E.L. Doctorow once said that "writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." For a writer whose work was often of the historical fashion, Doctorow was not only able to see directly in front of him, but simultaneously peer through the rearview mirror with remarkable precision and believability. America has lost one of its finest writers, a man who published 12 novels over the course of 45 years, a three-time National Book Critics Circle Award recipient, National Book Award winner, a National Book Foundation distinguished writer, among numerous other accolades.
Best known for his 1975 novel, Ragtime, set in the beginning of the 20th century to the start of World War I in New York City, in which he depicts the wealthy as well as the broken down tenements around the already steadily rising population in the Big Apple. Doctorow was especially skilled at interweaving real people into his fictional tales, as he included the likes of Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud and JP Morgan into his masterpiece that would later be named as one of the top one hundred novels of the 20th century by Modern Library and Time. It also garnered nominations for both the National Book Critics Circle Award, which it would win, and for the Nebula Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel, a feat that showed the appreciation of his work on a diverse scale.
Thirty years later, Doctorow would once again provide a triumphant historical novel with his 2005 release, The March. Set in American Civil War, it features a large cast of characters as they struggle through the most divided period in our country's history. Doctorow relays a powerful message when the Union triumphs over the Confederacy by having his inspiring tale end at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Instead of leaving on a positive note when America is joined together as one again, Doctorow demonstrates that even though the dust has settled, and the gunfire has ceased, it will take much longer to fully heal. Even when the physical effects of battle faded, the emotional heartache will carry on.
As a writer of historical fiction, his job was to provide accurate and detailed glimpses into the past, but the most important lesson given to readers is that monumental victories for mankind will never stop, because there will always be conflict, forever new struggles and tribulations to overcome. Celebrate the positives, be mindful of the negatives, and use both of those emotional states of mind to create a better, more thoroughly contemplated, and executed version of the future.
The great American writer's last release came a little over a year ago. Andrew's Brain was somewhat of a departure from Doctorow's previous work, but while his own mortality, it was a thoughtful meditation on the workings of the human mind as vitality begins to elude our minds and hearts. The narrator is talking about his friend Andrew to another character that is presumed to be some sort of mental health expert, most likely a psychoanalyst, but It becomes clear to the listener that Andrew and the narrator are the same person.
While not as critically popular or recognized as his previous novels, it comes off as a fitting ending for a master of fiction. It ends up becoming one of Doctorow's most personal novels, and the one that instead of encompassing a grand landscape and set of characters, focuses in on the interior of one man and his life stories that have led him to become void of emotions, guilt, and raptured by the voices that he hears inside his own mind.
Doctorow explored on such a large scope throughout his fictional career, as he tried to provide a consensus feeling to certain periods of time, places, and groups of people. What made Andrew's Brain so appealing is because of its efforts to dial in on the psyche of an individual, almost as if he was giving a voice to the emotional scars that existed at the conclusions of Ragtime, The March, and his other works. As he often told tales on such a global level, focusing on the exterior and societal problems, past and present, Doctorow embarked on the journey of depicting the interior problems that are often created in the aftermath. And now, in the wake of his passing, readers are tasked with using what E.L. Doctorow taught us to continue evolving into a better collective society which starts with internal dialogues with ourselves.