E.L. Doctorow: He Turned History Into Fiction

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E.L. Doctorow in January 2014

E.L. Doctorow took the art of historical novels a step beyond by reimagining historical figures as fictional characters. In his most famous work, the 1975 best-seller Ragtime, Doctorow, who passed away on July 21 in New York at age 84, set a cast that includes Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington interact in scenes that never happened and yet reveal so much about the characters.

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Here are some nuggets about Doctorow.

  •  E.L. stands for Edgar Lawrence, and, much to Doctorow's dismay, Edgar came from Edgar Allan Poe. “Do you and Dad know you named me after a drug-addicted, alcoholic delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?” he once asked his mother.
  • For a high school assignment, he wrote an artfully detailed character sketch of a Carnegie Hall doorman named Karl that his teacher wanted to publish in the school paper until Doctorow reluctantly confessed that Karl didn’t actually exist.
  • While trying to start a career as a novelist, he worked as a reservations clerk at La Guardia Airport.
  • Writing was so difficult for him that he once got writer’s block while trying to scribble a school absence note for his daughter, he recalled in a Paris Review interview: “There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor.”
  • Asked at an appearance at the National Archives how he reacted to editors revising his work, he replied, “Oh, I don’t let them.”
  • His approach to tinkering with history? “People know that novelists are liars. And that’s why we can be trusted to tell the truth,” he told Time.


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Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

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