A New York City native, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born on January 6, 1931. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, and enrolled in Kenyon College, where he received his B.A. with honors in 1952; he soon attended graduate school at Columbia University.

Doctorow spent several years in the publishing sector before devoting himself exclusively to writing and teaching. From 1959–1964, he served as senior editor for New American Library and from 1964–1969, as editor in chief of Dial Press. Controversial in content and original in style, Doctorow's work often involves serious philosophical probings and the placement of historical figures in unusual and unpredictable situations and settings and challenge the limits of the literary genres on which he draws. In 1960, he published his first novel, a Western, Welcome to Hard Times, inspired by his employment as a script reader for Columbia Pictures in the late 1950s. Using the traditional form of a Western plot, he created an allegory of good and evil. In his second novel, Big as Life (1966), Doctorow explored the genre of science fiction in a satire set in a future New York. In 1971, Doctorow finally established his position as a major American writer by publishing The Book of Daniel. Inspired by the Atom Spy Trials during the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, The Book of Daniel was nominated for a National Book Award.

Like Doctorow's first three novels, Ragtime enjoyed significant critical success, as evidenced by the fact that Doctorow received the first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976 as well as the Arts and Letters Award for the 1975 novel. In addition, Ragtime also brought his enormous commercial and popular success, and later became a movie and a Broadway musical.

In 1980, Doctorow published Loon Lake in which he continued his explorations into American history. Loon Lake, set in the Adirondacks, takes places during the Depression and employs a unique perspective on time in which the narration moves not linearly but in concentric circles, and juxtaposes the American dream with a sort of American nightmare. In 1984, Doctorow published his next novel, Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella. With World's Fair, which received the 1986 National Book Award, Doctorow embarked upon the form of a memoir for the first time. Doctorow published his newest novel, Billy Bathgate, in 1989, which also approaches history from a literary point of view.

E.L. Doctorow's work, and Ragtime in particular, expresses his political beliefs as well as the time in which he wrote. Doctorow published Ragtime in 1975, the year in which the Vietnam War came to a close. The 1970s were a time in which many Americans grew disillusioned about both international and domestic issues. In Ragtime, Doctorow does not specifically address the events of his time, but rather lays out his beliefs through the framework of earlier American history. In his rendering of turn-of-the-century America, he expresses his liberal ideology. Some critics have labeled his views "radical Jewish humanism." In his identification with certain oppressed populations such as African Americans and immigrants, he demonstrates compassion and social awareness.