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E.L. Doctorow dies at 84; award-wining author of ‘Ragtime’

E.L. Doctorow | 1931-2015

E.L. Doctorow was the author of “Ragtime,” “World’s Fair” and “The Book of Daniel,” among other works. On Tuesday, President Obama called Doctorow "one of America’s greatest novelists.”

(Francesca Magnani / Random House)

E.L. Doctorow, the renowned author of “Ragtime” and many other works of historical fiction and nonfiction, has died. He was 84.

He died Tuesday at a hospital in New York of complications from lung cancer, his son, Richard Doctorow, told the Los Angeles Times.

Doctrow’s books included “Ragtime,” which was adapted into a film and a Broadway musical, and “World’s Fair,” which won the National Book Award in 1986.

A January 2014 Los Angeles Times book review of his most recent novel, “Andrew’s Brain,” described him 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.”

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Times’ book critic David L. Ulin has described Doctorow as the “Lon Chaney of American fiction” for the variety of characters and genres he covered.

Doctorow’s first book, 1960’s “Welcome to Hard Times” was a Western, and his 1966 follow-up “Big as Life” borrowed from science fiction. “The Book of Daniel,” published in 1971, intersects history and personality, “the drama of America, its brilliant promise and its awful failings, in which private matters play out against a broader world,” Ulin wrote. “Ragtime” is about a nation struggling with modernity.

Shortly after news of Doctorow’s death became public, President Obama called the author “one of America’s greatest novelists.”

“His books taught me much, and he will be missed,” Obama said on Twitter.

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Born in 1931 and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Doctorow was a broadly American author, writing novels that operated as what he called “immense social documents,” taking on the messy ambiguities of the national mythosphere.

“Ragtime,” which four decades after its initial publication remains his best-known work, weaves historical figures such as architect Stanford White, White’s lover, Evelyn Nesbit, and anarchist Emma Goldman into the fabric of its fiction to create a three-dimensional pastiche of turn-of-the-20th-century America.

A novelist, Doctorow told the Times in 2006, “partakes of many identities. People say to me, ‘A lot of your novels take place in the past. Are you a historical novelist?’ I don’t think of myself that way, but if you want to call me that, go ahead. Then someone will say, ‘There’s a certain political quality to a lot of your work. Would you call yourself a political novelist?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’ve never thought of myself as a political novelist, but if that suits you, why not?’ And then someone will say, ‘You’re a Jewish novelist’ -- and yes, I guess that’s true, too. So I accept any kind of identity. I’m willing to participate in all of them, as long as none claims to be an exhaustive interpretation.”

In addition to his son, Doctorow is survived by his wife, Helen Setzer; daughters Jenny Doctorow Fe-Bornstein and Caroline Doctorow Gatewood; and four grandchildren.

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