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American Novelist E.L. Doctorow, Author of Ragtime, Dies at 84

  • VOA News

FILE - In this April 27, 2004 file photo, author E.L. Doctorow smiles during an interview in his office at New York University.

FILE - In this April 27, 2004 file photo, author E.L. Doctorow smiles during an interview in his office at New York University.

American novelist E.L. Doctorow, author of such tomes as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The March, has died in New York at age 84.

The writer's son Richard Doctorow told reporters his father died Tuesday of complications from lung cancer.

Doctorow was characterized by President Barack Obama as "one of America's great novelists." The president said in a Twitter message Tuesday that he learned much from Doctorow's books -- mixtures of history and fiction, tales unspooled in a variety of experimental narrative styles.

With "Ragtime,'' published in 1975, he entertained readers and dismayed some scholars by mixing historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman with invented ones from suburban New Rochelle, where he lived at the time.

In "The March,'' he depicted William Tecumseh Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas from the vantage points of Sherman himself, a mixed-race freed slave girl, a brilliant but dispassionate battlefield surgeon and two Confederate prisoners who adopt various disguises.

"History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew,'' he told The Paris Review in 1986. "But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth."

"Everything in 'Ragtime' is true,'' he said. "It is as true as I could make it. I think my vision of J. P. Morgan, for instance, is more accurate to the soul of that man than his authorized biography.''

Doctorow is said to have covered more than a century of American history in his 10 novels and two short story collections. He also authored a play called Drinks Before Dinner and numerous essays and articles.

"Underlying everything - the evocative flashes, the dogged working of language - is the writer's belief in the story as a system of knowledge,'' he wrote in the introduction to his essay collection "Creationists,'' published in 2006. "This belief is akin to the scientist's faith in the scientific method as a way to truth.''

Born in New York City in 1931, Doctorow's grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. He had said that his location in New York City exposed him to the unique cultural offerings of Manhattan as well as those of European émigrés who fled persecution in Europe during the years leading up to World War II. Manhattan plays a prominent role in many of his novels, and he kept a home in the city until his death.

Doctorow was among the most honored authors of the past 40 years.

The author's works won a series of top U.S. prizes for fiction -- the National Book Award for World's Fair, the National Book Critics Circle award and the PEN/Faulkner award for Billy Bathgate and The March. His novel Ragtime was made into an Oscar-nominated movie and later into a Broadway musical that won four Tony Awards.

Doctorow was also the recipient of several lifetime achievement awards, among them the 2014 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. He is considered one of the most prominent American authors of the 20th century.

Some information for this report from AP.

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