Doctorow's use of intertextuality, his mix of historical and fictional characters, and his rewriting of the narrator and the characters' identities all point to how reality and history are not fixed notions and they are rewritten and recreated continuously.
Historiographic metafiction is a genre of literature in which authors call into question the reliability of history through the literary devices of metafiction. These novels blur the line between history and fiction based on the idea that history is constantly being written and rewritten through the subjective point of view of different historians. Each historian must use their imagination to construct a history based on previous texts which were also imagined by historians, with each new history becoming more fictional than the last. Historiographic metafiction is distinguished from historical fiction in that the former is characterized by a distrust for history. Historiographic metafiction also includes allusions to other "artistic, historical, and literary texts (i.e. intertextuality) in order to show the extent to which" both literature and history are dependent on discussion.
An example of this in Ragtime would be the rewritten identity of America that Doctorow presents from the beginning to the end of the book. In the first chapter of the novel, Doctorow writes that "there were no Negroes. There were no immigrants." However, this contrasts with the American family we see in the last chapter of the novel. Mother adopts a Latvian immigrant girl and an African American boy in a nation that supposedly did not have any black people or immigrants. Doctorow creates an unrealistic historical image of America dealing with issues of racial purity, national identity, unity, and prosperity that he then deconstructs.
Below is an incredible essay on Ragtime and the genre of historiographic metafiction by English professor at Oklahoma State University, Paula Anca Farca:
Dramaturgy for the Ragtime musical and novel.
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