There seems to be a never-ending debate on whether popular literature or artistic literature is more appealing and more importantly contributes to its society. Completely transcending this debate is Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. It has undeniable proven its success in both areas. Unlike other works of art whose freshness makes them too difficult for widespread audiences, Ragtime became a best-seller in its hardcover edition during the mid 1970s when it was released.
Every American family seemed to have a copy of the literature. Doctorow and Ragtime instantly became a household name. Although it is hard to believe that an event like Ragtime could happen more than once in an author’s lifetime, it seemed that every single one of Doctorow’s releases turned into a literary event after the huge success of Ragtime. Like all books, it is never perfect and can never please its critics who seems to find the littlest faults about the novel.
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It is sure that most reviewers like Newsweek’s Walter Clemons, Fiction International’s Daniel J. Cahill, and American Literature’s Barbara Foley can agree that Doctorow took the combination of historical and imaginary characters, a technique often used in historical novels but with only weak results, and manipulated these characters into a rich blend of writing that is entertaining, challenging, and most importantly brings forth the spirit of the time. Ragtime deals with a clashing culture with its victims and victimizers in the early turn-of-
the-century post World War I.
Walter Clemons of Newsweek points out in his article entitled “Houdini, Meet Ferdinand,” that many events like Younger Brother’s love affair with Evelyn Nesbit is of course fictional. But there is Evelyn Nesbit’s meeting with Emma Goldman, Henry Ford’s with J.P. Morgan, Houdini’s encounter with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination will touch off World War I and close out the era of ragtime? Did Houdini really become one of the first person to own a plane? And did he really spend the later years of his life looking into was to communicate with the dead to only come up empty hearted. Doctorow pushed the reader beyond his book to search for the validity of his characters. He claims that its admonitory epigraph from Scott Joplin, “Do not play this play fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast” is impossible to obey. One can just rapidly read through the book to get know the ending but in order to really understand and grasp the magnificence of Ragtime, one must trace through the lines of events, coincidences and chance meetings of the men and women of the industrial manufacturing of America in a place where “the forms of life were volatile…and everything could as easily be something else (p. 73, 76),” could one truly comprehend the magnificence of Ragtime. Through this one find historical resonates in a fresh way to orchestrate the themes of American innocence, energy and inchoate ambition in a place with disorder and disillusion.
Daniel J. Cahill’s article entitled “History As the Dreams of Its People,” in Fiction International supports the idea that Ragtime incorporates historical characters into a rare view of American life before World War I. It shows a family seeking its way toward the dreams of a peculiar brand of human achievement and ultimately to the ironic discovery of the dissolution of its dreams.
Pointing out that Ragtime brings Harry Houdini to the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, but he also incorporates elements of fiction that force the readers to bring forth their own personal information of history to differentiate the facts from the fictions in the book. It can be argued that Ragtime “seizes the feel of human actuality and recreates a crucial turning in the “great experiment” of American life-a fusion of fact and interpretation, of history and imaginative illumination. (18: 121).” It is important to point out that Ragtime offers no ready references of ethical directions or indirections, leaving to the readers to interpret using their experience to feel the true message being conveyed.
Barbara Foley of American Literature argued in her article entitled “From ‘U.S.A.’ to ‘Ragtime’: Notes on the Forms of Historical Consciousness in Modern Fiction,” that Ragtime is a satirized commentary upon the development of American society in the early years of the twentieth century. Doctorow seemed to focus on problems stemming from sexual and racial oppression in the prewar period. While containing numerous sketches of historical personages, it incorporates fictional events with nonfiction characters while also adding true events that draws from the minds of the readers to test their history knowledge. Only through this way is the reader able to filter the fact from the fiction. It also does not contain and clear-eyed standard of ethical judgment but leaves it to the reader to determine from his or her own experience the morality of the characters and determination of the character’s role.
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