A great figure of American letters, EL Doctorow, has died at the age of 83. He achieved the distinction, as a writer, of being both commercially successful and receiving a great deal of scholarly attention. This is because he was both a chronicler of American history – his books explored the the Jazz Age, the rise of the Mafia, the Industrial Revolution – and an explorer of literary form. My favourite, and the one I teach, is his 1971 novel, The Book of Daniel. Here, with a thin veil of fictionalisation, he explores the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953 for passing nuclear secrets to the USSR, and the consequences for their children in a different radical age at the end of the 60s. The book is at once an account of personal trauma and loss, a meditation on America’s post-War radical movements, and an exploration of the limits of literary form and the earlier certainties of narrative perspective and temporal organisation. The book incorporates polyphonic narratives of the persecution of both the Jews and radical thinkers over time – characteristics that both the Rosenbergs and Doctorow himself shared. The Book of Daniel is my favourite book and every time I return to it I discover something new to say about it.
President Obama tweeted this:
“E.L. Doctorow was one of America’s greatest novelists. His books taught me much, and he will be missed.