The recent death of EL Doctorow prompted me to read his 1975 masterpiece Ragtime. Its themes of capitalist promise and excess, racial tension, inequality and social militancy, gave the book sharp political relevance when it was published, even though it is set at the start of the 20th century.
But his account of the delusions of the famous and the wealthy, convinced of their superiority, but vulnerable to attacks of self-doubt, still seems accurate — and familiar.
Doctorow wove real historical figures into his New York narrative. When asked whether key scenes such as banking tycoon John Pierpont Morgan discussing reincarnation with Henry Ford in his Manhattan library were factually correct, the author responded: “I’m satisfied that everything I made up about Morgan and Ford is true, whether it happened or not.” It still rings true today.
Nobody in modern banking quite matches Morgan, who “knew as no one else the cold and barren reaches of unlimited success”. But there are echoes of the financier’s overreaching confidence in Donald Trump’s potentially hubristic run for president.
Ford, who had reduced car assembly “to its simplest steps, so that any fool could perform them”, has his counterparts in technology’s leading lights — such as Jeff Bezos at Amazon or Larry Page at Google — with their conviction about the world-changing potential of their ideas.
Entrepreneurs do not come out badly in Ragtime, but it is a useful corrective to any temptation to overstate their claims to fame. At the end of the book, Morgan, for one, gets a stinging lesson in the dangers of hubris when he realises his ambition to spend a night inside the Great Pyramid. Instead of a mystical experience, he endures hours of damp, bugs and sleeplessness.
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