E L Doctorow was a brilliant novelist at a certain kind of journalistic historical novel. When he tried his hand at actual non-historical journalism, the results were abysmal - and, even allowing for crude partisanship, the most trite, leaden sludge. See here for a recent example.
But his fiction had a boundless historical curiosity entirely absent from his commentaries on our town. Billy Bathgate is a very fine novel, and Ragtime is a great one. It got turned into a mediocre but very starry movie, with everyone from the aging Jimmy Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Norman Mailer to the young Fran Drescher, Debbie Allen and Elizabeth McGovern (now of "Downton Abbey"). Doctorow professed himself not entirely satisfied, and a decade and a half later played a more hands-on role it turning the great novel and mediocre movie into a much worse musical. But Ragtime the book will endure long after its adaptations are forgotten.
Set at the dawn of the American century, its title is not merely musical: like a patchwork quilt, it's a collection of rags - bits and pieces, some fictional, some real - stitched into a whole. Ragtime is a teeming tenement of quirky facts, brute statistics, eccentric anecdotes, centered around a genteel suburban family from New Rochelle, who cross paths with a Negro piano player, a Jewish immigrant, and dozens of figures from an age both turbulent and complacent - Stanford White, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand... For a sense of just how crowded the book is, pluck a page at random. Here's a note on Harry Houdini:
His real name was Erich Weiss. He was passionately in love with his ancient mother whom he had installed in his brownstone home on West 113th Street. In fact Sigmund Freud had just arrived in America to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and so Houdini was destined to be, with Al Jolson, the last of the great shameless mother lovers, a nineteenth-century movement that included such men as Poe, John Brown, Lincoln and James McNeill Whistler.
Later, Sigmund Freud tours Coney Island and goes through the Tunnel of Love with Jung. But there's more to his presence in the tale than contrived gimmickry. Doctorow's historical figures foreshadow the preoccupations of the century ahead - psychoanalysis, technology, celebrity, race, sex - and are mirrored in his fictional creations: thus, for the immigrants who long to escape the slums, there's the example of Houdini, an immigrant who escapes again and again. You get the sense of great individuals destabilizing the course of history for thousands of lesser souls with the carelessness of a clumsy man in a china shop.
Forty years after he wrote it, a lot of it remains pertinent in the second decade of the second (?) American century: At a political rally, one character, a young black servant, tries to attract the attention of the vice president. The Secret Service boys, assuming she's an assassin, thump her in the chest and jump on her. She's held at the police station overnight, until it occurs to the local sergeant that maybe she ought to see a doctor. So she's transferred to a hospital and discovered to be coughing blood. By the following day, pneumonia's set in. By the end of the week, she's dead. And yet Doctorow is not so narrow-minded and unimaginative as to foist the world view from 1975 on characters from seventy years earlier: this episode, like the rest of the book, is recounted with a kind of flat journalistic detachment: the story is vivid in its detail, not in its emotional signposting.
E L Doctorow told other tales in the ensuing decades, but never with quite the same command of the canvas. For writers, if you're lucky, just once in your life you stumble upon the story you meant to tell. This was Doctorow's.
Rest in peace.