“indeed,” he continues, “sigmund freud had just arrived in the united states to give a series of lectures at clark university in worcester, massachusetts, so houdini was meant to be, along with al Jolson, the last of the great shameless mother lovers, a 19th century movement that included such men as Poe, John Brown, Lincoln, and James McNeill Whistler. Of course, Freud’s immediate reception in America was not auspicious. some professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he seemed like some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. It would take at least a decade before Freud got his revenge and saw his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.”
woven into the light-hearted narrative of “ragtime” are the dawn of cinema and the roots of the American labor movement, tabloid journalism, and women’s rights. the central plot involves the violent retribution taken by a black musician against a society that has left him without reparation for its heinous victimization of him. The events described never occurred (Mr. Doctorow borrowed the plot from a 19th-century novel by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who based his story on a 16th-century news event), but they contribute to mr. Doctorow’s harbinger of racial conflict as one of the great cultural themes of twentieth-century American life.
in “billy bathgate,” a depression-era teenager from the bronx is seduced by the pleasures of lawlessness when hired as an errand boy by gangster dutch schultz, who is about to go on trial for evasion of taxes. The novel is not an allegory, but, published in 1989, as the “Greed is Good” 1980s came to a close, it makes it clear that Schultz’s corrupt entrepreneurship is part of the greedy manipulations of the financiers of white collar, precursors of wall street gone crazy.
“the distinguished feature of e. I Doctorow’s work is the double vision of him”, critic Peter S. Prescott wrote in Newsweek in 1984. “In each of his books, he experiments with the forms of fiction, seeking effects that others have not yet achieved; in each one he develops a tone, a structure and a texture that he has not used before. at the same time, he is a deeply traditional writer, reworking American history, American literary archetypes, even out-of-print subliterary genres. It’s an amazing performance, really.”
most of mr. Doctorow’s historical explorations involved New York and its environs, including “Loon Lake” (1980), the story of a 1930s drifter who stumbles upon a kind of otherworldly kingdom, a private retreat in the Adirondacks; “Lives of the Poets” (1984), a short novel and six stories that collectively describe the mind of a writer who, during the 1970s, succumbed to midlife boredom; and “the waterworks” (1994), a dark mystery set in 1870s manhattan, involving a missing journalist and an evil scientist.
Most recently, in “City of God” (2000), mr. Doctorow wrote about three characters—a writer, a rabbi, and a priest—and the search for faith in a cacophonous and especially dangerous age, using contemporary Manhattan as a backdrop. and in “homer and langley” (2009), he created a journey through 20th century history from the perspective of a blind man, homer collyer, a highly fictionalized representation of one of two eccentric brothers living on upper fifth avenue who they became notorious after their deaths for their obsessive hoarding.