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The Doctorow-Dreiser Connection

As I was reading some of the early pages of Ragtime, I began to notice similarities between E.L. Doctorow’s style and that of Theodore Dreiser (who you may remember as the author of An American Tragedy).

Doctorow’s writing is much better than Dreiser, who has been called one of the “worst best writers of the 20th Century,” but their style of writing–the tone, the structure of their stories, their “voice”– seemed very similar to me. Literally, a few minutes after I thought that, I read this passage in the book…

“[T]his was the time in our history when the morose novelist Theodore Dreiser was suffering terribly from the bad reviews and negligible sales of his first book, Sister Carrie.  Dreiser was out of work, broke and too ashamed to see anyone.  He rented a furnished room in Brooklyn and went to live there.  He took to sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the room.  One day he decided his chair was facing in the wrong direction.  Raising his weight from the chair, he lifted it with his two hands and turned it to the right, to align it properly.  For a moment he thought the chair was aligned, but then he decided it was not.  He moved it another turn to the right.  He tried sitting in the chair now but it still felt peculiar.  He turned it again.  Eventually he made a complete circle and still he could not find the proper alignment for the chair.  The light faded on the dirty window of the furnished room.  Through the night Dreiser turned his chair in circles seeking the proper alignment.”

That passage is short example of a recurring theme in Ragtime–that of finding direction and meaning. The image of Dreiser spinning around in his chair all night is an example of ongoing struggle to, once again, find direction. It’s a metaphor!

But back to the connection between the two writers: Later, as I was reading a little more about Doctorow, I discovered that he actually wrote the introduction to a re-release of Dreiser’s novel, Sister Carrie. Dreiser was a huge influence on Doctorow’s writing.

The more you read, the more you’ll realize how interconnected a lot of these authors were, and how they influenced each other. It’s always a worthwhile moment when an intuition like the one I had above turns out to be true.

Have you ever had anything like that happen while you were reading?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. sasievani #
    Yes, it has happened to me. A version of it. with movies too.
    Am hoping if I carry on reading and growing up, I reach a more definitive point like you.


    April 23, 2013
  2. sally1137 #

    I downloaded the sample from Amazon and started reading it, and the first thing that struck me was that it reminded me of William Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy” which I read many years ago. I may have to read them side by side, along with Dreiser to see if that impression continues.


    April 23, 2013
  3. Yes, I read The Fault in Our Stars right after reading Infinite Jest, and though I was imagining IJ references, until I found out that John Green is a huge fan and has talked extensively about how DFW influenced TFioS.

    I’ve never heard Dreiser refered to as “the worst best writer!” I picked up Sister Carrie in a used book store, with no idea who he was or the significance of the book, and I absolutely loved it.


    April 23, 2013
    • Cool. I haven’t read Sister Carrie, but his writing in An American Tragedy is just very flowery and long-winded. The story itself was great though.


      April 23, 2013
  4. turnerbethany #

    This happened to me after reading the biography on Louisa May Alcott called The Woman Behind Little Women. Now in reading her works, I can see how Emerson and Thoreau influenced her work and influenced each others’ works.


    April 23, 2013
  5. It’s really easy to spot this kind of influential relationship in my own writing if you know who my favorite authors are. It’s always harder to see it in other people’s writing though… I guess that’s why I try to learn from a diverse panoply of resources.


    April 23, 2013
  6. This happened to me while I was reading Crime and Punishment. Right in the middle of reading it, I watched Hitchcock’s Rope and the similar themes excited me so much that I practically started dancing in the middle of the room.

    Then, in the middle of the movie, one of the characters actually uses the term ‘Crime and punishment.” It was pretty epic.


    April 24, 2013

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