Critical Context

Unquestionably Doctorow’s most popular novel, made into a film in 1981, Ragtime is one more expression of its author’s satiric attempt to re-create American history and thereby create imaginative truth in place of dry, historical facts. Indeed, his fiction is deeply embedded in history, and most of his novels have dealt with a significant time in America’s past: Welcome to Hard Times (1960) portrays the settling of the West; The Book of Daniel (1971) exposes the American heritage of political radicalism and repression, specifically as it is manifested in the postwar era; Ragtime chronicles the metamorphosis of American life at the beginning of the twentieth century; Loon Lake (1980) describes the traumatic repercussions suffered by Americans as a result of the Great Depression; and World’s Fair re-creates the 1930’s from another angle of vision.

As might be expected, all of Doctorow’s fiction is political insofar as he portrays time and again the dichotomy that exists between how America is supposed to be ideally and the way it is actually. Yet the conflict between these two Americas is never resolved in his fiction; instead, in Doctorow’s novels America is like the floe-hidden sea on which Peary searches for the North Pole in Ragtime: It is in perpetual flux and resists being “fixed.” At one point in The Book of Daniel, the narrator observes: “Of one thing we are sure. Everything is elusive. God is elusive. Revolutionary morality is elusive. Justice is elusive. Human character.” Doctorow makes it quite clear in Ragtime, as in his other novels, that America—as it is defined in the Constitution—is itself elusive.