Rearview: E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

In this Sunday’s book section, our reviewer David Ulin notes, regretfully, that E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Homer and Langley’ just doesn’t measure up to the novelist’s past inventions. Among these, he includes ‘Ragtime,’ Doctorow’s classic novel of New York City in the early 20th century. Geoffrey Wolf, in July 1975, was captivated by that novel and its creator, writing in The Times:

The novelist E.L. Doctorow is loyal to nothing if not to excess and monomania, to men and women staring straight ahead at a mad goal while they walk straight toward it, across rivers and seas, and up the backs of their fellows, straight ahead, not giving a damn, till something -- often death itself -- blocks them.

Before turning to ‘Ragtime,’ however, Wolff first describes the author’s achievement in his previous novels, ‘Welcome to Hard Times’ and ‘The Book of Daniel,’ noting the obsessive attention in both of these books to ledgers and keeping records. Then, he opens the floodgates on his enthusiasm for the writer’s new novel:

Doctorow does not cringe before the assaults launched against language, or what the jargonists call ‘communication.’ He is a true believer: words can be shaped and turned to uses no less beautiful for their utility. To tell stories is a sacred trust, and a possible calling. And to tell them well is to be attended, and redeemed. Lord, he tells this one well. Houdini’s escape -- will he get free? will he die? -- recover their full measure of suspense, despite the fact that we know their outcome. And his manipulation of historical personages, improving always on the impoverished truth, is both exuberant and controlled.


Freud and Jung travel together through Coney Island’s Tunnel of Love. Pierpont Morgan causes himself to be locked one night in the Great Pyramid at Giza, where he is attacked by bedbugs.

His special genius is for ellipsis. I would suspect, but cannot know, that his early drafts are huge, freighted with details, and that he compresses and subtracts until even his silences lend echo and resonance to his text.

...To make something never made before, yet comfortable and familiar, strange yet not estranging: there’s a death-defying trick, the kind of escape from mortality the long-gone Houdini will relish.

If any review could send readers to the bookstore, it’s surely this one -- then or now. If the new Doctorow doesn’t measure up for you, you might take Wolff’s exuberant recommendation as a command and reread ‘Ragtime.’

--Nick Owchar