My daughter’s recent reading of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime brought memories of my own experiences with the book nearly thirty years ago, at a time when the twin towers still stood and the world was much more innocent. I was in college then, commuting daily from my family’s Manhattan apartment to the Bronx, where the green landscape of the Fordham University campus temporarily replaced the grayness of my Hell’s Kitchen surroundings.
A book always accompanied me on my forty minute train ride to and from school. It was during those trips that I became acquainted with the New York of the early 1900’s depicted in Mr. Doctorow’s work.
Ragtime blends historical figures such as Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini and J.P. Morgan with fictional characters of Mr. Doctorow’s creation. The novel, written in 1975, depicts an evolving city: New York becoming the economic center of the world while dealing with issues of racism, terrorism and political corruption.
A cynic might say that Mr. Doctorow’s early twentieth century New York is not much different from today’s Gotham. The city of my youth continues to deal with the same issues that troubled Ragtime’s protagonists.
Yet my reading of the novel always carried me from my seat on the D train to the magical place of Mr. Doctorow’s creation.
What makes Ragtime memorable is Mr. Doctorow’s telling of the tale. He writes in long, flowing paragraphs that smoothly gravitate from scene to scene and character to character. There is a lyrical overtone to his writing, bringing to mind the music of the era which gives the work its title. Yet the images raised by Mr. Doctorow’s writing are quite visual. His transitions from scene to scene are reminiscent of large canvas paintings, where the eye shifts from figure to figure, each telling its own unique story.
In 1981, director Milos Forman attempted to bring Mr. Doctorow’s vision to the big screen. The film, best remembered as James Cagney’s last, had much to admire: strong acting, vivid cinematography and a memorable musical score. Yet, like most cinematic versions of notable novels, it fell far short of Mr. Doctorow’s original.
My daughter’s decision to read Ragtime was based on my recommendation and the fact that Mr. Doctorow is a Professor of Creative Writing at New York University, where she just completed her freshman year. Yet none of that mattered when she finished the book in a few short sittings. She was able to see Ragtime for what it is: quite simply, one of the ten best American novels of the second half of the twentieth century.