What’s not to like about historical fiction? We get a mixture of education and entertainment that, with good writing, provides quite a pleasing read. E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is no exception. Released in 1975, the novel stayed on the New York Time’s Bestseller for 13 weeks and is featured on both Modern Library and TIME’s Best Novels lists. With a whirlwind of characters, ranging from Sigmund Freud to Emiliano Zapata, does the novel hold up to the hype?
Ragtime tells the story of three groups of people at the turn of 20th century in the United States. The first group includes an upper crust WASP family from New Rochelle, New York. Classified as ‘Mother’, ‘Father’, ‘Mother’s Younger Brother’, ‘Grandfather’, and a young boy, they live comfortably in their two story home. Father, the head of a factory that produces U.S. flags and fireworks, is the family’s patriarch and invariably set in his ways.
A family of Jewish immigrants living in New York’s Lower East Side, ‘Mameh’, ‘Tateh’, and ‘Young Girl’, comprise the second group. Residing in the then slums, the family sides with far left political philosophy as a hopeful cure to their poverty. After the death of Mameh, the loneliness of the decrepit apartment ignites Tateh to find a better life for his daughter.
The third group is made up of African-Americans ‘Coalhouse Walker’, ‘Sarah’, and their newborn child. Sarah, with the child, works at Father and Mother’s home in New Rochelle. Coalhouse Walker, a popular Ragtime musician, visits the home every Sunday to see his child and hopefully convince Sarah to marry him.
As you can imagine, the groups inevitably become tied to each other. After a group of fireman trash Coalhouse Walker’s Ford Model T, the musician sets off spree of violence. He promises not to stop until his car is completely restored. Since the police cannot find Walker, a burden of guilt is placed on Father and Mother from they’re affiliation with him. While Father is indifferent to his feelings on the black musician, Mother, and more importantly, Younger Brother, support Walker’s revolutionary cause.
On the other end of town, Tateh and Young Girl become entangled in another set of newspaper headlines. Model Evelyn Nesbit, who’s ex-husband recently murdered renowned architect Standford White, becomes infatuated with Young Girl. Nesbit finds herself becomingly increasingly close with the Jewish family, even attending one of Tateh’s political meetings, headed by famed anarchist Emma Goldman. After the police break-up the political event, Tateh is scared away while Nesbit finds herself hiding in an apartment with Goldman. While preaching the positives of female liberation(shown by Nesbit dropping her clothes), the two women find they’re not so alone when Mother’s Younger Brother falls out of the closet, professing his love for the infamous model.
Doctorow cleverly weaves together his three groups in Ragtime, but it plays second fiddle to the novel’s historical atmosphere. In an effort to mirror the booming American culture of the time, the author spends little time accenting his allusions. Instead, he clutters Ragtime with paragraphs describing the turn of the century with rapid pace:
“The car moved through the city, it’s motor humming in the warm afternoon. It was a black Detroit Electric with hard rubber tires. After a while through the window Evelyn saw the peddlers and pushcarts of the Lower East Side. Dark eyed faces peered into the hansom. Men with big moustaches smiled through their gold teeth. Street workers sat ont he curb in the heat and fanned themselves with their derbies. Boys in knickers ran alongside the car with bulky loads of piecework on their shoulders. Evelyn saw stores with Hebrew signs in the windows, the Hebrew letters looking to her eyes like arrangements of bones. She saw the iron fire escapes on the tenements as tiers of cellblocks. Nags in their yokes lifted their bowed necks to gaze at her. Ragman struggling with their great junk-loaded two-wheeled carts, women selling breads from baskets carried in their arms: they all looked.”
While Ragtime is filled with memories of the foundation for modern American, we’re also reminded of past nightmares. Much like Toni Morrison’s chilling racial modesty, Doctorow adopts a similar subtly. The author realizes that what is not shown is infinitely stronger than what is. So instead of forcing his theory, Ragtime thrust reflection upon readers. Notice the undertone of the Doctor and Police when they find Sarah’s baby:
“These people, he said. He shook his head. The muscles of his cheeks pulled in his mouth at the corners. Mother described for him the circumstances of the discovery: how she had heard a cry coming from her feet, from the earth, and thought at that moment she had heard it that she had not heard it at all. And what if I had walked on, she said to herself. The doctor asked for some hot water. He removed an instrument from his bag. The maid tightly clutched the small cross that hung from her neck on a chain. The doorbell rang and the boy followed her into the front hall. The police had arrived…Within an hour a black woman was found in the cellar of a home on the next block. She was a washwoman who worked in the neighborhood. She sat outside the house in the police ambulance and Mother brought the baby out to her. When the woman took the baby in her arms she began to cry. Mother was shocked by her youth. She had a child’s face, a guileless brown beautiful face. She was the color of dark chocolate and her hair looked chopped and uncared for. She was being attended by a nurse. Mother stepped back on the sidewalk. Where will you take her, she said to the doctor. To the charity ward, he said. And eventually she will have to stand charges. What charges, Mother said. Well, attempted murder, I should think…Please bring her inside. And despite the best advice of the doctor and the remonstrations of the police, she would not change her mind.”
Ragtime also tackles the self-obsessed view of politics. While obviously pointing out the inequalities in the American political system, Doctorow questions who influences who? Rather than focus on the ideological views of our leaders, we examine their personal lives. Apparently not much has changed:
“Back home a momentous change was coming over the United States. There was a new President, William Howard Taft, and he took office weighing three hundred and thirty-two pounds. All over the country men began to look at themselves. They were used to drinking great quantities of beer. They customarily devoured loaves of bread and ate prodigiously of the sausage meats of poured offal that lay on the lunch counters of the salons. The august Pierpont Morgan would routinely consume seven- and eight-course dinners. He ate breakfasts of steaks and chops, eggs, pancakes, broiled fish, rolls and butter, fresh fruit and cream. The consumption of food was sacrament of success. A man who carried a great stomach before him was thought to be in his prime. Women went into hospitals to die of burst bladders, collapsed lungs, overtaxed hearts and meningitis of the spine. America was a great farting country. All this began to change when Taft move dinto the White House. His accessions to the one mythic office in the American imagination weighed everyone done. His great figure immediately expressed the apotheosis of that style of man. Thereafter fashion would go the other way and only poor people would be stout.”
Despite being a literary phenomenon in the 70’s, Ragtime wasn’t without controversy. In this 1998 article(and before) from The Observer, Doctorow is accused of lifting the character of Coalhouse Walker directly from German author Heinrich von Kleist’s ‘Michael Kohllhaas’. While there are striking similarities, with Doctorow even admitting his adaptation of the short story, who cares? The author of the article seems more embittered by his personal dealings with Doctorow rather than the supposed plagiarism:
“There’s enough evidence and enough publicity for this adaptation or usage that I obviously decided at the time that no more was necessary than what I have done,” he said. “There have been many, many papers written on the subject. None of them has taken this moralist position. I’ve never been asked about this in these terms. I find it surprising that this is being brought up 22 years after the event.”
Enjoying Ragtime is easy, admiring it is quite a different story. Doctorow takes many liberties with history that personally I can’t enjoy. When you wind reality and fiction so closely together you sacrifice the trust of your readers, at least mine. We expect authors to care and challenge us, not to make a charade of our trust. The novel also suffers from unfulfilled historical characters-I point directly to the few pages of Freud. So I suggest reading Ragtime for entertainment and emersion into America’s pastime, but not much else.