Doctorow, E(dgar) L(awrence)
Doctorow, E(dgar) L(awrence) 1931–
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1976, Doctorow, an American novelist, is one of the year's most widely discussed writers. Paperback rights to his fourth novel, Ragtime, recently brought the highest price in paperback publishing history, and Robert Altman, director of "Nashville," plans to film that novel in 1977. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)
E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel is a brilliant achievement and the best contemporary novel I've read since reading Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes. (Which is remaindered all over New York.) Mr. Doctorow's book is about the son and daughter of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, a couple who died in the electric chair not for committing espionage, but for conspiring to commit espionage. If Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had never existed, the book would be just as good as it is, but we would, of course, not then have been in such awe of the way Mr. Doctorow has managed to handle historical figures fictively and a controversial trial that is still fresh in many people's minds even today, or perhaps, especially today. The Book of Daniel is a book about children of trials, trials that mostly do not take place in palaces of justice. It is a book about crisis and because of that, it is a book of infinite detail and tender attention to the edges of life as well as to its dead center. (p. 628)
Jane Richmond, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1972.
E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, a fine recent novel that has received insufficient attention, perhaps will benefit from renewed interest in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Although the novel's tenuous relation to the Rosenberg case creates some of its fascination, the themes that Doctorow develops create most of its substantial intrinsic merit. Doctorow's allusion in his title to the Biblical book of Daniel hints at these themes. The Biblical book describes the Jews enduring as aliens in Babylon and Daniel preserving himself by correctly analyzing bizarre dreams. Similarly, Doctorow makes alienation and analysis the most important themes in The Book of Daniel. (p. 101)
To reinforce the reader's sense that the novel was created primarily by observing and interrelating images, Doctorow uses certain narrative techniques: his narrator is extremely self-conscious, especially in the first few pages, where he even describes his pencil; shifting back and forth between a first-person and a third-person narrator also focuses attention on the author, because the reader recognizes that the author does the shifting and is, ultimately, responsible for the narration. The inclusion of essays breaks the plot's flow and destroys verisimilitude, thereby showing in yet another way that the novel is an author's creation rather than an objective reflection of reality. (p. 110)
John Stark, "Alienation and Analysis in Doctorow's 'The Book of Daniel'," in Critique (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVI, No. 3, 1975, pp. 101-110.
In this last of almost 90 columns I have put together, I want to end in a blaze of prediction. I predict that E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime … will be the most read, the most critically applauded and yes, perhaps the most accoladed novel of this year. I foresee a National Book Award and even a Pulitzer Prize threatening to descend upon it to augment its guaranteed popular appeal, Book-of-the-Month-Club sales setting records, a Big Movie … the works.
My enthusiasm for what Doctorow has accomplished in Ragtime … is based primarily on the quality of the prose, an ingenious representation in words and sentences of Scott Joplin's rag rhythms: "Do not play this piece fast./It is never right to play Ragtime fast…," Joplin is quoted as having said.
Then there is the skill of the plotting, the adroit cleverness with which Doctorow builds characters without once moving beyond their observable surfaces. Of course, there is the story. The hardest part of this review, already somewhat overloaded with superlatives, is to write about this "story." It is composed of so many unlikely elements, so uniquely structured, that the process of its telling becomes in itself a pleasure to watch. (pp. 30-1)
Ragtime is an absorbing story about a number of things: urban East Coast America at the turn of the century; cultural commentary poised on the edge of the gilded age; the end of the long American innocence just before the losses and wastes of the great war; an out-of-his-time black's revenge against the wholly white world (or so it seemed) of the early part of this century.
For, Coalhouse Walker [a black musician] is the keystone to Doctorow's structure. Without his figure we would have somewhat less of the unerring backward vision to a time when it might still have been possible to make peace between classes and races in this country, between children and parents, between the world of simplicity and optimism at the turn of the century and the weary, corrupt decadence in which the century is now wearing itself out….
[Another] quality of the prose [is] its subtle humor. Because Doctorow is so in control of every piece of his fiction it is possible to lose sight of the wry, often sardonic rhetoric, the fine turn of phrase and sentence in which his observations are couched. It may seem to the hasty reader who has ignored the injunction not "to play this piece fast" that a kind of surface Dick-and-Jane-and-Spot prose has been utilized to increase the reader's sense of the childlike atmosphere of the time. This, I think, is not so. His deceptively simple syntax is the result, I suspect, of a masterly reduction to the bones of what might, in lesser hands, have been a huge and unwieldy book. It follows Mark Twain's remark that "I would have written a shorter letter but I didn't have time."
In fine, Ragtime is a model of a novel: compact because it is perfectly controlled, spare, because a loose end would have detracted from the shape it has, completely absorbing because once in, there is no possible way out except through the last page. (p. 31)
Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 5 & 12, 1975.
The problem is not so much what as how. Since the time of Henry James, at least, serious novelists have had more trouble deciding how to write than what to write about….
The special significance of E. L. Doctorow's ["Ragtime"] is that the what for which he has found a how is a historical moment, as opposed, say, to a single adventure or a theory about the self….
"Ragtime" succeeds entirely—as his three earlier books did not—in absorbing rather than annotating the images and rhythms of its subject, in measuring the shadows of myth cast by naturalistic detail, in rousing our senses and in treating us to some serious fun. (p. 1)
["Ragtime"] incorporates the fictions and realities of the era of ragtime while it rags our fictions about it. It is an anti-nostalgic novel that incorporates our nostalgia about its subject. It is cool, hard, controlled, utterly unsentimental, an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases. Yet it implies all we could ask for in the way of texture, mood, character and despair. (p. 2)
George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 6, 1975.
E. L. Doctorow's new novel Ragtime … is simply splendid. It's also complicatedly splendid. It is a bag of riches, totally lucid and accessible, full of surprises, epiphanies, little time-bombs that alter one's view of things, and enormous fun to read….
Yet behind or within the grand scenes and stories of "Ragtime" there is an intention to explore the idea of rational systems and abstract patterns of interconnections and intersections. These systems and patterns are echoed throughout the book, in much the same way as the prose style—crystalline, insistent—carries a syncopating ragtime beat. Many of the characters are virtually obsessed with systematization…. The obsession involves an attempt to jibe logic with experience, to understand the universe in a mechanistic way, typical of the age. The sense of menace—and the book is full of it—comes from the intuited failure of precise thought to reveal the way things are, the real way they are, the secret, essential way.
The secret, or secrets, if they exist at all, are not revealed in "Ragtime," only the yearning for them. One ends "Ragtime" feeling it's a surface, a little dissatisfied that Doctorow is not (yet) our Dostoevski. But maybe that's only old news, a regret that something terrific doesn't go on and on.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Making Book," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), July 7, 1975, p. 41.
Some novels are almost thrust upon us, declared instant masterpieces from all sides and then slip from view. Remember William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner? As someone who helped mount that six-day wonder's success, I am now unable to reread Styron's softheaded book without embarrassment, and so I am feeling leery about praising Ragtime to the rooftops along with the general chorus of reviewers. Accordingly, I have ruthlessly pruned as many laudatory adjectives as possible from what follows. The first draft, I confess, was a full-blooded encomium to a brilliant and graceful, a finely wrought and historically provocative, a funny and bizarre story about America at the beginning of the century.
Enough of this.
Ragtime is a pseudo-historical novel…. Doctorow's special trick is to throw the knowns and the unknowns together in a racy plot that uses conventional history as its main premise and spins on outward from there in a zany extrapolation that takes us inside an Egyptian pyramid for the night with a Rosicrucian J. P. Morgan and lets us peep at a Lesbian episode between Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit, the pre-World War I femme fatale.
In other words, Doctorow, who nearly won a National Book Award for his last novel, The Book of Daniel, a tale set in the '30s, is now playing hindsight games with an earlier period. He has mastered the era's trivia and its lingo. Nostalgia buffs will lap up the details…. But not all the trivia are historically correct…. Just as the historical characters run off the historical page into the author's fantasy, so too the carefully painted mise-en-scene goes false at the edges. Doctorow turns history into myth and myth into history. Along the way, he revitalizes the novel as a mythmaking device, for Ragtime forces the unwilling modern reader to suspend disbelief, to go through the old-fashioned motions of swallowing a story.
One reason this works so well is that Doctorow continually teases our suspicion of literary artifice with apparently true historical description…. On the one hand, the "fact" tugs one toward taking the episode as history. On the other, the doubt that lingers makes one want to take the narrative as an invention. The net effect of this vacillation between fact and fiction is to force us to attend seriously to the story line as we try, vainly, to sort out what the author is doing. That is, we find ourselves paying Doctorow the most important tribute. We watch to see what he is doing.
Doctorow's stated goal with this novel is to restore popular interest in serious fiction. He has written a traditional novel: one that at least appears to proceed from point A to point B under the omniscient direction of a narrator who describes and explains the motivations of the characters and who is able to "justify" the action of the plot. Acute readers will quickly see that this antique fictional apparatus is only apparently the motive force of Ragtime. Doctorow invokes the law of cause and effect, long since abandoned by modern novelists, but he does not actually apply it. He paints in all the old-fangled machinery, but it is there only as a back drop, a period device…. (pp. 1, 3)
So too, the style of Doctorow's studiedly "simple" sentences generates the impression of the writing of former days, especially of the popular writing of the past. And there is an insistent, declarative pulse that beats on every page. Subject, verb, object. Subject, verb, object. But this pattern is also only apparent, just one more ploy. In truth, Doctorow has found a way of making sly and sophisticated chains of words seem as straightforward as telegrams. But look again. This daguerrotype is no antique. It was tinted yesterday by a modern hand that has left secret messages traced on the antimacassars. (p. 3)
Raymond Sokolov, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 13, 1975.
"Ragtime" is as exhilarating as a deep breath of pure oxygen. E. L. Doctorow boldly aspires to the power the novel once had to convince us its story was real. Not "realistic," you understand—lifelike, possibly even based on actual events—but real in the way Defoe's first readers believed "A Journal of the Plague Year" and "Robinson Crusoe" to be true histories….
The demarcation between fiction and history is magically dissolved…. [Various] eminences of the pre-World War I decade walk in and out of the book, crossing paths with [a] fictional New Rochelle family, with an immigrant street artist in lower Manhattan and with a black ragtime pianist, Coalhouse Walker Jr.…
We can guess that Younger Brother's love affair with Evelyn Nesbit is a fiction. But what about Evelyn Nesbit's meeting with Emma Goldman, Henry Ford's with J. P. Morgan (in the book's wittiest scene), Houdini's encounter with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination will touch off World War I and close out the era of ragtime? Did Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish throw a grand ball at which the eminent midget Lavinia Warren Thumb wore "a magnificent gown supplied by Mrs. Fish: it was supposed to be a joke on Mrs. Fish's nemesis, Mrs. William Astor, who had worn the identical design the previous spring"? Many, not all, such questions can be answered by combing through biographies and histories of the period. The very fact that the book stirs one to parlor-game research is amusing evidence that Doctorow has already won the game: I found myself looking up details because I wanted them to be true. (p. 73)
Like any highly original book, "Ragtime" reminds us of precedents that were waiting to be developed. In Dos Passos's "U.S.A.," the newsreels, biographies and camera-eye sections were rigidly separated from the fictional passages. Donald Barthelme's collages and the miniaturized chronicles of Borges have tended to suggest that the full-scale "false document" (as Kenneth Rexroth described Defoe's novels) is no longer feasible. Poets more often than novelists have rewritten history in Doctorow's high-handed way—from Browning to Auden and Robert Lowell. At times the swift, short sentences of "Ragtime" suggest the pristine flicker of silent film; at others, the sharp angles and sardonic deployment of period detail in "Citizen Kane."
No recent novelist, I think, has brought such possibilities together in a big popular book, which "Ragtime" is surely going to be. Its admonitory epigraph from Scott Joplin—"Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast"—is impossible to obey. One speeds through it the first time just to find out what happens. Having done that, one can go back and trace the lines that connect a kaleidoscopic variety of incidents, verifiable and imagined. Dickens liked to draw together the disparate strata of his Victorian society through the relationships—like that of the proud Estella to the convict Magwitch in "Great Expectations." In "Ragtime" a system of images—of interurban tracks and passing ships, of coincidences and chance meetings, of the replaceability of parts and men in industrial manufacture—proposes that America, in the most confident era of its history, was a place where "the forms of life were volatile … and everything could as easily be something else." (pp. 73, 76)
The grace and surface vivacity of "Ragtime" make it enormous fun to read. But beneath its peppy, bracing rhythms sound the neat, sad waltz of "Gatsby" and the tunes of betrayed or disfigured promise that the best American novels play in one key or another. History resonates with special clarity here. Doctorow has found a fresh way to orchestrate the themes of American innocence, energy and inchoate ambition—with their antiphonies of complacency, disorder and disillusion. (p. 76)
Walter Clemons, "Houdini, Meet Ferdinand," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), July 14, 1975, pp. 73, 76.
[Ragtime] is carefully framed between 1902 and 1917, surrounding the robust, unambiguous patriotism of Teddy Roosevelt and the complex, brooding morality of Woodrow Wilson. It was Winslow Homer time, when, as Doctorow writes, "a certain light was still available along the Eastern seaboard." Eccentrics still putter in their garages and produce inventions without the aid of research-and-development bureaucracies. Henry Ford's new assembly line and Albert Einstein's peculiar idea that the universe is curved crack the dawn of the modern age. Before long, Doctorow notes, painters in Paris will be putting two eyes on one side of the head.
Like ragtime, the jazz form made famous by Scott Joplin, Doctorow's book is a native American fugue, rhythmic, melodic and stately….
Yet the book never stands still for a moment. Story lines constantly interweave; historical figures become part of fictional events and fictional characters participate in real history. In ways both fantastic and poetically convincing, the members of a suburban upper-middle-class family combine and change in the undertow of events. As if Clarence Day had written Future Shock into Life with Father, Doctorow's images and improvisations foreshadow the 20th century's coming preoccupation with scandal, psychoanalysis, solipsism, race, technological power and megalomania….
Literal descriptions and interpretations make many novels sound better than they are. With Ragtime, just the opposite is true. Its lyric tone, fluid structure and vigorous rhythms give it a musical quality that explanation mutes. In Doctorow's hands, the nation's secular fall from grace is no catalogue of sin, no mere tour de force; the novelist has managed to seize the strands of actuality and transform them into a fabulous tale.
R. Z. Sheppard, "The Music of Time," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 14, 1975, p. 64.
The Book of Daniel (1971) … was the best American political novel in a generation…. Ragtime,… though utterly distinct from the previous book in narrative and method, is a kind of prologue to it. Quintessentially The Book of Daniel depicted the ideological climate of mid-century: showing how political radicalism had been brought to this country from Central and Eastern Europe, how it had flourished under the economic pressures of the Thirties, and how the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, gently meliorist qualities of this country had been irrevocably changed. Now Doctorow goes back to the beginnings of that change, and he extends the scope from politics to a wide spectrum of an era, a fateful era. Ragtime is a unique and beautiful work of art about American destiny, built of fact and logical fantasy, governed by music heard and sensed, responsive to cinema both as method and historical datum, shaken by a continental pulse.
That makes it sound huge, but in fact it is a shorter novel than its predecessor. The size of Ragtime is in its subject, its depth, and its powerful distillations. (p. 20)
[One] device, the absence of quotation marks around direct dialogue, gives the book the visual effect of a saga discovered, rather than of a novel written.
But it is written, exquisitely…. The "ragtime" effect is fundamentally to capture a change in the rhythm of American life, a change to the accelerated, impelling beat of a new century; and it is something more than coincidence or even irony that the new beat, in its musical manifestation, comes primarily from a black composer. (Blacks figure dramatically in the novel.)
Film, too, infuses the conception of the book. Ragtime almost apotheosizes the fact that the very existence of the film form has changed the ways in which fiction is written. (p. 21)
What is being delineated throughout is the shape of change….
Ragtime as a whole is so fine that it is almost a perverse pleasure to note a few reservations, as if to certify my grateful admiration…. Quite often Doctorow obtrudes consciousness of the book as book and himself as author. This occurred sometimes in The Book of Daniel, but that work's personal, prismatic style could accommodate the device. Here it jars the objective, quasimusical style….
But Ragtime, with its small flaws, is excellent. Its central excellence is its central vision, the idea of the book, which is generative without being obsessive, original without being clever. Doctorow saw ways to fuse imagination with imaginatively dramatized history, to distill an era, to lay open the courses of growth, when life was altering in style and expectation, when lidded injustice was seething toward explosion, when adventure was changing its name. This book, any page of which may seem simple, is complex and rich….
Ragtime reminds me of Hart Crane's The Bridge. We don't need to equate the two works to see that, in a different art, Doctorow too was trying to summon up American quintessence from disparate sources, trying to sing an epic with something other than a person as its focus. For Crane it was an enormous artifact, for Doctorow a crucial era. (p. 22)
Stanley Kauffmann, "A Central Vision," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 26, 1975, pp. 20-2.
In mood, ["Ragtime"] is not unlike Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts." ("About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.") The writing is cool but feeling, and almost compulsively precise about detail. One never feels that Doctorow is diminishing history by ragging it; he simply shows his characters—historical or invented—at the exact moment of extreme passion, consternation, pain, or confusion that tells the most about their lives. Occasionally, one finds oneself wishing that the glittering texture of the writing would open up to afford a deeper look into a character's life, especially toward the end, but this is a minor quibble. (pp. 79-80)
The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 28, 1975.
With "Nashville" the common comparison is to "Citizen Kane," with "Ragtime," to "The Great Gatsby"—though "Ragtime," has also been compared to "Citizen Kane," not to mention "Ulysses". These works are cited as instant, full-blown "metaphors" for America itself: mirrors that challenge us to endure, if we can, the twisted visage and the empty eyes that stare back. What is perhaps more remarkable (for works so disturbing, dark, and serious, it is virtually unprecedented) both book and movie have been hailed as immediately and totally accessible, enormous fun, and sure-fire hits: "an orgy for movie-lovers," on the one hand, and impossible to put down, on the other.
I agree with the last claim; both these works are diverting and pleasurable. But the rest, it seems to this dissenter, is hysteria.
All of this—the book, the movie, and their reception—seems particularly suited to the spirit of passivity and fatigue that animates, if one can use that word, the times….
Neither Altman [director of "Nashville"] nor Doctorow are even for a moment implicated in the stories they tell, the lessons they draw, or the actions of their characters. When Gatsby lost, it is clear, so did Fitzgerald, and, it has turned out over the years, so did everybody else. But like sages—the most suspicious author's voice there is—Altman and Doctorow remain on high.
Both men maintain this distance—a deadening distance that ultimately kills their works—because instead of discovering the fate of their characters as they emerge, the artists have imposed that fate. Exceptions are either killed off aesthetically when they threaten to come to life, or else killed off plain and simple, to make the author's point. Instead of struggling with the open possibilities all interesting fictional characters hold—where real choices have to be made by an artist not merely as to where he will take his characters, but as to where they will take him—the possibilities are falsely foreclosed in order to make a statement….
[As] works that "represent not so much the writer's actual sense of life as some theory of life to which he is giving functional allegiance"—"Ragtime" and "Nashville" are aesthetic, moral, and political ready-mades which, in these troubled times, automatically elicit a critical response that precisely matches them in intelligence and quality. The bigness of the ideas somehow dissolves their banality. (p. 61)
[One] can respond by saying that you can't blame a book or a movie for the reviews it gets, but in these cases I think you can, because it seems the works in question were made to elicit exactly such responses: a common orgy of "yes" disguised as "no." Some of us want the security of knowing our great experiment has been a failure, so that we no longer have to harbor dangerous, risky ambitions for ourselves, our politics, and our culture.
So it is probably spoiling all the fun to point out that before a work can be convincing as a "metaphor" for something as big and complex as "America" (as Altman pronounced his movie, and as reviewers are taking "Ragtime"), before it can work as anything so grand as an epic of "our fall from grace," a book or movie must be convincing on the much more basic, if seemingly tiresome, level of plot, character, motivation, detail, and so on….
But not only must detail be convincing, the artist's ideas must be convincing….
What is most striking about "Ragtime" is that it is, as Eliot Fremont-Smith began to suspect as he ended an otherwise rave review [above], all surface. I am not a fast reader, but I initially read "Ragtime" in something under four hours. I read it again, and it was work. Once you have read the book, there is absolutely nothing more to be gotten from it. It is dead on the page; it implies nothing, suggests nothing, never makes you stop and think, never makes you puzzle out motives, because there really are none. It certainly never hits you with the kind of power that forces you to lay down the book, compose yourself, and meditate on the ceiling.
The flat, imprisoned characters—Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Little Boy, The Black Woman, The Black Man, The Immigrant, His Wife, His Beautiful Daughter—simply cannot support, let alone redeem, the ironic weight they are forced to carry: the weight of big ideas like the purposelessness of American values, the implacability of the system, the power of plutocracy, the chaos only barely hidden by the American lust for system and order.
These are all valid ideas, of course, and in other hands, powerful and disturbing. But a good deal of "Ragtime"'s ideas are merely silly….
It seems to me that "Nashville" and "Ragtime," in their refusal of their own possibilities (What might Evelyn Nesbit's odyssey from the penthouses to the streets be, if Doctorow hadn't lost his nerve with her?)—in their substitution of form for substantial, intriguing ideas, artistic courage, emotion, and risk—are not about the passivity and failure of imagination that now oppresses us in daily life, but merely examples of such things. When I call them "yes-saying" works I do not mean that they approve of what they describe. I mean that they submit to what they describe—and I leave it to the reader to decide which is worse.
So I suggest that those who are entranced by "Ragtime" follow it with [Ishmael Reed's] "Mumbo Jumbo," a novel that begins, historically and in every other way, where "Ragtime" leaves off; I suggest that those who are convinced "Nashville" is the most powerful movie they have seen in years catch Jean-Luc Godard's "Weekend" next time it comes to town. I suggest that these works, the very best of two truly dangerous artists, are full of possibility, complexity, mystery, and life, just as most of "Nashville" and "Ragtime" is set and preordained. And I suggest that like all good art, these works are games of fiction in which anything can happen, just as the games of "Ragtime" and "Nashville" are fixed. (p. 62)
Greil Marcus, "'Ragtime' and 'Nashville': Failure-of-America Fad," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), August 4, 1975, pp. 96, 61-2.
The tendency in Doctorow, in Pynchon and Lelchuk, in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, in Philip Roth's essay in which Franz Kafka teaches Roth Hebrew, is to insist that [their] more purely or openly imagined versions [of history] are truer than those historical fictions that always give facts where facts are known. Reading these books, one is constantly dared to doubt that the essential truth is being told, to draw some dividing line where truth is separated from fiction…. The moment one relaxes, lets the prose [of Ragtime] perform its acts of curious and splendid levitation, accepts it all as "fiction," Doctorow is there to ask: "Fiction? Are you sure? Was you there?"
Ragtime is blandly and confidently assertive, laying its short sentences like steps on the road to nowhere, so we can't see ahead, anticipate; the characters are rhetorical ploys, but splendid. Doctorow is never confused by life, though he is often dismayed, and his impudence is both witty and grave, so we can be pleasantly caught between feeling that he is only a novelist on holiday and that all other visions of the period before his may be the really irresponsible ones. Even the ironic juxtapositions that Doctorow loves almost sentimentally may be right, necessary…. His vision is of the Seventies more than of the Sixties, and the juxtapositions themselves entrance him more than any political view of history.
There is, however, a rather serious flaw in Ragtime, and I suspect it is related to a similar flaw in Doctorow's The Book of Daniel. The first half of the earlier novel is a truly disturbing and anxiety-producing account of the cruelties and inabilities of Daniel Lewin's life in 1967, all the result of having lived twenty-five years in the shadow of the lives and deaths of his parents who so closely resemble the Rosenbergs. Most of this is "made up," but the model of lives we all know about helps beautifully to implicate us in the action, to make the making up not seem simply willed on Doctorow's part. In the second half, however, Daniel becomes simply an investigator, an exposer of history, so the tension between the present tense of 1967 and the past of 1947–1954 is lost, and Daniel "himself" is lost in the unrolling of Doctorow's historical vision.
Doctorow may have sensed this, sensed that his talent didn't lie in creating "selves" but in laying out, impudently and gravely, historical actions which did and didn't happen. The result is freer, the inventing about actual people more unabashed. I didn't like the first half of Ragtime as much as the first half of The Book of Daniel, but unquestionably it is very good. The characters are figures rather than people, the result is all surface, but the surface shimmers and shines.
But once again Doctorow has tried to put it all together in a damaging way in the second half of the novel. He turns from vignettes and commentary to a plot that will end in a spectacular series of scenes…. But when the book becomes a story impudence is practically lost. Early in the novel Doctorow's calmly written sentences can lead to one fine surprise after another and to a reader's delighted sense that if this isn't history, so much the better. But a story leading to an inevitable climax organizes this inventiveness, and the steps to nowhere become steps to somewhere predictable, and the ingratiating sentence-by-sentence surprises are gone. (p. 21)
The real problem is that after the story gets into full swing Doctorow can't keep us from relaxing with his fictions, and as a result story makes his history predictable and easy just as politics makes Dos Passos's history predictable and easy in U.S.A.
Still, no one has written a book quite like Ragtime, just as no one had written one quite like The Book of Daniel. Doctorow's restless and witty thoughtfulness seems like some combination of Pynchon, Edward Gorey, and William Appleman Williams, and certainly no one ever was that before. He creates a world where Houdini could meet the Archduke Ferdinand…. Ragtime may not be an entirely successful book, but the writer who can do this, and as well as Doctorow has, need set no limits on what he can do next. (pp. 21-2)
Roger Sale, "From Ragtime to Riches," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), August 7, 1975, pp. 21-2.
First the Good News [about Ragtime]. Almost magically, Doctorow recreates the atmosphere of pre-WWI America. His sense of the telling detail is superb, and even if that were his only triumph—it is not—this novel would still be something to treasure. (p. 892)
Doctorow inhabits that world imaginatively, recreates the cars, trains, dress, baggage, ball games, decor. Expanding on Thackeray (Henry Esmond) and Dos Passos (U.S.A.), he populates his book with famous people…. They often do fictitious things, and Doctorow's fictitious characters move among them. But when one of the historical figures does something fictitious it often involves a shrewd comment by Doctorow on the historical truth.
Doctorow has also devised an exquisite prose medium for his narrative. This novel ought to unfold with the music from The Sting as background. Its scenes flash by like the scenes in an old newsreel. Though Doctorow preserves, deliberately, that feeling of newsreel externality, we nevertheless do come to know the characters internally. Sometimes they are complex, and many of them change. Finally, and still sticking with the Good News, Ragtime has powerful narrative thrust. You will not put it down.
Nevertheless, a bit of Bad News. There is a good deal that is suspect about the moral vision of the book. One mode of moral judgment is applied to the middle- and upper-class WASPs throughout; another mode of moral judgment is reserved for Jews, blacks, and turn-of-the-century radicals.
The book contains two consistently admirable major characters: Emma Goldman, the (historical) anarchist/revolutionary, and a (fictitious) black named Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime piano player who, after being victimized by some white toughs, becomes a violent revolutionary. Both of these characters are exempt from the moral skepticism in which Doctorow bathes his WASPs and his Irish. Now a violent revolutionary might well be a Jewish earth-mother or a victimized black natural nobleman; but the likelihood is that such revolutionaries are driven by inner as well as outer furies. And Doctorow knows this. One of his main characters, Tateh, a Jewish socialist from the lower East Side, later becomes a successful movie maker and passes himself off as the Baron Ashkenazy: "It got him around in a Christian world." But this is a rare moment of insight. For the rest, where rebellious minority characters are concerned, we have mostly what can be called left-wing pastoral.
The serious danger to Doctorow as an artist is thus sentimentality. He loves the whole panorama of 1906, loves as imaginative objects even the great capitalists he hates on moral grounds. But he especially loves the immigrant world of the Lower East Side where it was as natural to be a socialist, an anarchist, or a Communist as, in another milieu, it was natural to be a Mason. His previous novel, The Book of Daniel, it is worth noting, was "about" the Rosenbergs—who, indeed, can only be comprehended as part of that milieu.
As a public presence, as a celebrity, Doctorow is already beginning to signify that he may be a pain in the neck. In a recent interview he informed us that "There are several hundred thousand Coalhouse Walkers in this country"—i.e., violent black revolutionaries. He also says things like "I do want the book to be accessible. I want working class people to read it." There again is the sentimentality. Rather Old Left sentimentality at that. Has Ben Shahn been reincarnated? (pp. 892-93)
Jeffrey Hart, "Doctorow Time," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), August 15, 1975, pp. 892-93.
Doctorow's first novel, Welcome to Hard Times,… is a superb piece of fiction: lean and mean, and thematically significant. It is a Western, of all things, resembling Doctorow's current best seller Ragtime in that it is a well-wrought American parable which has the feel of both fiction and history. (p. 25)
This is what E. L. Doctorow does in Welcome to Hard Times: he takes the thin, somewhat sordid and incipiently depressing materials of the Great Plains experience and fashions them into a myth of good and evil, city-founding and city-destroying. He does it marvelously, with economy and with great narrative power….
At their core, Westerns, or indeed any books dealing with the frontier, are elemental parables of good, evil and civilization. In this first novel E. L. Doctorow works in a tradition that includes [Owen] Wister and [Walter Von Tilburg] Clark, using the frontier as a way of getting at the American formula itself….
Since this debut in 1960 Doctorow has gone on to greater things. What is obvious in this first novel, however, is Doctorow's profound sense of American myth and his marvelous sensitivity to American materials. A writer who makes his debut writing about the frontier is no snob; and when that writer is a man of the East, as is Doctorow, then the possibilities are even richer: for, as has been stated, the East-West dialogue (that is to say, the dialogue between nature and history, innocence and sin) is the basic formula of American writing itself. In this novel,… we see an incipiently important American writer searching out, patterning and putting into superb narrative myths and materials of great American importance. (p. 27)
Kevin Starr, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 6, 1975.
The hosannas that have greeted E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, elevating the book to instant commercial success and its author to literary stardom, have already prompted one early celebrant—Raymond Sokolov, writing in the Washington Post—to caution readers against the extravagant claims (his own included) being made on its behalf. This excellent advice is unlikely to be heeded, however. Mr. Doctorow is in possession of a genuine literary gift, and readers who have despaired of ever being able to finish some of the more highly touted of recent "serious" novels have every reason to be grateful to a writer who does not spurn the traditional obligation to provide a clear and vivid narrative furnished with colorful characters and a significant theme. Ragtime, moreover, has the additional virtue—for there is no question that its audience regards this as a virtue—of endowing some of our more fashionable social pieties with a resonance that is positively mythic…. The villains in Ragtime, drawn with all the subtlety of a William Gropper cartoon, are all representatives of money, the middle class, and white ethnic prejudice. Does this make it sound a little more like 1968 than 1908? That, alas, is very much the point. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say that the myth of the "bad" America that emerged with such virulent force in the 1960's has found its true laureate in the author of this stylish historical romance. (p. 76)
"Doubtless the main difference between the novel and the romance," wrote the late Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Tradition, "is the way in which they view reality…. The novel," he observed, "renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail…. Character is more important than action and plot, and probably the tragic or comic actions of the narrative will have the primary purpose of enhancing our knowledge of and feeling for an important character, a group of characters, or a way of life." By such criteria, certainly, Ragtime can scarcely be said to be a novel at all.
"By contrast," Chase wrote, "the romance … feels free to render reality in less volume and detail. It tends to prefer action to character, and action will be freer in a romance than in a novel, encountering, as it were, less resistance from reality." In Ragtime, as everyone knows, Mr. Doctorow plays so fast and loose with historical personalities that what Chase called "resistance from reality" is virtually nil….
[What] Mr. Doctorow has written in Ragtime is a political romance—it even has a happy ending of sorts: the underdogs triumph—and its plausibility is nothing if not ideological. The major fictional characters—Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, etc.—are all ideological inventions, designed to serve the purposes of a political fable. To be born into the middle class is, in Ragtime, to be nameless and faceless, a cardboard pawn identifiable exclusively in terms of stunted emotions and wasteful consumption. (p. 78)
Mr. Doctorow is, in his way, a harsh moralist. Bourgeois America is consigned to eternal damnation in this book, and its antagonists elevated to political sainthood.
Still, the great appeal of Ragtime, though owing much to the way its author has turned the political debacle of the 60's into a mythical retroactive triumph, does not lie primarily in its rehearsal of radical pieties. These, after all, are now the common property of hordes of writers—in the movies and the theater and television, and in our major newspapers and magazines, no less than in the novel—for whom the myth of the "bad" America is an unquestioned article of faith. What distinguishes Mr. Doctorow's use of this myth is something else—his gift for combining it with the picturesque. Ragtime is, in effect, a kind of story-teller's flea-market. It abounds in vivid description of all those turn-of-the-century objects and styles … which now command such high prices in the antiques business and inspire such widespread longing, imitation, and parody in the chic world of bourgeois consumption. The stern realities of Mr. Doctorow's political romance—its sweeping indictment of American life, and its celebration of a radical alternative—are all refracted, as it were, in the quaint, chromatic glow of a Tiffany lamp, and are thus softened and made more decorative in the process. Everything in Ragtime, even its politics, is expertly wrapped in the scenery of nostalgia, a strategy that has the effect of rendering its essentially adversary spirit almost sweet to the taste. The irony of this picturesque method—or is it only dishonesty?—is to be found in the way Mr. Doctorow flatters and exploits the sensibility of the very class he seeks to subvert. We are given every opportunity to savor the delectable aesthetic surface of the Ragtime era, and every encouragement to detest the class responsible for its existence. In the end, I suppose, Mr. Doctorow is secure in the knowledge that he can have it both ways, for there is nothing his middle-class readers so much relish nowadays as an assault on their integrity suitably embellished with signs of their superior taste.
Perhaps it is this skillful exploitation of the picturesque, which ministers to a fondness for the beauties of a lost world even while instructing us on its moral depravity, that accounts for the most astonishing aspect of the book's reception: the almost complete unanimity with which its earliest reviewers agreed to ignore its patently political purpose. (An important exception is Greil Marcus's brilliant analysis, "'Ragtime' and 'Nashville': Failure-of-America Fad," in the Village Voice, August 4, 1975 [above].) I do not believe, however, that this remarkable feat of misperception can be ascribed to the crude exercise of simple stupidity—though on the subject of the abysmal standards that currently characterize the book-reviewing profession, I would be among the last to suggest that stupidity can be wholly discounted as a consideration. No, I think we have to look for the source of this misperception in some larger fact of our culture—in the fact, that is, that our culture is now so completely permeated with the myth of American malevolence that an ambitious political romance like Ragtime, which distorts the actual materials of history with a fierce ideological arrogance, is no longer in any danger of being recognized as having a blunt political point. The reviewers who are responsible for making this book a phenomenal success are, in this sense, at one with the audience to which it is addressed: an educated class that has grown morally obtuse about the world in which it lives and prospers. What Richard Chase said of the romance as a literary genre—"likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility"—also describes, in the case of Ragtime, the cherished illusions of its readers. (pp. 79-80)
Hilton Kramer, "Political Romance" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, October, 1975, pp. 76, 78-80.
Over the last few years some very talented writers have appeared with enough new characteristics in common for us to say that we have a new genre, or sub-genre, of fiction. The most striking cases seem to me John Berger's G, John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Vishnapur, and now E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. All are historical novels of a new kind. (p. 841)
In these books a historical epoch is depicted in great detail. The detail is more selective and eccentric, in some sense more impressionistic, than it was in the traditional historical fiction, but it is authoritative. Derived from a real study of the period, it is truly historical, although the authors take gross liberties with history in the name of art. Notably, they introduce real historical personages whom they then treat just like fictional characters—attributing to them motives and fantasies and even behavior of the most intimate sort…. Another liberty the new novels take is to vary the time perspective trickily; the reader is constantly jolted by phrases and images from later periods, and often from today. The point of view may also be provocatively personal, without the persona being identified. It may be associated with one of the characters (as if he or she was writing the book long after the events narrated) by hints which are never made definite.
Thus the reader is constantly teased to discover the imaginative status of these characters and events—the status and character of the imaginative experience he is being offered. This is what distinguishes the new historical fiction from the old…. This difference subsumes others that are more obvious though no less important, like the new novel's use of techniques and materials associated with specifically modern literature—lurid sexual realism and sudden shifts into fantasy and nightmare…. [The] importance of the new fiction's use of modernist materials and techniques is that they challenge the reader—both generally, to cope with assaults on his rational composure, and specifically, to relate this modernism to the historical period depicted—and that they challenge him in the name of art. This is an aesthetic kind of historical fiction: the writing is notably elegant, and the writer's most necessary qualifications are taste, tact, and erudition. (pp. 841-42)
What is wrong with [Ragtime] seems to be locatable in two large elements, its nostalgia for the period and its revolutionary politics, and the relation between them. The nostalgia is of course playful and ironic and sophisticated, but that is the nature of nostalgia; its force is not in the least mitigated or deflected thereby. The reader (and the writer) simply wallows in the solid ample furniture and clothes, the wallpaper and the staircases, the motorcars and corsets and hair styles, the street scenes, the music, the oratorical styles, the social types of the period, and so on. The characters are seen essentially in terms of their accessories, and although they are real enough in other ways, notably in their sexual behavior, I think we feel toward them as toward actors—stage actors and actors in our fantasies…. It is notable how the author lingers on scenes of sumptuous wealth. The scenes of poor and uncomfortable life are shorter, and anyway the squalor is transformed into a kind of luxury, the luxury of picturesque historical evocation.
This … makes the pleasure we take in Doctorow's history somewhat more vulgar. But what is still more disagreeable is the conjunction of this candy-sucking comfortableness of nostalgia with a radical severity of judgment on the characters. (p. 842)
[We] are being invited to put ourselves on the side of revolutionaries, to give ourselves the airs of revolutionaries, in purely fantasy and wish-fulfillment conditions—as part of a voluptuous dream. And this seems to me confirmed by the whimsicality of much of the writing … [which] cannot serve serious imaginative interests. (p. 843)
[There] is much in Doctorow's novel that suggests not only movies in general, but one particular kind of movie…. [Several figures are presented] absolutely from the outside. Surely such figures, together with the tricky use of time and point of view and the lavish indulgence in nostalgia, suggest Fellini. And at the end … [there is] a very Felliniesque climax.
There are the things that are wrong with Doctorow's book, and they are dangers obviously inherent in the genre. Where taste and tact and erudition are the virtues cultivated, whimsicality, nostalgia, and fake radicalism are likely to be the artist's nemesis. The strengths of Ragtime are most apparent in the central anecdote, about Coalhouse Walker and his seizure of J. P. Morgan's art treasury and his readiness to blow it up with his gang inside it. This is a marvelous story and very well told (perhaps it is significant that this is much more simply told than the rest of the book), and its manifold symbolic resonances for our history are all strengthened by the fictionalization. And there is much more to praise, notably the conjunction of the three families—WASP, black, and immigrant—and their ingenious interlinking.
One must be severe in judging the book, partly because of the talent it displays, which sets itself high standards, and partly because of the high standards congenital to the genre. (pp. 843-44)
Martin Green, "Nostalgia Politics," in The American Scholar (copyright © 1975 by The United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1975/76, pp. 841-45.
The essential lesson of Ragtime's animated, jagged, syncopated prose is that nothing connects. The book revels in non-sequentiality. It mocks the idea that a human life can become a coherent narrative. People don't cause things to happen to themselves and to others. There are Large Causes of course: we are all trapped in history, whose patterns are sad and nefarious—though they are also rather exhilarating and swell, since they exonerate us from small duties. This world view says implicitly that there is no need to worry about private responsibilities, about our ability to wound and to heal each other—which is, of course, always nice to hear.
But it's not the stuff that good fiction is made of. Despite the mannered prose, the sensibility behind this book seems to me anti-literary, uninterested in subtle emotions and in life lived outside of categories. Ragtime gets my vote as The Most Overrated Book of the Year. (p. 96)
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), January, 1976.