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E.L. Doctorow, award-winning novelist, dies at 84

'E.L. Doctorow was one of America's greatest novelists. His books taught me much,' said President Barack Obama

E.L. Doctorow, the author of popular novels grounded in American history including "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate," has died at age 84, his publisher said on Tuesday.

The writer's son Richard, said Doctorow died in New York on Tuesday of complications from lung cancer.

"E.L. Doctorow was one of America's greatest novelists. His books taught me much, and he will be missed," President Barack Obama said in a tweet on Tuesday afternoon.

During his long career he was awarded the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and two PEN Faulkner Awards, among other honors.

A Los Angeles Times review of his most recent novel “Andrew’s Brain,” described Doctorow as operating in the shadow of the Transcendentalists, "a romantic, a true believer — in the myth of America as a shining city, despite its various and ongoing failures to live up to its better self."

Besides Doctorow's 10 novels, he published two books of short stories, a play called "Drinks Before Dinner" and numerous essays and articles.

"I don't know what I set out to do," Doctorow said in 2006 after the publication of "The March," his acclaimed Civil War novel. "Someone pointed out to me a couple of years ago that you could line them up and in effect now with this book, 150 years of American history. ... And this was entirely unplanned."

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born Jan. 6, 1931, in New York. He was named after Edgar Allan Poe, whom he often disparaged as America's "greatest bad writer." As a youngster he read widely and decided he would become a writer at age 9.

His father ran a music store, and his mother was a pianist. Money was tight but, according to the New York Times, he recalled in a mid-1990s interview with The Kenyon Review, “As a boy I went matter of factly to plays, to concerts. … And as I grew up I was a beneficiary of the incredible energies of European émigrés in every field — all those great minds hounded out of Europe by Hitler. They brought enormous sophistication to literary criticism, philosophy, science, music. I was very lucky to be a New Yorker.”

Doctorow graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He attended graduate school at Columbia University but left without completing a doctorate. He also served in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany.

In the 1950s Doctorow worked as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, reading novels and summarizing them for possible film treatment. That job led him to his first novel, "Welcome to Hard Times," a Western published in 1960.

He spent a decade as a book editor at New American Library and then as editor in chief at Dial Press, working with such authors as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.

Doctorow's second novel, a science fiction work called "Big as Life," was published in 1966 and was unsuccessful. But his third, "The Book of Daniel," published in 1971, catapulted him into the top rank of American writers.

A fictionalized account of the Rosenberg case, "The Book of Daniel" probed the central character's struggles over the deaths of his parents, executed as Communists in the 1950s. New Republic critic Stanley Kauffmann called it "the political novel of our age.”

Published in 1975, "Ragtime" made Doctorow famous, and it served up a Dickensian stew of Gilded Age New York, mixing historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman with invented ones. The central character, Coalhouse Walker Jr., was a black musician victimized by racism.

Historical and made-up characters also peopled 1989's "Billy Bathgate," featuring the real-life gangster Dutch Schultz, and "The March," which he called his "Russian novel" because of its epic scope.

"The March" 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, two Confederate prisoners who adopt various disguises and others.

The main character was in a sense the Union army and the human flotsam and jetsam it picked up along the way.

Several of Doctorow's novels including "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate" were made into movies, but Doctorow was generally not pleased with the screen versions. "Ragtime" was made into a Broadway musical in 1998.

"Through books of great beauty and power, and characters I'll never forget, he showed us America's great flaws and its astonishing promise, and our own," Kate Medina, Doctorow's editor at Random House, said in a written statement.

Doctorow married Helen Setzer in 1954. They had two daughters and a son.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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