• What I’m Reading Now

    E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is brilliant and sets the bar high for anyone writing historical novels. Doctorow weaves fictional and real-world protagonists together seamlessly into his setting–the first decade of the 20th century in New York City. In Ragtime Houdini is a major character and corporate giants Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan along with well known socialites also fill the bill. But Doctorow’s genius rests on his creation of characters from other social strata than the elite. Some of these are real, too. Emma Goldman makes a cameo; but the most powerful are more ordinary: Tateh and his daughter are Jewish immigrants scratching out a living in the tenements on the Lower Eastside; Coalhouse Walker is a rising African-American musician, whose abuse at the hands of the fire department of New Rochelle turns him to violent reprisal; and the central family–unnamed but for Father, Mother, boy, and Younger Brother–runs a fireworks factory. Father joined Robert Peary’s expedition to the Pole, but that can’t save him from the quotidian challenges of married life at home. I have always loved Doctorow. One of my favorites is The Book of Daniel, a loose roman a clef about the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were infamously electrocuted for supposedly giving the secrets about the atom-bomb to the Russians toward the end of WWII. Again, the real-life figures are important, but mostly as structuring devices to allow Doctorow to explore the psychic lives of those affected by the signal events of their historical moment.


Professor of English and American Literature at Bucknell University since 2003.


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