Wednesday, July 22, 2015


W.L. Doctorow in 1975

American author W.L. Doctorow died two days ago at 84.  He will be remembered for a number of important novels, including Billy Bathgate, Homer & Langley, Loon Lake and The Book of Daniel.  

The Doctorow title that I have read and shared several times is Ragtime, published in 1975, a big story with a big cast of characters who meet and interact in the Northeast early in the last century.  It's an interesting book, satisfying and not quickly forgotten.

Doctorow's story is populated by many luminaries of its moment, 1908, including Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Sanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman and Bill Hayward.  They serve as cameos and historical anchors to illustrate the novel's intertwined story lines about a prosperous white family, a proud and ultimately angry African American man, and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. 

Surprisingly, given its complex structure, Ragtime is a quick read.   I always am struck by its flat prose.  (A politician at a campaign event gets this description:  "He wore a carnation in his lapel.")  Events are described as if by someone recounting scenes from a movie.  The economy of detail and description move the story forward at a smart pace.

Lately I have been rereading All the King's Men, another major American novel written by Robert Penn Warren and published in 1946.  It too is a big story about a particular time and place, but it could not be more different.  It has long, meditative descriptions of people, towns and landscapes and is narrated in a melancholy, reflective tone. It's a fine piece of work, but I'm not sure it would be well received if it were released today.  

Ragtime's frankly cinematic style seems to me to have shown American writers a new way to tell stories.  It is not the only way, but it has been much imitated.  

In 1975, a NYTimes critic put it this way:  Doctorow has "given us a novel so immediate and accessible that it resists the label 'experimental,' and at the same time is an experiment so thoroughly successful that it cannot help but be immediate and accessible." 

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