Critical Context

E. L. Doctorow is a political novelist concerned with those stories, myths, public figures, and literary and historical forms that have shaped public consciousness. Even when his subject is not overtly political—as in his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times (1960)—he chooses the genre of the Western to comment upon the American sense of crime and justice. Knowing that the Western has often been the vehicle for the celebration of American individualism and morality, Doctorow purposely writes a fable-like novel in which he questions the American faith in fairness and democracy. He accomplishes the same purpose by turning to the genre of the gangster novel in Billy Bathgate. The reality of American history has been much grimmer than its literature or its popular entertainment has acknowledged, and Doctorow’s fiction shows again and again an America whose myths do not square with its history.

In most of Doctorow’s work there is a tension between a naïve, childlike point of view and an older, ironic, detached perspective. In Ragtime (1975), the narrator seems simultaneously to be a little boy and his older self, both witnessing and remembering the past. World’s Fair (1986) and Billy Bathgate seem more conventional than these earlier novels, for they are told from the standpoint of mature men reviewing their youth. Yet both novels unfold with such immediacy that they appear to be taking place as their narrators reminisce.

E. L. Doctorow has shown himself to be a master stylist, a shrewd commentator on popular genres and political themes who maintains a strong sense of narrative and storytelling. Indeed, his work should be viewed as a major evocation and critique of the American mythos and a brilliant creation of new American fables. His experiments with point of view and with the relationship between history and fiction have marked him as a major innovator in contemporary fiction.