From that followed bestsellers, movie versions (four of his books have been filmed; "Ragtime" was also made into a hit musical), critical acclaim and major literary prizes.
Although a few of his works have contemporary settings, Doctorow has gravitated toward the historical because "somewhere along the line I realized a period of time was as much an organizing principle for a novel as a sense of place." This has also allowed him to create works that are filled with heightened emotion and indelible set pieces.
"The March," publishing Tuesday, is filled with scenes that seem to have jumped out of a Mathew Brady photo album yet have the richness of finely wrought literature. Still, it's this pictorial quality, the cinematic nature of the work, that seems to stand out.
"I think all of us have learned from the history of film," says Doctorow. "We don't write the way we wrote in the 19th century, because of film. We don't use as much exposition. We do jump cuts. We let the reader find out as he goes along exactly what is happening. We don't overexplain things."
There's been one other change in the writing scene over the years, one that Doctorow the academic has noticed with a sense of regret. He sees students coming into his classes who are looking for a career, not a calling. They're technically proficient but write in an overly academic manner.
Worse yet, says this elder statesman of literature, who has used his books to comment on everything from racism to labor strife, "this view is very proscribed. The peripheral vision is gone; it's very personalist writing. It doesn't understand fiction as a way to take on the world."