Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
E.L. Doctorow is revered as one of the greatest and most influential authors of the 20th century, and I think anyone who picks up his works, whether they like them or not, can understand why. Ragtime was considered one of his best works and a true classic, presenting a relatively disjointed narrative following many characters, some real and others imagined, across their trials and tribulations in a snapshot of early 1900s New York City.
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E.L. Doctorow’s Preserved Image of America
Speaking for the vast majority of books, they can all be classified pretty soundly in at least one literary sub-genre, if not more, allowing us to much more easily curate what we want to read. Once in a while though, a book like E.L. Doctorow‘s classic Ragtime comes along, and essentially defies any type of classification we might be attempting to give it.
While the book is labelled on most shelves as a work of historical fiction, I don’t think it does the entire scope of it real justice. As a matter of fact, I think there is definitely some room to argue this book created a new genre of its own, but one most authors aren’t exactly capable of contributing to.
So what exactly is the whole thing about?
The beginning is simple enough, taking us to New York City in 1906, presenting us with a typical American businessman belonging to the middle class, running a business selling fireworks and patriotic bunting. After we learn about his life, we are presented with our second set of main characters, a struggling artist and his daughter.
Once the stage is set, the story takes a turn for the wilder realms as we follow both sets of characters through the various trials and tribulations they face, seemingly unconnected from each other. Along the way we are also presented with many episodic tales featuring real people in imaginary scenarios, including Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Sigmund Freud and Henry Ford.
It was evident to him that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction.― E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime
Through their various stories we are taken on an expansive and layered tour of the United States of America, its people, and the forces driving them onward. The good, the bad and the ugly all come floating to the surface, and Doctorow dissects the country down to atoms like few ever have before or since.
The Undeniable Heft of Ragtime
As I think you might have gathered by this point, Ragtime isn’t exactly the type of book you can breeze through in a Sunday afternoon without paying much attention. It’s definitely one of those works which requires the reader to put in some real effort, pay close attention to what’s happening, and most importantly, use their brain to derive a meaning from it all.
However, I do believe the rewards are very much worth the effort put into it. I think it would take me an entire essay to discuss all the themes, ideas and observations Doctorow puts forth in Ragtime, and many of them I truly believe are still currently applicable in the modern era.
For instance, throughout the entirety of the book we are treated to repetitive events, processes and imagery, showcasing the idea of the American people spinning round and round in circles as time moves on and brings decay with it. We also get to witness quite a few instances of principled and well-meaning actions carrying desolating consequences, something we see far too much of these days.
These were just a couple examples of how I personally interpreted some of the ideas presented by the author, and it’s quite possible they’ll carry a different meaning for you based on your life experiences and observations.
In my opinion, this is precisely the greatest beauty of Ragtime: it doesn’t outright declare any doctrines or philosophies to be correct, but rather, it successfully presents ideas which push us to think and come to our own conclusions. In my opinion, few authors are capable of skirting this line as adeptly as Doctorow has in this novel, another reason why it remains a classic to this day.
A Wild Adventure Through the Ridiculous
Today, it isn’t exactly a big deal to see works of fiction using real characters in imaginary situations for any number of purposes, ranging from simple fun and curiosity to making important statements. Before Ragtime came along though, it hadn’t really occurred to anyone to walk down this path in literature, at least not in a comparably meaningful way.
In other words, the concept hadn’t been developed and refined back then, which I think is partially to blame for the nature of the narrative, which I have to admit is hard to follow even if you’re used to disjointed storytelling. It doesn’t necessarily make it bad at all, but be warned it does take some actual effort to follow, and you might have to reread some passages here and there.
Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.― E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime
What does make up for it though, in my opinion of course, is the pace set by the episodic nature of the stories we are being told and all the larger-than-life figures they involve. From one story to the next, none of them last an excessively long time, and there is very much a constant sense of motion, even if we’re uncertain where it is exactly we’re moving to.
Despite quite obviously writing this book to put on paper his various observations and meditations about the country, Doctorow still placed a great deal of attention in making it entertaining. The adventures we see the various characters go on are never boring for a second, always trying to subtly teach us a bit of something or just shine the light on a specific aspect of American life.
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I should point out though, the book does become less and less confusing the further you get into it, in large part due to formerly-inexplicable elements being given meaning as we learn more about them. At first many characters thoughts, actions and reactions might puzzle or stump us, but we always end up seeing, one way or another, the logical chain of events which led to this point.
The Final Verdict
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow is very rightfully considered a classic of literature, and while it is classified as historical fiction, I think it’s safe to say it transcends the concept of genres. If you’re looking for a more profound novel which examines the American condition in a unique manner still very relevant today, then you should definitely acquaint yourself with this essential classic.
Video: E.L. Doctorow appears at the 2014 Library of Congress National Book Festival.
E.L. (Edgar Lawrence) Doctorow
(January 6, 1931 – July 21, 2015)
E.L. Doctorow is an American author whose works of historical fiction are rightfully renowned across the globe for their profound nature. He won a number of awards for his works, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ragtime, the National Book Award for Fiction for World’s Fair., as well as the PEN/Faulkner and William Dean Howells Medal awards for Billy Bathgate, just to name a few.