American Literature E. L. Doctorow
Catherine Calloway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0157


E. L. (Edgar Laurence) Doctorow (b. 1931–d. 2015) is a well-established American writer of twelve novels, three collections of short stories, one play, several screenplays, and numerous essays and miscellaneous items. A native of New York City and a descendent of Russian Jewish immigrants, Doctorow grew up in the Bronx. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, he studied philosophy at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he was influenced by John Crowe Ransom and the New Critics, and then began graduate work in playwriting at Columbia University. When the military draft interrupted his graduate work in 1953, Doctorow served two years with the US Army Signal Corps in Germany. In 1954 he married Helen Setzer, also a writer, with whom he had three children. After leaving the military in 1955, Doctorow returned to New York, where he worked at various jobs. His time as a script reader at Columbia Pictures, as a senior editor for the New American Library, and as editor-in-chief, vice president, and publisher at Dial Press led to his writing fiction full time. By 1969 Doctorow had published two novels, one of which had been made into a movie, and was a writer-in-residence at the University of California at Irvine. Over the course of his career, he also held writer-in-residence or teaching positions at Sarah Lawrence College, the Yale School of Drama, the University of Utah, and Princeton University. In 1982 he became the Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. With the publication of The Book of Daniel, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1972, and Ragtime, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, Doctorow was established as a major American writer and best-selling author. His works, which appeared in such forums as the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Atlantic, Paris Review, and Gentleman’s Quarterly, continued to receive accolades. World’s Fair received the National Book Award in 1986, Billy Bathgate the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1990, and The March the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2006. Doctorow was also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Dean Howells Medal, the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction, a Chicago Tribune Literary Award, a National Humanities Medal, and a PEN/Saul Bellow Award, among others. Doctorow is well known for his structural innovation; his political, social, and historical concerns; his blurring of the boundaries between fiction and fact; and his treatment of such themes as family relationships, the horrors of war, identity, alienation, sexuality, history, justice, societal institutions, the American past, human consciousness, epistemological uncertainty, and the evils of corruption.

Critical Overviews

Book-length treatments of Doctorow’s work mainly stem from the 1990s. Levine 1985, Harter and Thompson 1990, Parks 1991, and Fowler 1992 provide the first straightforward overviews of Doctorow’s oeuvre, spanning his first six to eight books. Morris 1991 takes a more theoretical approach. Williams 1996 looks at how Doctorow has been received in a postmodern era. Tokarczyk 2000 provides a political study. A decade later, Bergström 2010 takes issue with Tokarczyk, providing a postmodernist ethical reading that argues that “the ethical element of Doctorow’s fiction is not primarily political” (p. 32).

  • Bergström, Catharine Walker. Intuition of an Infinite Obligation: Narrative Ethics and Postmodern Gnostics in the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow. Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-3-653-00273-7Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    First book-length study of Doctorow’s work since 2000, and the first to cover Doctorow’s fiction through the publication of City of God. Concerned with postmodern ethics and gnostic revelation. Focuses on how “Doctorow’s work pursues basically humanist, but increasingly Romantic concerns in a postmodern context” (p. 20).

  • Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

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    Useful introduction to Doctorow’s work. Covers eight books, from Welcome to Hard Times through Billy Bathgate, including the often overlooked Big as Life and Drinks Before Dinner. Suitable for both high school and college students. (Also cited under Bibliographies.)

  • Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. E. L. Doctorow. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

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    Early overview of Doctorow’s oeuvre. Treats eight books, including novels, short stories, and drama. (Also cited under Bibliographies.)

  • Levine, Paul. E. L. Doctorow. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.

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    The first general overview of Doctorow’s work. Considers Doctorow’s first five novels, Drinks Before Dinner, and Lives of the Poets. Includes an “Appendix: Doctorow on Film” and a brief bibliography.

  • Morris, Christopher D. Models of Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

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    Applies the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul de Mann, J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Derrida, and Martin Heidegger to Doctorow’s fiction from Welcome to Hard Times to Billy Bathgate. Focuses on the intertextual dimensions of Doctorow’s works and examines the paradoxical nature of the trope “models of misrepresentation” (p. 3). Also considers selected interviews and nonfiction essays. (Also cited under Big as Life.)

  • Parks, John G. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Continuum, 1991.

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    Early biographical-critical study of Doctorow’s writing from Welcome to Hard Times through Billy Bathgate. Includes a brief chronology of Doctorow’s life as well as an introductory chapter that considers Doctorow’s life and career, before turning to chapters that treat individual works. (Also cited under Primary Works: Drama and Nonfiction Prose.)

  • Tokarczyk, Michelle M. E. L. Doctorow’s Skeptical Commitment. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

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    Worthwhile political study that covers eight major works of Doctorow’s fiction. Suggests that throughout his oeuvre, Doctorow “continually represented his political vision in challenging, aesthetically fine fictional works” (p. 1) and “has enriched the possibilities for political fiction” (p. 1).

  • Williams, John. Fiction as False Document: The Reception of E. L. Doctorow in the Postmodern Age. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1996.

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    Provides a reception study of Doctorow’s oeuvre from 1975 to 1994 and in relation to a postmodern ethos.

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