Reading Ragtime around 1980 remains one of the defining moments in my reading history: it shook up everything I thought I knew about historical fiction, narrative prose, even history itself. He wrote in ragtime, so clear you could hear it, a jazz beat so thumping it was as irresistible as it was unnerving. It has to be one of the Great American Novels. Surely.
Years later, overawed by Mister Morgan's library when I finally made it to New York, I couldn't help but imagine it during the fictional siege in Ragtime. At the same time as I wept over the manuscript of Captains Courageous and the lock of Shelley's hair in the display cabinet, I kept glancing up at the ceiling as if it might explode at any moment - trying to imagine being locked inside with a gang of hyped up, strung out, pushed-to-the-limit desperadoes.
I was less sure about Billy Bathgate, and yet still could hear the cadence of the era, see the colours of the neckties, in every line.
But his take on the Civil War and its great generals may come to be as significant as his version of racism and ragtime. Good thing, too. There's so much guff written (and filmed) about the Civil War.
"Sherman was a wonderful writer," Doctorow recently told John Freeman for The Independent. "He was almost as good a writer as Grant. They were the best writing generals in American history. They were incredible writers. He got a lot of detail, the value of specific detail."
But, writes Freeman, Doctorow has trouble with the term "historical novelist":
"I don't think of myself as writing historical novels," he says, bristling. "There is such a genre, of course. But I don't think I participate in it. My idea of an historical novel is a novel that makes literary history."
"... When Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he set those novels 30, 40 years before the time of the writing. The Scarlet Letter is set 150 years before Hawthorne's own life. We don't think of it as a historical novel."
Literary history is a genre he does participate in, even if he doesn't acknowledge it.
Accepting his award last night, Doctorow said that a book "written in silence and read in silence goes from heart to heart and soul to soul as nothing else can".