E.L. Doctorow was a best-selling author whose stories often showed how past experiences influence present behavior and how people fail to learn from their mistakes or the mistakes of others. On July 21, 2015, he died of lung cancer at age 84, after a lifetime of heavy smoking. Nearly 90 percent of lung cancers occur in present or former smokers.
Doctorow was famous for using historical characters, times and places as a basis for his novels about major events in America during and since the Civil War. He supported radical politics and the down-trodden masses, probably from his experience of growing up during the great depression.
Early Life and Work
Doctorow was born during the Great Depression to very poor parents of Russian-Jewish heritage. His father sold musical instruments and his mother was a pianist, and they both had an appreciation for the importance of an education. I grew up at the same time and in the same culture, and we both went from our poor neighborhoods to very prestigious public high schools that sent most of their graduates to college. He went to the Bronx High School of Science, while I went to Boston Latin School. I can see the influence of this “only in America” experience expressed in his writing.
In 1952, he was graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio and then went back to New York to attend Columbia University. Before he could complete a degree, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He married while he was stationed in Germany. In 1959, he became an editor at the New American Library and in 1964 became editor-in-chief at Dial Press, where the authors included Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.
Success as a Writer
In 1960 and 1966, he published two mildly successful novels. In 1969, he left editing work to become Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine, and in 1971 he became a best-selling author with The Book of Daniel, in which he defended Russian spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in their immoral betrayal of their adopted country. In 1975 he wrote Ragtime, using Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman and Theodore Dreiser to guide his story. In 1989, he wrote Billy Bathgate, about a teenager led astray by the real-life mobster Dutch Shultz. In 2005, he wrote The March, about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s destruction of the South at the end of the Civil War.
In all, he wrote twelve novels, three volumes of short fiction and stage and film adaptations. He taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Yale School of Drama, the University of Utah, the University of California, Irvine, Princeton University, and New York University and was awarded the U.S. Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2014.
Doctorow is perhaps best known for his 1975 novel, Ragtime, and its adaptation into a movie and a Broadway musical. Ragtime is a story about New York before and after World War I that mixes fictional and real characters. It contains a fanciful story about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung sharing a ride in the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island. Doctorow made Freud appear as a supporter of free love that riddled the country with venereal diseases and brought on the AIDS epidemic. Others woven into the plot included U.S. President William Howard Taft, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, novelist Theodore Dreiser and the anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman. Doctorow described the start of the movies and the labor movement, tabloid journalism and women’s rights in America, and a black musician who got even with the people who cursed his heritage. It won the National Book Critics Circle award and sold 4.5 million copies.
Incidence of Lung Cancer
Lung cancer, the leading cancer killer for both men and women, will kill more than 160,000 Americans this year; more than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. It costs the United States more than $130 billion dollars each year. Over half of people with lung cancer die within one year and only 18 percent survive for five years or more.
Smoking is the Primary Cause
* Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds, many of which have been shown to cause cancer. The two primary carcinogens in tobacco smoke are nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
* Smoking cigarettes causes almost 90 percent of lung cancers with risk increasing with the amount and time a person smokes. There is no safe lower level of exposure to tobacco smoke.
* Smoking pipes and cigars also causes lung cancer, but the risk is lower than for cigarettes.
* People exposed to second-hand smoke (living or working with smokers) suffer 7,500 cancer deaths each year.
* Third-hand smoke (living in a home formerly inhabited by smokers) also increases risk for lung cancer.
* Chewing tobacco increases risk for cancers of the lungs, mouth, throat and tongue.
* Radon, a colorless and odorless gas seeping into a home from the ground, causes an estimated 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. You can buy a radon test kit at your local hardware store.
* Exposures to other carcinogens: asbestos, uranium, coke (fuel used in the manufacture of iron in smelters, blast furnaces, and foundries), arsenic, chromium, nickel, aromatic hydrocarbons, and ethers. Most states now have laws prohibiting the use of asbestos in home insulation and other products.
* Outdoor air pollution from motor vehicles, industry and power plants causse one to two percent of lung cancers.
* Lung diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), increase risk for lung cancer.
Death Pedaled by the Tobacco Industry
Because of the industry’s heavy advertising and public relations campaigns, most people in Doctorow’s generation smoked, and even those who decided not to smoke had heavy exposure to other smokers in their homes and workplaces. Today, rates of smoking have gone down, but the tobacco industry persists in spreading death around the world.
Last month (June 2015), the Canadian subsidiaries of three of the biggest tobacco companies in the world were ordered by a Quebec court to pay a record $15.6 billion to almost 1 million Canadian smokers who suffered lung or throat cancer or emphysema and were deceived by cigarette advertising that told them that smoking may not be harmful. Subsidiaries of British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International were penalized in a case that started back in 1998. The companies own some of the world’s biggest cigarette brands such as Dunhill, Lucky Strike, Marlboro, Benson & Hedges, Camel and Winston.
In 1998 the tobacco industry paid a combined $246 billion for the healthcare costs from smoking. In 2014, a Florida jury ordered cigarette giant R.J. Reynolds to pay the widow of a chain smoker $23.6 billion, later lowered to $16.9 million.
What You Should Know About Lung Cancer and Tobacco
* Smoking or living or working with smokers can cause lung cancer. One year after stopping smoking cigarettes, smokers are no longer at increased risk for heart attacks, but former smokers remain at increased risk for lung cancer for the rest of their lives.
* Even living in a home formerly inhabited by smokers (“third-hand smoke”) can cause lung cancer. It is very difficult to remove the carcinogens from tobacco smoke from rugs, floors, walls, windows and ceilings.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow
January 6, 1931 to July 21, 2015