RAGTIME by E. L. Doctorow

Book Quote:

“Father watched the prow of the scaly broad-beamed vessel splash in the sea. Her decks were packed with people. Thousands of male heads in derbies. Thousands of female heads covered with shawls. It was a rag ship with a million dark eyes staring at him. Father, a normally resolute person, suddenly foundered in his soul. A weird despair seized him. The wind came up, the sky turned overcast, and the great ocean began to tumble and break upon itself as if made of slabs of granite and sliding terraces of slate. He watched the ship till he could see it no longer. Yet aboard her were only more customers, for the immigrant population set great store by the American flag.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (JUL 24, 2011)

E.L. Doctorow’s 1974 masterpiece, Ragtime, takes its name from the a style of music, the melodious offspring of blackface cakewalks and patriotic marches, that perfectly captures the optimism and energy of the America in the early 1900s. It’s aptly titled too, for Doctorow manages to capture the energy of the era, a time of hitherto unheard of growth and prosperity, a time when coal miners took on the capitalists for safer work conditions and fair pay, and won; a time when a single, socially- minded photographer, documenting immigrant ghettos, took pictures powerful enough to move a president and serve as evidence of the necessity of improved housing conditions for the poor; a time when American entrepreneurs amassed more wealth than some European monarchy, through little more than hard work and talent. However, it was also the era of Jim Crow legislation and the venomous prejudice that made it impossible for a black man to materially enjoy his success, say, by driving a shiny new Model T Ford – but more on that later.

Although too many people, unprotected by social safety nets or workplace regulations, lived and worked in squalor, the first decade and a half of the twentieth century brought with it a general sense of hope and optimism, and it’s the paradoxes of this period, the progressive enlightenment and conservative barbarism, the frosty rationality and fuzzy superstition, the fervent patriotism and homicidal anarchy, that E.L. Doctorow builds Ragtime around.

Set in New Rochelle, NY and New York City, the book centers on an upper-class family known only by their roles in relation to a young male observer: Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather. And while they could stand-in for any of a certain type of family – well-off, white, entrepreneurial – they are remarkable, in all their anonymity, for the ways in which they burst out of type, in spite of themselves: Father, a manufacturer of patriotic paraphernalia, tags along with his flags on Arctic expeditions, something of a hobbyist explorer; Mother, radically progressive without knowing it, befriends Sarah, the black mother of the illegitimate baby Mother finds buried in the garden, and ends up raising the black child as her own; Younger Brother builds bombs to aid a series of rebels after his heart is broken by the infamous Evelyn Nesbit, wife of the morphine-addicted sadist and millionaire, Harry Thaw. In what was billed as “The Crime of the Century,” Thaw famously blew off the face of Nesbit’s long-time lover, the architect, Stanford White, in the roof-top garden at Madison Square Gardens.

In fact, throughout the book, the whole family, not just Younger Brother, have connections of varying importance with historical figures: Mother serves Harry Houdini lemonade when his car breaks down in front of their house; a heartbroken Younger Brother takes to following Emma Goldman and her revolutionaries around; Father helps to end a standoff in J. Pierpont Morgan’s house. And while this anonymous family plays its bit role in history, cultural trends bring the major players together: J. Pierpont Morgan tries to interest Henry Ford in joining his secret society founded on Egyptian-flavoured occultism; Harry Houdini impresses a mistaken Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the inventor of a flying machine; Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung happen upon Evelyn Nesbit at a street art stall devoted to silhouette art.

However, for all the optimism of the early 20th century, these were far from perfect times: racism was still rampant and institutionalized. Coalhouse Walker is a black musician doomed by his well-groomed confidence and articulate manner and the father of the baby Mother found in the garden. When Mother and Father take Sarah and the baby into their home, Coalhouse drives out from Harlem, every Sunday, his shiny red Model T Ford glinting through the streets of New Rochelle like a flickering flame. This is too much for the men of the Emerald Isle Engine, a volunteer fire brigade, and when Coalhouse fails to show them the deference they feel due, they destroy his car. After Sarah is killed in her misguided attempt to appeal to the federal government for help, Coalhouse’s sets out for revenge, bringing New Rochelle to its knees in terror.

Meticulously researched, this book alludes heavily to historical facts, however, Doctorow’s deft hand keeps the narrative from sagging under the weight of it all, and just as no historical account can ever be free of interpretation, Doctorow’s prose, however deceptively declarative, is steeped in judgment. For example:

“At palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. Guests came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs. Ballrooms were decorated to look like mines with beams, iron tracks and miner’s lamps. Theatrical scenery firms were hired to make outdoor gardens look like dirt farms and dining rooms like cotton mills. Guests smoked cigar butts offered to them on silver trays. Minstrels performed in blackface. One hostess invited everyone to a stockyard ball. Guests were wrapped in long aprons and their heads covered with white caps. They dined and danced while hanging carcasses of bloody beef trailed around the walls on moving pulleys. Entrails spilled on the floor. The proceeds were for charity.”

As I read Ragtime an American flag billowed in the periphery of my mind’s eye like an animated icon, as if all the threads of the story were woven together to create one of Father’s flags. However, this wonderful exploration of early 20th-century America will appeal not only to history buffs, but to anyone interested in great fiction.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 140 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House Trade Paperbacks (May 8, 2007)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
EXTRAS: Wikipedia on Ragtime
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of: 

All the Time in the World

Homer and Langley

The March


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July 30, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Classic, Facing History, National Book Critic Circle (NBCC), NE & New York, New York City, y Award Winning Author

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