Novelist E.L. Doctorow, best known for his historical fiction books set in the early 20th-century United States, died Tuesday at the age of 84, his agent confirmed late Tuesday.
His son told The New York Times that Doctorow’s death was from complications of lung cancer.
His best known works were Ragtime, about a suburban New York family in the first two decades of the century, and Billy Bathgate, about a protege to New York mobster Dutch Schultz. Both became movies.
Doctorow didn’t care for being labeled a “historical novelist,” he told NPR’s Scott Simon in 2014:
“I don’t agree with that. I think all novels are about the past, the near past, the far past, some of them have a wider focus and include more of society and recognizable events and people. The historical novel seems to me a misnomer, and many of my books take place in different places, in the Dakotas, or down south in Georgia or the Carolinas, so it’s just as valid to call me a geographical novelist as an historical novelist. I think of myself really as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country.”
Doctorow is one of five winners of the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, an award first given in 2007 that honors an author’s entire body of work. He won the National Book Award for fiction in 1986, and he was a finalist four other times. In 2013, Doctorow was given a lifetime achievement award:
Prior to his career as a novelist, Doctorow was a book editor, working with Ayn Rand, Ian Fleming, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer and other authors.