Edgar L. Doctorow ’52 H’76, better known by the initials E.L., died on July 21, 2015. A resident of New York City and Sag Harbor, New York, the famed writer was 84.
Born in the Bronx, New York, Doctorow was named for Edgar Allan Poe, whom he once called “our greatest bad writer.” He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, where he made his mark not as a mathematics or science prodigy, but as a mainstay of the literary magazine. Determined to escape the American East for college, he set his sights on studying with poet and critic John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon.
Doctorow majored in philosophy at the College, served as a writer for the Kenyon Collegian and joined the Middle Kenyon Association. He also participated in dramatics and gave memorable performances in such powerful fare as Golden Boy and The Playboy of the Western World – although he once complained that he “couldn’t get any good parts until this guy named Newman graduated.” He earned his bachelor’s degree with honors in philosophy.
In a 1977 lecture at Kenyon, Doctorow admitted to a “love-hate relationship” with his alma mater. Reported in an interview in the Mount Vernon News by “Special Writer” Matthew A. Winkler ’77 P’13 (who would go on to a long career as editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News), he said, “if you were Jewish, black or had acne, one wasn’t invited to join any of the fraternities unless it was on a token basis. My satisfaction came when I refused to be a token Jew.”
Nevertheless, Doctorow remembered the College of his time as a singular institution. “There was a confluence of energy here,” he said at the lecture. “It made a Kenyon education equal to, if not better than, one at Harvard or Yale. It was a very exciting place.”
And yet, he added, “It was also very weird.”
Moving back to New York City after earning his degree, Doctorow enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University, where he studied drama and met his future wife, an aspiring actress named Helen Setzer. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he married Helen in 1953 while stationed in Germany. He returned to New York City and took a series of odd jobs to support his writing after being discharged.
Doctorow published his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, in 1960. The book, which was well reviewed by most critics, was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. It was followed by Big as Life (1966); The Book of Daniel (1971), based on the story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, which became the film Daniel; and then perhaps his most famous novel, Ragtime (1975), a bestseller that became both a movie and a Broadway musical.
In succeeding years, Doctorow published not only historical fiction but also essays, memoirs, short stories and a play, Drinks before Dinner (1979). His other novels were Loon Lake (1980), World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1985), The Waterworks (1984), City of God (2000), The March (2005), Homer and Langley (2009) and Andrew’s Brain (2014). The short-story collections were Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (1984), Sweet Land Stories (2004) and All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories (2011), the last of which took its name from a short story that first appeared in the Kenyon Review in 2009.
Like its predecessors and successor, Doctorow’s penultimate essay collection, Reporting the Universe (2003), did not shy away from personal or culturally and politically fraught topics. In his review for the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, Dan Laskin directed readers to an essay titled “Kenyon,” which he labeled “a tribute, but not a nostalgic one,” while noting that “[p]articularly powerful are several essays that ponder the dangers of religious fundamentalism.”
Doctorow’s sometimes controversial choices of subject matter did not scare away readers or awards panels. Among the many honors he received were the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ragtime (1975), the National Book Award for World's Fair (1986), the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal for Billy Bathgate (1989 and 1990), the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for The March (2006). He was also the recipient of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction and, just last year, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. In 2002, he became the inaugural winner of the Kenyon Review’s Award for Literary Achievement at a gala event in Manhattan.
“Edgar Doctorow was one of the most significant fiction writers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in America,” said David H. Lynn ’76 P’14, David F. Banks Editor of the Review and a professor of English at the College. “His invention and ambition were fearless, but they never interfered with the dramatic power and deep resonance of his stories.
“His connections to Kenyon were long and deep. He was part of the second wave of extraordinary younger writers who came to the College expressly to work with John Crowe Ransom. Among his friends and fellow students were James Wright and Paul Newman. The trustees of the Kenyon Review felt that because of his distinguished place on the American literary landscape, as well as his long connection to the College and the Review, it was appropriate that he be the very first writer to be honored with the magazine’s Award for Literary Achievement.”
Presented by the College with an honorary doctorate in humane letters from in 1976, Doctorow returned to campus to deliver the Commencement address to Kenyon’s Class of 1985. It was his final visit to the College, although he continued to support various Kenyon fundraising efforts with benefit readings and to recommend potential students to the College’s admissions office.
Much of Doctorow’s time that was not devoted to writing was given over to teaching. He was a longtime faculty member at New York University, where he offered both literature courses and creative-writing seminars. He also served on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College and taught as a visitor at Princeton University, the University of California-Irvine, the University of Utah and the Yale School of Drama.
Doctorow is survived by his wife, Helen Setzer Doctorow, to whom he was married for more than 60years; two daughters, Jenny Doctorow Fe-Bornstein and Caroline Doctorow Gatewood; a son, Richard Doctorow; and four grandchildren.