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1931-2015

E. L. Doctorow

By Don DeLillo

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow.

E. L. Doctorow.

Edgar.

Ed.

His grandparents were immigrants from Russia. The polyphonic past. The street voices. The accents. The grain of American possibility.

In Doctorow, language becomes a kind of democratic experiment. He found rhythms and patterns, book to booka kind of heat-seeking prose designed to bring characters and dialogue to higher life, to render an era, or an environment, or a crucial bend in history into vivid distinction.

Edgar and I. Two guys from the Bronx.

His fiction glides into and out of history. But he was not a novelist whose work might be confined to a category—historical, political, biographical.

The high-spirited first-person narration; the sweep of nonstop words; the driving and winding page-long sentencesthat’s one book.

The thrust of originality, the warm and syncopated tone—that’s another book:

Ragtime. In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.

Edgar was, at times, a reservation clerk, a script reader, an editor, an editor-in-chief, a publisher, a professor—and a tennis player.

Novels, stories, essays, a stage play.

His parents named him after Edgar Allan Poe.

His work is often set in the past and the pleasures of invention are clear on every page. Song lyrics, documents, correspondence, multiple endings. And here is where he finds his strength, in the sentence, the long and short of it, the push and shove, the graceful lilt, the starchy timewise tone, the swing of a phrase that’s informed by the energies of men and women in their own sweet time.

History the monotone, the monolithic force—and the pulsing ever-living language that the writer poses in opposition.

The Book of Daniel. I was not doing well in school that year. I was in the third grade. I would not fold my hands at the edge of my desk. I went to the bathroom without raising my hand. I talked when I felt like talking. There were periodic drills in the event of nuclear bombs falling. We marched into the hallways where there were no windows, and sat hunched against the wall, knees up, arms around knees, head down. I suppose it was 1949. All the schools were very big on air-raid drills. The Russians had exploded an atom bomb. Truman was said to be soft on Communism. The Chinese Reds had booted out Chiang Kai-shek. American Communist leaders were on trial for conspiracy to advocate and teach the violent overthrow of the Government. There were lots of air-raid drills in my school. The little girls preferred to kneel with their heads down, and their hands linked in back of their heads. In that way the little boys across the hall couldn’t see up their dresses.

Edgar and I talked about the small movie theater on the Grand Concourse, once upon a time. The Ascot. Foreign films, subtitles, half-naked women. An art house in the Bronx. It was a thoughtful reminiscence. Two men, one memory.

It was Sinclair Lewis who called for “a literature worthy of our vastness.” Doctorow explored this vastness in the subjects he chose and in the voices he endeavored to create. He was a master of language, of American languages, the pluralism, the regional and temporal shifts, the lost chords of one hundred years ago.

That old, slow, bleeding narrative: the Novel. Takes years to write, becomes a hand-held object, includes the world. And Doctorow has been able to locate the novel’s primal instinct—to reveal our human variety, both intimate and collective. His sentences create their own landscape. His novels transcend the boundaries of recorded fact and ease their way into the weave of natural storytelling.

But let the writer speak for himself.

Billy Bathgate. At that moment I felt a small correction in the just universe and my life as a boy was over…There was some confusion after that, of course, we had to go out and buy bottles and diapers, he didn’t come with any instruction, and my mother was a little slow remembering some of the things that had to be done when he cried and waved his arms about, but we adjusted to him soon enough and what I think of now is how we used to like to go back to the East Bronx with him and walk him in his carriage on a sunny day along Bathgate Avenue, with all the peddlers calling out their prices and the stalls stacked with pyramids of oranges and grapes and peaches and melons, and the fresh bread in the windows of the bakeries with the electric fans in their transoms sending hot bread smells into the air, and the dairy with its tubs of butter and wood packs of farmer’s cheese, and the butcher wearing his thick sweater under his apron walking out of his ice room with a stack of chops on oiled paper, and the florist on the corner wetting down the vases of clustered cut flowers, and the children running past, and the gabbling old women carrying their shopping bags of greens and chickens, and the teenage girls holding white dresses on hangers to their shoulders, and the truckmen in their undershirts unloading their produce, and the horns honking and all the life of the city turning out to greet us just as in the old days of our happiness before my father fled, when the family used to go walking in the market, this bazaar of life, Bathgate, in the age of Dutch Schultz.

Read by Meryl Streep at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 5, 2016.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters