Section: News

From Kenyon to literary stardom, Doctorow ’52 remembered as generous, kind

E.L. Doctorow ’52 studied at Kenyon under the tutelage of John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of the Kenyon Review. While at Kenyon, the esteemed author also taught Sunday school in Mansfield and spent many evenings playing folk songs on guitar, according to his former roommate Martin Nemer ’52. (Photo courtesy of Martin Nemer)
E.L. Doctorow ’52 studied at Kenyon under the tutelage of John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of the Kenyon Review. While at Kenyon, the esteemed author also taught Sunday school in Mansfield and spent many evenings playing folk songs on guitar, according to his former roommate Martin Nemer ’52. (Photo courtesy of Martin Nemer)

 

The world learned Tuesday of the passing of a literary titan and one of Kenyon’s treasured alumni, Edgar Lawrence “E.L.” Doctorow ’52, who died from lung cancer at age 84 at his Manhattan home. At the time of his death, Doctorow was among the most decorated living American writers.

Doctorow retained ties to Kenyon even as his literary career and book sales burgeoned; he received an honorary degree from the College in 1976; was the inaugural recipient in 2002 of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement; and occasionally returned to campus to speak to students, such as when he delivered the 1985 commencement address.

“Those who knew E. L. Doctorow certainly appreciated his professional devotion and his continuing achievement,” Kenyon Review editor David Lynn wrote in a post for the Review’s website. “But what they, what we, will miss most is his personal charm and warmth and friendship.”

Martin Nemer ’52 roomed with Doctorow for more than two years while the pair were undergraduates at Kenyon, and spoke kindly of his friend “Ed.”

“What I perceived in him was a generous, spirited person, and one who always had, I guess, a moral sense about things,” said Nemer, indicating that Doctorow did not allow his dedication to his craft to diminish his interest in the work and aspirations of others.

“[Doctorow] got to read my term papers and anything I might write, and I got to read everything he wrote,” Nemer said. “We just bounced everything off against each other.”

Doctorow and Nemer maintained a fellowship beyond graduation. About a decade ago, Nemer decided to write a novel. Doctorow read drafts of the work, and helped find an editor for it; in the process, the pair’s relationship “reverted to almost the same connection I had with him as a roommate,” Nemer said.

Although he majored in philosophy at Kenyon, Doctorow cited John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of the Kenyon Review, as the professor who most influenced him during his time at the College. “He was very kind to me,” Doctorow recalled in a 1988 interview. “I wrote some really bad poems.”

Doctorow also got involved in theater at Kenyon, where he befriended Paul Newman ’49. “After Paul Newman left Kenyon, I got all the parts,” he joked in a 1979 interview. In the same interview, he explained why he gave up playwriting after writing one script at Kenyon: “I came to the conclusion that you had to be suicidal to commit yourself as an unknown to writing plays, because you not only had to write them; you had to get people to read them. A book, on the other hand, was finished when you were finished; all you had to do then was deal with the publisher.”

While Doctorow narrowed his professional focus, the dramatic arts “never stopped being important” to him, Nemer said, adding that Doctorow possessed a standout theater voice.

“It was a soft voice, and it kind of trickled along,” Nemer said. “There was a real gentility to the voice itself, and it was a genuine voice.”

Doctorow’s greatest critical and success was perhaps his 1975 novel Ragtime, a sprawling work set at the turn of the 20th century that was later adapted into an Oscar-nominated film directed by Miloš Forman. Both Time magazine and the Modern Library editorial board listed Ragtime as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

“I remember being pretty young when I first read Ragtime — at least, young enough to be fascinated and scandalized by the sex scenes,” Caitlin Horrocks, fiction editor for the Kenyon Review, wrote in an email. “But even then I could still recognize the joy and scope of the novel, the way historical and invented characters intertwined, the way knowledge and research came paired with an equal passion for story and language.”

Kenyon president Sean Decatur encountered Ragtime in English class during his junior year of high school.

“I remember being really drawn in and captivated, as were a lot of my friends, with the way that [Doctorow] wound together compelling storytelling with historical references and historical narrative,” Decatur said. “It certainly was a very different type of novel and reading experience for me at the time.”

Decatur offered high praise for Doctorow’s character and achievements.

“His breadth of interests, his breadth of knowledge, his willingness to engage as a public intellectual — in addition to the skill and art of his writing — do really, I think, capture a lot of the spirit of what we all aim for at Kenyon,” he said.

In a tweet Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama hailed Doctorow as “one of America’s greatest novelists,” adding, “His books taught me much, and he will be missed.”

In 1960, Doctorow published his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. He spent most of that decade as an editor at New American Library and The Dial, work which supported him financially until he began writing full time in 1969. Doctorow first came to national prominence in 1971 with the novel The Book of Daniel, based loosely on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were accused of spying for the Soviet Union.

One of Doctorow’s last major works was 2005’s The March, which fictionalizes Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s famed “March to the Sea” near the end of the Civil War. John Updike wrote of its “elegiac compassion,” and Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called it “an Iliad-like portrait of war.” In an Entertainment Weekly profile of Doctorow published to coincide with the release of The March, the late writer Norman Mailer called him “a helluva good writer,” a noteworthy remark given that Mailer was famously sparing in the compliments he paid to other writers.

Although he achieved renown for historical fiction that mixes the aspirations of ordinary people with the stories of historical figures like Harry Houdini, Sherman and the Rosenbergs, Doctorow was by no means limited to this genre. One of his final publications, a 2004 short story collection titled Sweet Land Stories, gathers a number of vignettes that display a mastery of several settings in modern American life, as well as an ability to engender sympathy for a series of protagonists committing various misdeeds.

Doctorow received or was nominated for a number of literary achievement awards across five different decades. Among these honors was the National Book Critics Circle Award (1975, 1990, 2006); the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction (1989); the PEN/Faulkner award (1990, 2006); the National Humanities Medal (1998); and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction (2014)

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited Martin Nemer as saying Doctorow helped find him a publisher for a novel he wrote; Doctorow helped Nemer find an editor, not a publisher.

 

Gabe Brison-Trezise contributed reporting.

 

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