Fredric Jameson’s famous essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” singles out E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime as a text that touches postmodern nostalgia, yet retains its allegiance to some cultural norm and progressive political agenda. As such, it (at least partially) avoids the seemingly pure relativism of postmodern thought.
OK. Let’s try that in plain(er) English.
Ragtime paints the early 1900s in a way that shouldn’t really make anyone WANT to live back then. It’s a gory, ugly, divisive time in U.S. history. And yet, somehow, Doctorow portrays legendary figures (Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and–ultimately–The Little Rascals) in ways that create a kind of longing even as he dissects their legendary status. I don’t think anybody gets through Ragtime without feeling a twinge of nostalgia for that era, albeit a nostalgia caused by (postmoderny) surface recognitions rather than some sense of loss or rememberance.
My students pretty much nailed this. We had a lengthy discussion about automobile registration and how the car transformed society–points that Doctorow hints at throughout the text. I asked them if any of the characters (real or fictional) came out “winners” in the end, and I got a multitude of answers, all with solid support. They’re a good bunch.
Also, since I mentioned Lu Senarens in a previous post and Emma Goldman in this one, I should include a link to a Beyond Victoriana essay about Senarens written by none other than “Steampunk Emma Goldman” (and featuring some info from my 2011 American Literature essay).