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EL Doctorow, Witness to 'This Terrifying Century,' Dies at 84

'I think of myself really as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country,' the author once said

E.L. Doctorow died Tuesday at 84. (Photo: AP)

Novelist Edgar Lawrence "E.L." Doctorow, whose historical fiction and social commentary were said to "challenge the prevailing mythology of society," died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan of complications from lung cancer. He was 84.

Born in the Bronx, Doctorow was the recipient of many distinguished literary prizes, among them the National Book Award, two National Books Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Humanities Medal, and most recently, the Library of Congress Prize for American fiction.

His work held a mirror to American society and, as the New York Times wrote in its obituary, "consistently upended expectations with a cocktail of fiction and fact, remixed in book after book."

In interviews, Doctorow spoke of his responsibility to hold up that mirror. "The writer isn’t made in a vacuum," Doctorow told journalist George Plimpton in 1986. "Writers are witnesses. The reason we need writers is because we need witnesses to this terrifying century."

Doctorow, who wrote a dozen novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama, as well as poems, essays, and commentary on literature and politics, was perhaps best known for Ragtime (1975), which took a close look at early 20th-century politics, racism, and women's rights; Billy Bathgate (1989), which interrogated the myth of the self-made man in the (under)world of crime in the 1920s and 30s; and The March (2005), which reconstructed the monumental march of Union general William T. Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah toward the end of the Civil War. 

Yet while much of his work examined moments in history, Doctorow reportedly didn't care for being labeled a "historical novelist," as he told NPR's Scott Simon in 2014:

I don't agree with that. I think all novels are about the past, the near past, the far past, some of them have a wider focus and include more of society and recognizable events and people. The historical novel seems to me a misnomer, and many of my books take place in different places, in the Dakotas, or down south in Georgia or the Carolinas, so it's just as valid to call me a geographical novelist as an historical novelist. I think of myself really as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country.

And when he wrote about his country in a non-fiction context, his approach was no less searing. In 2004, Doctorow lambasted George W. Bush (without once writing his name) in a piece titled, "The Unfeeling President."

Of "this president," Doctorow wrote: "He wanted to go to war and he did. He had not the mind to perceive the costs of war, or to listen to those who knew those costs. He did not understand that you do not go to war when it is one of the options but when it is the only option; you go not because you want to but because you have to."

He continued:

Yet this president knew it would be difficult for Americans not to cheer the overthrow of a foreign dictator. He knew that much. This president and his supporters would seem to have a mind for only one thing—to take power, to remain in power, and to use that power for the sake of themselves and their friends.

A war will do that as well as anything. You become a wartime leader. The country gets behind you. Dissent becomes inappropriate. And so he does not drop to his knees, he is not contrite, he does not sit in the church with the grieving parents and wives and children. He is the president who does not feel. He does not feel for the families of the dead, he does not feel for the 35 million of us who live in poverty, he does not feel for the 40 percent who cannot afford health insurance, he does not feel for the miners whose lungs are turning black or for the working people he has deprived of the chance to work overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills—it is amazing for how many people in this country this president does not feel.

The subjects of Doctorow's inquiries evolved as time went on. In a speech at the 2013 National Book Awards ceremony, where he received the NBA's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Doctorow ruminated on the implications of modern technology, warning of its "dehumanizing" potential:

So, can we expect from the Internet's meta-brain infinite manifestations of human genius and human perfidy? I think so. It is a complex structure, available to all sorts of applications and misapplications. Like any web, it can wrap itself around you. If there's an algorithmic breakthrough that shows us how to reduce pollution, for example, there is also an algorithm for the quantification of persons into data. Wherein everything we do, our predilections, our relations with others, our physical qualities and psychic conditions, our political beliefs, what we buy, what doctors we see, what movies we watch, what books we read, if any—anything and everything about us broken down into data, the life substance of the companion world in cyberspace mined in invasive expeditions in the name of commerce and government surveillance—for the use of corporations and excited police departments. You can call it quantification—in the 1960s, we called it reification. A means of dehumanizing. And it turns out that the prophetic story for all of this is, oddly enough, that eviction story from the Bronze Age telling of the consequences from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. So like all worlds, the virtual comes with its heaven and its hell.

Still, for Doctorow, the very act of writing seems to served as a ballast against such dehumanization.

"Well, I can't imagine not writing," the author told Bill Moyers in 1988. "I'm too weak to abandon it. I love language. I love to be in it. I love to have my mind, sort of, flowing its way through sentences and making discoveries that I hadn’t anticipated. It's really very selfish. You want to make something that's good and true and something that didn’t exist before and hope it will last, that’s all. That's all, but it's everything. It's a monumentally arrogant wish and desire, but it's also very simple. Just out of your own inadequate mind to make something that stands, and holds, and becomes something that someone else will use to walk us another bit further toward whatever it is our destiny might be; enlightenment, one hopes, salvation, redemption, all those things."

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