E. L. Doctorow Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doctorow, E(dgar) L(aurence) 1931–

Doctorow is an American novelist and editor, best known for the widely popular novel Ragtime. His major fictive concerns are the cyclical nature of history and experience. Doctorow experiments with history and fiction, especially in Ragtime, which has been controversial for the fictions it presents about historical figures. (See also CLC, Vols. 6, 11, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Aaron Sultanik

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Robert Altman's Nashville explore] the way the private, unpublicized lives of our political and intellectual heroes interact with the fantasies of the American public; both Doctorow and Altman emphasize a singular popular form—ragtime and country music—as the variable that brings together our leaders and the public whose subconscious dreams they project…. [In] Ragtime Doctorow employs an unusual "March of Time"-type narrative that situates the famous and the not-so-famous on a literal, two-dimensional plane. (p. 56)

Doctorow does away with the major features of the epic, historical novel with its grand, descriptive passages and broad psychological portraits. Through his kinky and ironic use of archaic story devices, as in never telling us the name of the family but always referring to them as Father, Mother, etc., Doctorow bypasses many of the austere rules Robbe-Grillet and other French writers laid down for the "new novel." By giving a swift kick in the pants to those historians and aesthetes who propose sumptuous, intellectual schemes, Doctorow reduces history and theory to a fanciful game we all can play.

Doctorow's archetypal American family then becomes our surrogate dreamers; they play as critical a role in his "March of Time" narrative as their more famous political and cultural contemporaries. The four principal members of this family, Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, and the Little Boy, not only merge with the "lives of the great," but become as responsible in the forging of our character as our celebrated leaders.

The reason for Doctorow's turning to the first years of this century and focusing on a musical form that in this era gained some notoriety becomes increasingly apparent. America was assimilating more and more people and races; ragtime's application of certain rules of European music is viewed as representing the diversity of the American cultural experience. (pp. 56-7)

[Doctorow] rarely turns away from depicting [his] characters as other than shadowy figures brought to life by his own magic lantern show. We respond to the politicians and cultural prophets in our dizzying century as delightfully infectious heroes and villains from our fantasy world, united in their purpose and sense of history with Doctorow's archetypal family who create their own travelogue of history and myth. (p. 57)

Aaron Sultanik, "A Merging of Mythologies," in Midstream (copyright © 1975 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XXI, No. 10, December, 1975, pp. 56-9.∗

Daniel J. Cahill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Generally, the reviews of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime have all been superlative, praising the novel as a rare evocation of American history and imagined life during the critical years before and during World War I…. Against the panorama of this era, with all of its turbulence and fury, an imagined family seeks its way toward the dreams of a peculiar brand of human achievement and ultimately to the ironic discovery of the dissolution of its dreams. At every level, Doctorow's narrative is compelling and painful in its intensity—both for the personal fate of its people and for its powerful imprint of a century in the making.

The history of an age is always deceptive because it lacks the vivid dramatization of life experienced internally…. Ragtime is history, but it is the past recreated in the dreams of its people. As the drama unfolds, the distant music of a "ragtime" beat echoes over all events, a symbolic and rhythmic pattern capturing the clash of two different meters being played simultaneously. Doctorow's fictional triumph resides in his narrative skill and balance of the sounds of life in its deceptive search for pattern—some desperate means to give intelligibility to human experience, to construct, however false, some connection with the teeming venture of life.

Counterpointed against the insistent beat of human ideals is the equally insistent jangle of gratuitous events, both public and private. All is moving in time, in the common measure of man's days. To...

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Barbara Foley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like U.S.A., Ragtime contains a satiric commentary upon the development of American society in the early years of the twentieth century…. While Doctorow evinces a far keener awareness of the problems stemming from sexual and racial oppression in the prewar period, he and Dos Passos are similarly concerned with formulating a radical critique of capitalism. At the same time both authors infuse into their portraits a curious admixture of nostalgia…. (p. 86)

In addition, despite some evident disparities in technique, Ragtime and U.S.A. have a number of crucial structural elements in common. The anonymous Boy who provides Doctorow's most important angle of fictional vision—and who might indeed be the narrator himself as a child—performs a function very like that of Dos Passos' Camera Eye: both respond with almost excruciating sensitivity to the callousness of their historical worlds and thus furnish a naive but clear-eyed standard of ethical judgment for the narratives in which they appear. Moreover, while he has eliminated the dramatic breaks in narrative that characterize the earlier trilogy, Doctorow often adopts the broadly ranging public stance of Dos Passos' newsreels and offers a streamlined version of the simultanéisme which his predecessor had learned from the Cubists, the Italian Futurists, and such experimenters with cinematic montage as Eisenstein…. What is more, although many "real" historical figures enter into the plot of Doctorow's novel with an audacity undreamed in Dos Passos' more somber work, Ragtime also contains numerous sketches of historical personages … who, in the characteristic Dos Passos manner, remain peripheral to the main action of the fiction. Finally, the spectrum of American society reflected in the stories of the nameless Anglo-Saxon and Jewish families and in the dramatic saga of the black Coalhouse Walker furnishes a broadly representative microcosm of society [as did U.S.A.]. In short, the four-part structure of U.S.A. survives in Ragtime, although in compressed and integrated form.

Dos Passos' trilogy has influenced not only the shape but also, I believe, much of the specific content of Doctorow's novel. There appears throughout Ragtime a multitude of characters and incidents, both major and minor, which contain distinct echoes for those familiar with U.S.A. For instance, the portrait of the prewar radical movement so central to the rhetoric of The Forty-Second Parallel is also sketched in Ragtime. (pp. 87-8)

The very neatness of the parallelism between Dos Passos and Doctorow, however, makes all the more striking the important differences between the treatments of history in the two works. For history provides the frame of the "plot" in U.S.A. with a solidity and confidence wholly alien to the conception of Ragtime…. (pp. 89-90)

[Doctorow's "plot"] is patently fictional. For all his boldness in making "characters" of historical figures like Houdini and Emma Goldman, Doctorow treats history ultimately as motif—what one critic has called "post-Passos pastiche"—and relies upon Coalhouse Walker's supremely fictional clash with the racist establishment to provide his novel with a sense of direction and a point of climax. It bears mention here that the story of Coalhouse Walker is, like the rest of Ragtime, cleverly derivative; but its source is not in historical fact but, rather, in fiction: in a little-known 1930's novel by George Milburn entitled Catalogue and in Heinrich Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas…. There are many parallels with Kleist's tale in Ragtime, starting with Doctorow's daring pun on "Kohlhaas" in his own hero's name. The significance of these sources lies, however, not so much in what they reveal about Doctorow's literary tastes as in what they indicate about the relative weights which he assigns to historical and fictional elements in his narrative. The first half of Ragtime may provide a highly entertaining survey of notorious historical figures of the day, but it is wilfully chaotic in its sudden shifts of character and locale: only in the second half, with the mounting crisis of Coalhouse Walker's story, does the novel attain momentum. However amusing history may be, Doctorow seems to be saying, it does not provide a sufficiently coherent—or, perhaps, merely a sufficiently interesting—pattern around which to structure a causally related train of events. No Sacco and Vanzetti climaxes for Doctorow: fiction—albeit a borrowed one—must provide the model for his plot.

This subordination of the historical to the fictional calls to mind Thackeray's rather cavalier treatment of historical particulars in Esmond. Can Ragtime thus be seen as representing a return to the practice of the classical historical novel? Not quite. In the first place, historical figures like Kutuzov or the Pretender may be "wrenched" from strict historical fidelity in order to accommodate the demands of fiction, but such departures from the historical record must be confined to the realm of plausibility. Events so audaciously "invented" as Freud's and Jung's trip through the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island or Emma Goldman's massage of Evelyn Nesbit clearly violate this canon of historical decorum. Doctorow is doing something quite different here: he is utilizing the reader's encyclopedic...

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Josie P. Campbell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ragtime] is distinguished from most other music by its use of rhythm, its syncopation. As the pianist opposes syncopations in his right hand against a precise and regularly accented bass, the delayed and misplaced accents and their conjunction with regular meters set up the complex polyrhythms of ragtime. These subtle conflicting rhythms with their own free "inner voices" provide both the structural and metaphorical basis for E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime….

At first glance Doctorow's novel may be "simplified" … by dividing it into three movements, each with its own meaning: the families of Father and Mother …, of Tateh and Mameh …, of Coalhouse Walker Jr., his fiancee Sarah, and...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Loon Lake] is E. L. Doctorow's first novel since Ragtime, the seventies' smash hit in American fiction. Unlike its predecessor, the new book has both a hero and a second banana…. (p. 105)

Joe [the hero] and Warren [the second banana] aren't mere symptoms or props or proofs—evidence of social injustice or American fatuity or the meaninglessness of history. And this sets them off sharply from Father, Mother, Younger Brother, J. P. Morgan, Houdini, and the others—even Coalhouse Walker—who populate the book that made Doctorow a household word.

One starts with comparisons to Ragtime because of the nature of the issues that record best seller left in its...

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Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rereading Ragtime, I find that most of the initial impact has been blunted: Literary shocks are subject to the law of diminishing returns. I find, too, a certain vacuity of literary display. What once seemed verbally startling is now revealed as mostly tinsel. But that Doctorow was superior to most of his American fellow-novelists in his concentration on fiction as form, not as a vehicle for special or ethnic preaching, is made very clear. A rereading of Welcome to Hard Times and The Book of Daniel has confirmed Doctorow's special status. Loon Lake exhibits a new formal direction. It is a difficult book and I don't think it is a successful one. But it is a very honorable attempt at expanding the resources of the genre. (p. 66)

I am happy to learn that Loon Lake is already a popular book…. Happy because, whatever the faults of the work (nearly always the admirable faults of the overreacher), serious students of the novel must recognize here a bracing technical liberation, and such a recognition is being forced upon a readership probably happier with Princess Daisy. The bulk of our popular fiction is the work of either cynics or simpletons. The serious novelist's problem is to be uncompromising and yet to find an audience. Doctorow has found an audience and nothing could be less of a fictional compromise than Loon Lake. Like most writers who consider the craft to be primarily an exploration of the nature of human consciousness, he is brought up against such damnable problems as the validity of memory, the truthfulness of the senses, and, more than anything, the ghastly dilemmas of style. And, behind the epistemological agonies, there rests that basic obligation of all but the French antinovelists—to invent living personages and a convincing spacetime continuum to hold them. Doctorow's characters—Joe, Penfield, Clara, even the grotesque Fat Lady of the carney—are alive, unrefracted by the often wayward medium. That Loon Lake breaks new technical ground and yet possesses so many of the traditional virtues of fiction must be accounted its peculiar distinction. (p. 67)

Anthony Burgess, "Doctorow's 'Hit' Is a Miss," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 13, September, 1980, pp. 66-7.

Mark Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

My complaint is not that [Loon Lake] is a bad, awful, commercial, exploitive book. Those books come labeled—we recognize them in an instant. This book is more deeply and subtly exploitive. It appears to concern itself with decades and figures of the past, with the Depression, with working conditions, labor strife, violence…. It appears by the act of imitation to want to pay respects to writers of the past: Dos Passos comes first to mind. It appears to be seeking a style: at any rate it abandons both punctuation and the formal sentence, as if, like Joyce, James, Faulkner, or Hemingway, Doctorow were seeking new range and flexibility in the language. All these devices suggest a literary intelligence and make...

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George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doctorow's treatment of [the scenes and characters in Loon Lake] is at once traditional, odd and dissonantly beautiful, like a chorus of the blues played by Dizzy Gillespie. (p. 285)

The last paragraph of the book, written in a kind of semi-lyric computerese, outlines the rest of Joseph Paterson Bennett's career—as soldier, as deputy assistant director of Central Intelligence, as chairman of this and trustee of that, as tycoon and, in the book's powerful concluding words, as "Master of Loon Lake." What could be more conventional, more American, than this success story, long ago perfected in its naïve form by Horatio Alger? Except that Joe's material success is a moral failure, to put it...

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Margaret Atwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Everything about Doctorow's career to date indicates that he considers the novel a vehicle for social and moral commentary as well as an art form which should stretch the author's resources to their limits. But success on the Ragtime scale in America almost automatically makes it more difficult for a writer to take himself seriously, partly because other, less successful writers begin to discount him….

This is not a metaphysical problem. It's one of the facts of life and writing in America today, and it's demoralized more than one good writer. Doctorow is not one to shirk it: You can almost hear the gritting of his teeth as he charges it head-on. It's no accident that Loon Lake has...

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Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] "Loon Lake," Mr. Doctorow has fashioned a world of mirrors, a fascinating, tantalizing novel in which nearly every image or episode has its counterpart somewhere else in the book. Even the Old-Leftish ideology, which forms a link of sorts between the earlier novels, is reflected from so many angles as to be practically dissolved.

Like "Ragtime," "Loon Lake" evokes a period in our history: in this case the 1930's…. (p. 1)

[From a plot summary] one might conclude that "Loon Lake" is a sophisticated, erratically punctuated recreation of the "proletarian" novels of the 30's. It is indeed partly that, but only in an ambiguous and fragmented way. The echoes of Dos Passos and...

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Clancy Sigal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For me, Loon Lake had its moments. But the style—some of it written in a kind of computer-printout blank verse, with side trips into Zen Japan—kept getting in the way. I think Doctorow is trying for a certain kind of irony, a saturnine, perhaps even prophetic, view of both the poor and rich in America, their intertwining and colliding destinies. But the balance goes awry.

It could be that Doctorow shares too much with his hero, a certain over-respect for the super-rich; F. W. Bennett, a rather boring character, is written up as a wise and shaggy Buddha casting his spell everywhere. The plot becomes mechanistic, the characters puppets in a No play. A kind of Oriental stoicism may be part of...

(The entire section is 365 words.)