The leading characters in E. L. Doctorow’s very splashy Ragtime are a family, called by name Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, and “the boy,” plus Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K. Thaw, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, Baron Ashkenazy and his daughter, Booker T. Washington, the Fire Chief of New Rochelle, the District Attorney of New York. Near the beginning we learn this about America at the turn of the century:
Children suffered no discriminatory treatment. They were valued everywhere they were employed. They did not complain as adults tended to do. Employers liked to think of them as happy elves. If there was a problem about employing children it had to do only with their endurance. They were more agile than adults but they tended in the latter hours of the day to lose a degree of efficiency. In the canneries and mills these were the hours they were most likely to lose their fingers or have their hands mangled or their legs crushed; they had to be counseled to stay alert.
Baron Munchausen might well ask: “Was you there, Doctorow?” Indeed, had the Baron turned up in the pages of Ragtime to ask that question, Doctorow would have been delighted to answer: Yes. No. Wait and see.
Your basic historical novelist plods along, takes the evidence as given, filling in details when needed, seeking accuracy as well as truth; the fun, be the author Anya Seton or John Dos Passos, is to mix the “real” or the “known” with the “imagined” and to end up with a confectionery or acerbic or somberly insistent sense of the way it once was. More recently some American novelists, high-flying and showmen all, have been ransacking history along with everything else. In Gravity’s Rainbow we learn about the toilets in the men’s room of the Roseland Ballroom when Malcolm X was there shining shoes; in Alan Lelchuk’s American Mischief Norman Mailer is murdered and the Fogg Museum blown up; in Doctorow’s own The Book of Daniel, trickily based on the story of the Rosenbergs, there is a conversation between Molotov and James F. Byrnes, carefully indented as if it were being quoted from a document.
Now here, in Ragtime, what had been a pastime becomes a way of life: Houdini escapes from the prison in which Harry Thaw is incarcerated; Father sets out for the North Pole with Peary; Emma Goldman massages Evelyn Nesbit until “the younger woman began to ripple on the bed like a wave on the sea,” at which point Mother’s Younger Brother jumps out of a closet and on top of Nesbit; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria does not know who Houdini is and “congratulated him on the invention of the aeroplane.”
Treat it as game and it will turn serious; treat it as serious and it becomes fun, rippling, careless, careful. Certainly one cannot say Anya Seton or John Dos Passos …