Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) (Vol. 11)
Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) 1931–
Doctorow is an American novelist and editor, best known for the widely popular novel Ragtime. Major fictive concerns with Doctorow are the cyclical nature of history and ways of knowing. His four novels have been progressively deeper experiments with history and fiction, culminating with Ragtime, which has been controversial for the fictions it presents about historical figures. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)
Time defeats us in two ways: it bullies us by pursuit, and it mocks us with evasion. We grow older; we are consumed. Yet, at the same time, the events that practice on our mortality, that "do us in," are themselves disordered, senseless, refusing to cohere. E. L. Doctorow is a remarkable novelist precisely because he confronts the mockery of time directly and attempts to master it with footwork fancier and more playful….
[In] The Book of Daniel Doctorow already demonstrated his preoccupation with actual history, with real event. The outstanding achievement of that book was to establish a linearity that threaded among the confusions of three decades…. The central metaphor was brilliant. The images spectacularly appropriate. Equally impressive was Doctorow's handling of the tension between the character Daniel—the Daniel Agonistes—and the narrating Daniel, the desperate sardonic intelligence determined to see it all in pattern and in place….
This sense of directly engaging history—"The real-world act" Doctorow calls it in [Ragtime]—and of bringing to the contest intelligence and wit, identifies Ragtime, unmistakably, as a sequel to Daniel…. Like so much in the novel,… the slicing of time is a many-sided metaphor as well as a reality, a framework for comic distortion as well as a metaphor…. The reconstruction and division of history is obviously a tentative, slippery business, impossible as it is humanly inevitable….
In making meaning out of history, ambiguity is a richness that...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
[As] John Barth pointed out some time ago, the modern, or at least the modernist, novel is in constant danger of petering out into a one-sentence idea whose actual performance over the length of a book is of little consequence…. On this level, Ragtime is an immense success. When the first rumours of it were filtering out from the advance extracts published in New American Review, I heard of it as one might hear a new joke that is going the rounds of the office. Here was this new book that had Freud and Jung riding through the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island together … fantastic! What did they do in the Tunnel of Love, I asked. They … well … they ride through the Tunnel of Love. It's the idea, don't you see? Indeed, in the book itself, this memorable occasion takes up exactly as much space as it was allotted in my informant's report. Freud and Jung took a boat together through the Tunnel of Love. And Ragtime is chock-a-block with glittering, unexamined conceits of that kind—little firecrackers that glow with suggestive, but finally fraudulent brilliance, because they can be pursued no further than the sentence which encapsulates them.
The brightness of Ragtime—and it is a consistently bright, thoroughly readable book—tends to be of this variety. It flares up on the page, and as quickly dies. Begged questions are lost in the hiss of the next firework. Doctorow is never less than a stylish writer; but whether he actually has a style is questionable…. [His] sharpness and verbal ingenuity are undeniable. But there is an odd dissociation between the writer and his object…. It is impossible to deduce a sensibility from behind [his] kind of prose. It is connected neither to the character through whose eyes we are supposed to be looking, nor, in any meaningful sense, to the author. Here is language caught in the act of freeloading—a skillful mode of writing which is indigenous to journalism but which tastes unsatisfyingly bland in a novel. When Doctorow escapes "the little world of personal experience which has bound the novel", he moves into the big world of the smart colour feature—a freedom which is disputable, to say the least.
Whatever its supposed limitations, at least the world of personal experience operates to a system of strenuous internal logic. In most novels, things happen because they are necessary to the narrative, because the situation dictates or requires them. In Ragtime, they just happen…. [His] coincidentallys and meanwhiles are no coincidence; they are basic materials in the fabric of Ragtime and they betray the essential triviality of its relationship to the public historical world in which Doctorow has...
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Almost all British critics, and by now several thousand common readers, will have come to the conclusion that Mr Doctorow spent the years between the writing of his last and excellent novel, The Book of Daniel, and the birth of Ragtime constructing a plot. The plot was not simply that of a novel, but of a sales campaign. The plot succeeded: Doctorow's truly dedicated researches yielded a formula for success, and a style in which to clothe it most gaudily. Reflective readers will forgive me for finding Ragtime as meretricious as the bicentennial celebrations themselves….
My reasons for finding Ragtime so appalling will be known to those who have read more than one other review of it. There is the too-deft split-level plot, which manages to splatter its pages with a little nostalgia here, a little noble left-wing sentiment there, and lashings of semen wherever the reader's interest threatens to wane. There is the name-dropping…. With one exception the fictitious characters at the would-be centre of the book have no proper names: they are called Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, and in the case of the East Side Jewish immigrant contingent, Tateh and Mameh. Doctorow's splendid gift for inventing names is matched by his skill at characterising their bearers. The exception, Coalhouse Walker, an absolutely bourgeois black man who is supposed to be a musical disciple of Scott Joplin, is given a name,...
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Walter L. Knorr
[An] unanticipated glow of recognition comes over the [critic of Heinrich von Kleist, a German dramatist and short story writer,] who, reading leisurely as directed through E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, discovers amid the likes of Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford a black couple whose actions take on an increasingly deja vu aura. The two produce an illegitimate daughter which the mother, Sarah, buries alive. The protagonist family discovers and resuscitates the child and takes it in to live along with its mother. On the scene at the narrator's home arrives one Sunday the father of the child, one Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a proper and dignified ragtime pianist who, when refused an audience by Sarah, contents himself with genuflection at the cradle of his child and a few Scott Joplin rags at the family piano. The visits become routine, become a courtship of Sarah after the fact.
To the Kleist critic the problematic child is a familiar motif: Das Erdbeben in Chili, Der Findling; the name Coalhouse closely resembles the family name of Kleist's greatest fictional protagonist, Michael Kohlhaas; the courtship in reverse is reminiscent of the Marquise von O—. Thus, by the time the courtship between Coalhouse and Sarah is under way, Doctorow has signaled to us his familiarity with and, dare one say, indebtedness to the novellas of Heinrich von Kleist. Even the most skeptical must admit that the similarities transcend coincidence. In what follows the tactic...
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Surely the best-known work by E. L. Doctorow is Ragtime (1974)…. But Doctorow's other two novels, Welcome to Hard Times (1960) and The Book of Daniel (1971), which have been obscured by the commercial hoopla over Ragtime, may in some respects be better pieces of fiction. (p. 397)
The novels are rich in texture and themes, actually too rich to discuss comprehensively here. However, there is a central motif in all three which gives both structure to the plots and a tone of irony to the characterizations. This motif is the idea of history as a repetitive process, almost a cyclical one, in which man is an unwilling, unknowing pawn, easily seduced into a belief in "progress."...
(The entire section is 2471 words.)