He did not want to be called a political novelist. “My premise is that the language of politics can’t accommodate the complexity of fiction, which as a mode of thought is intuitive, metaphysical, mythic.” Although he wrote lovingly of the lost world of the Jewish Bronx in the 1930s, where he grew up, he rejected the idea that he was an autobiographical writer. “Every book is an act of composition,” he remarked in 1989, “and if you happen to use memories or materials from your own mind, they are like any other resource; they have to be composed. And the act of composition has no regard where the material comes from. So when it’s all done it’s all autobiographical and none of it is.”
Doctorow wrote a handful of the most influential historical novels of the past half-century, but was determined not to be known simply as a historical novelist. Praised for having “done his homework” on the American Civil war for The March (2005), he claimed that he did little research, freely inventing when the historical record seemed somehow incomplete. There is a moving letter in The March sent by the Union generalissimo William Tecumseh Sherman to a Confederate general whose son was killed in battle. But no such letter was ever written.