctorow has said. It was his first attempt at the kind of storytelling that would win him wide popularity and critical acclaim, a trick for inventing fictional (or fictionalized) characters who animate places and times that are very much real.
The award-winning author of a dozen novels, three short story collections and countless commentaries on culture and politics died in New York Tuesday at age 84. The cause was complications from lung cancer, his son told the New York Times.
That Doctorow would become a writer was a foregone conclusion even before the “Karl” incident. His father had named him for Edgar Allen Poe — “There’s always an injunction when children are given names in there,” Doctorow said in 2008 — and by age nine the young Doctorow had decided that writing was his future.
“At that age, something else happens if you’re going to be a writer,” he told NPR in 2004. “You’re reading for the excitement of it … and then another little line of inquiry comes into your head: ‘How is this done?'”
So he devoted himself to the study of books — books from the shelves of his family’s Bronx home, books from the public library, books that were sometimes above his reading or maturity level (“‘Mademoiselle de Maupin’ by Theophile Gautier … made my ears red. Very sexy book,” he once recalled), “Everything I could get my hands on,” Doctorow said.
Doctorow left the Bronx at 16 to attend Kenyon College in Ohio, then returned to New York for a year of graduate school at Columbia University, where he met his wife Helen Setzer. He was drafted into the Army and stationed in Germany during the mid-1950s, and eventually found himself back in the city of his birth, working as a “reader” for a movie studio.
The job was straightforward but tedious, in Doctorow’s recollection. He was assigned to read dozens upon dozens of Western novels and determine whether they were good enough to be adapted for film.
“I found myself reading these awful, terrible Westerns day after day. I thought I’d become seriously ill,” he said in 2008. An effort to vent his creative frustration into a parody turned into the first chapter of a more serious novel set in Dakota Territory during its 19th century boom. That book was “Welcome to Hard Times,” published in 1960.
Others soon followed — the very weird (and only out of print Doctorow work) science fiction story “Big As Life” in 1966; his 1971 reworking of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, “The Book of Daniel.”
Doctorow became famous with the publication of “Ragtime,” a sly, splashy 1975 novel that tracks the intersecting lives of New Yorkers both famous and fictional through the early years of the 20th century. Harry Houdini makes an appearance, as do Siegmund Freud and anarchist Emma Goldman. Henry Ford gives an unscrupulous J.P. Morgan a talking-to, while the “younger brother” in the novel’s central family (the members of which are never named) is in love with real-life socialite Evelyn Nesbit. The book was eventually made into a movie and a Tony Award-winning musical.
In a review of “Ragtime” for the Chicago Tribune, the writer John Brooks commented that Doctorow’s characters — even the historical ones — were “alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required.”
“‘Ragtime’ is not social history disguised as a novel; rather it is the novel as social history, an imaginative flight based on the facts of the past but released rather than confined by them,” he wrote.
Not everyone was as enamored. “It smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets, and turned the historical novel into a gravity-free, faintly sadistic game,” John Updike wrote in The New Yorker in 2005.
But Doctorow bristled at the notion that he was a “historical novelist” (despite what his Wikipedia page says) or that he exploited historical figures by telling stories about them that weren’t verifiably true. History is always being fought over and “fiddled” with, Doctorow explained. He was simply the person willing to challenge it in the open.
“What most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth,” he told the Paris Review in 1986. “… Everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it.”
Though he experimented with subject and style, Doctorow continued to “fiddle” with history for nearly every one of his subsequent novels. Sometimes that history was his own, as in “World’s Fair, which won the National Book Award. Other times, it was the history of Bronx mobsters in the 1920s (“Billy Bathgate”) or Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody march through the South (“The March”).
Updike, who disparaged Doctorow’s fiddling in “Ragtime,” loved it in “The March.”
“It offers an illumination, fitful and flickering, of a historic upheaval that only fiction could provide,” he wrote in his New Yorker review. “Doctorow here appears not so much a reconstructor of history as a visionary who seeks in time past occasions for poetry.”
But Doctorow’s vision was about more than spinning a good yarn. He plumbed the past for its politics, and his “fiddling” with history often worked to bring its problems — and the present’s — into focus.
“E.L. Doctorow is the epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past,” the cultural critic Frederic Jameson claimed.
Doctorow tended to dismiss that kind of analysis of his books. But beyond the page, he was much more vocal about his left-leaning politics.
In 2004, the writer was booed during a charged graduation speech at Hofstra University. He’d been discussing the issue that he often finds himself talking about — that history is formed from the telling of stories — but this time, he accused President George W. Bush of telling the wrong kind.
“We went off to war on the basis of these stories” about Iraq, he said. “Sadly, they are not good stories the president tells.”
Unlike most of its predecessors, Doctorow’s last novel, “Andrew’s Brain,” isn’t set in the past. But it retains his other books’ obsession with it. As Andrew and his unnamed psychiatrist rehash his history, the psychiatrist keeps asking, “Did this really happen?”
It’s a question that irritates Andrew, as it probably irritated Doctorow. What “really happened” was never his main concern.
“The historian will tell you what happened,” he told Time. “The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”