As the world now knows, Edgar Doctorow passed away on July 21st. This is a loss of both a great novelist—he will surely be acknowledged as one of the American masters of the 20th and 21st centuries—and of a generous, warm, principled man, loyal to his friends and entirely uninterested and uninflated by his own glory.
Like so many other promising young writers in the 1940s and 50s, Doctorow came to the Ohio hinterlands to study with John Crowe Ransom. The lifelong friendships he forged at Kenyon College included the poet James Wright and the actor Paul Newman. Doctorow went on to be a successful editor and publisher in New York, before being able to write fiction essentially full time. Throughout his adult life he also served as a noted teacher and mentor to generations of younger writers.
In novels as varied as The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, and The March, Edgar Doctorow created a signature style of blending public history—and historical figures—with a playful or penetrating fiction. In the process he explored the charged grey area where history bleeds into fiction and fiction calls into question the very essence of what may be understood as historical.
Few authors have ever been able to embrace experiment and innovation so fully while never obscuring the narrative and moral power so deeply embedded, so shaping and transformative in his stories.
Edgar Doctorow was the first person I invited to serve on The Kenyon Review’s Advisory Board over 20 years ago, and he served in that capacity until the end. He was always a source of good sense, honest advice, wise counsel.
Thirteen years ago, when the trustees of The Kenyon Review first envisioned a new annual award in literary achievement, it seemed both fitting and obvious that this honor should be bestowed on Edgar as its inaugural recipient. It was but one of the many awards, degrees, and other honors he garnered and so fully deserved.
Those who knew E. L. Doctorow certainly appreciated his professional devotion and his continuing achievement. But what they, what we, will miss most is his personal charm and warmth and friendship.
Click here to read “Loon Lake” from the Winter 1979 issue of The Kenyon Review.