E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime is the subject of today’s lecture in Writing New York. We read the novel at the moment in the course when we are considering the turn into the twentieth century, not when we’re talking about the 1970s (though I do bring the novel up again when we talk about Woody Allen’s Manhattan). One of the subjects of the course at this point is the challenge that Hollywood begins to offer to New York as the place where American national narratives are going to be produced, as well as the challenges offered by film to the novel as a purveyor of realism in narrative.

We began to explore these questions with Wharton’s Age of Innocence, and Ragtime offers an opportunity to continue the conversation — in part because one of the novel’s central characters transforms himself from a street vendor on the Lower East Side into a Hollywood film mogul in the course of the novel, but also because Doctorow makes explicit use of forms that he regards as cinematic. Doctorow once told an interviewer:

I don’t know how anyone can write today without accommodating eighty or ninety years of film technology. . .

[From film] we’ve learned that we don’t have to explain things. . . . My writing is powered by discontinuity, switches in scene, tense, voice, the mystery of who’s talking…. Anyone who’s ever watched a news broadcast on television knows all about discontinuity.

Readers of the novel have noted how Doctorow transposes into a novelistic key techniques that have become hallmarks of film such as montage and cross-cutting.

Comparing Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Age of Innocence to Wharton’s novel can reveal the strengths and limitations of each genre, and it’s fun to do something similar with Milos Forman’s 1981 film adaptation of Ragtime. In the case of Wharton and Scorsese, what is primarily at issue is how film can convey the social meanings of the objects and actions it depicts. A film enable us to see surfaces, but how does it convey the depths of signification, what those surfaces mean to those who see them? Scorsese’s solution is to turn back to Wharton’s text, through the use of voice-over.

In Ragtime, the problem is how to convey the way in which the novel brings history alive by mixing fictional and historical characters, but taking us into the heads not only of its fictional protagonists, but also in to the heads of figures like Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. In Forman’s film, historical figures aren’t protagonists: the film presents the stories of its historical figures through the use of newsreels that mix actual footage with recreations featuring actors from the film. (The one exception to this rule is Evelyn Nesbit, but that’s because her story briefly becomes entwined with that of the character Mother’s Younger Brother.) This simplification allows Forman to heighten the dramatic story of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the fictional ragtime pianist who becomes a terrorist after a racial insult leads to the death of his girlfriend, who is the mother of his child.

But for film buffs, Forman manages to convey something like the novel’s mix of the fictional and factual through its cunning use of the supporting cast. Jimmy Cagney, famous for playing gangsters and tough guys in films like The Public Enemy and White Heat, essentially comes out of retirement to play Commissioner of Police Rheinlander Waldo (invented for the movie: in the novel the character is District Attorney Whitman); the lawyer, Delmas, is played by Pat O’Brtien, Cagney’s longtime pal (both on screen and off); the famous dancer Donald O’Connor plays Evelyn Nesbit’s dancing instructor; and the architect Stanford White is played by Norman Mailer.

Nevertheless, Forman’s film strikes the viewer as a well-executed piece of mainstream American cinema, whereas the novel still strikes readers, I suspect, as “experimental” fiction.

[There’s an excellent volume of interviews available from the University Press of Mississippi called Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, edited by Christopher D. Morris. The photo above comes from The New York Times.]