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The General: A profile of E.L. Doctorow

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Henny Ray Abrams/AP

This article originally appeared in the September 16, 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly, in concurrence with the publication of Doctorow’s Civil War novel, The March.

Sag Harbor is an old literary village nestled in the luxurious Hamptons on Long Island. James Fenimore Cooper, who once lived in an inn on Main Street, based The Last of the Mohicans’ Natty Bumppo on a local whaling captain. More recently, George Plimpton checked Garry Kasparov in a game of chess in a Sag Harbor garden. (Plimpton still lost.) Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs, has a place here.

These days, Sag Harbor’s most-lauded writer-in-residence is E.L. Doctorow. He summers here in a simple 1870s converted rooming house overlooking the cove. The quiet 74-year-old native New Yorker bought the place after the overwhelming critical and popular success of 1975’s Ragtime, an astonishing historical fiction that inspired the 1981 Milos Forman movie and 1998 Broadway musical. Doctorow’s latest, The March (out Sept. 20), is a similarly grand novel, in which Doctorow fictionalizes Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous Civil War campaign of destruction through Georgia and the Carolinas.

“This is my most accessible book since Ragtime,” admits Doctorow, sitting at his backyard patio table with a plate of cookies (courtesy of his wife, Helen). Thirty years ago he took a lot of flak for declaring he wanted even gas station attendants to read Ragtime, but today he still holds to that philosophy. “I like the idea that reading doesn’t have to be an act of will. Certainly The March is more accessible than my last book, which is a difficult read.” That novel was 2000’s City of God, a dense head-bender addressing giant themes and written in a cacophony of voices and styles.

Put The March, with its chronological story line and straightforward sentences, alongside that previous book and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell that the same guy wrote them. “His style changes from book to book,” explains Norman Mailer, an admirer who was actually edited by Doctorowwhen “Ed” ran the Dial Press in the 1960s. “I think he’s a helluva good writer,” Mailer says. “I can’t say that about too many, maybe there are four or five guys around, and he’s certainly one of them.”

The idea for The March, which came from reading a book on Sherman, was stuck in Doctorow’s head through many years of writing other novels, including 1989’s Billy Bathgate. “Why it came to me now, I don’t quite understand except it might have been out of some sense of resonance for today,” he says. But he prefers not to elaborate on specific parallels to present-day war, in the old-fashioned hope that readers and critics will see whatever they want to in the book. “I just one day imagined what it would feel like to know that an army was approaching of 60,000 men. What would it sound like? What would it look and feel like? That’s how I got started. This is a road novel, and it just sweeps everyone up.”

And thanks to The March, Doctorow has now accidentally mapped out the last 150 years of American history in his fiction. “You could put all my books in order and find some sort of continuous attention to the national story,” he says. “I had no plan to do that. It just happened. Start with The March, because it’s furthest back in time, and go all way the up through the post–Civil War with The Waterworks, and to the turn of the century with Ragtime, and then take the novels from the 1930s [Bathgate, World’s Fair, Loon Lake] and then follow The Book of Daniel from the 1930s to the 1960s, and City of God right up to now.”

As for now, well, “there’s a lot of junk in the culture today—cheap, tawdry nonsense being pumped out everywhere, and it’s like people who eat too much candy,” says Doctorow, as rays of Sag Harbor sunlight bounce off his bald pate. “After a while, they get sick of it, and they want a decent meal, so I think novels will last. It would be nice if some of my books lasted, but they’ve lasted so far. It’s nice to think that when you’re gone, the work will still be there.”

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