Wednesday, 4 August 1999

E.L. Doctorow: Ragtime (1974)

Edition: Picador, 1985

Ragtime is about the true nature of the United States. Doctorow chooses an important time in the development of the modern USA (the 1900s), chooses some emblematic real people (Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, among others), adds some fictional characters, and uses them to say what he wants to about the basis of American society. His account is not comfortable to read; a major part of what he has to say is related to injustice. Thus we see the ordeals faced by immigrants, the oppression of the working class, and discrimination and racism.

At the centre of all this is the Family, consisting entirely of nameless individuals (Father, Mother's Younger Brother, and so on). The writing style, which seems to me deliberately naïve, gives the impression of a world built of simple building blocks. It is like one of those paintings where everyday scenes are depicted in a small number of fairly bright colours, a sort of cartoon world.

I don't know enough of the history of American civil rights to even have an idea whether some of the characters are historical or imaginary - Coalhouse Walker, the black musician who undertakes a campaign of violent revenge on those who have humiliated him; Nateh, the Jewish immigrant artist; Emma Goldman the agitator. Real or not, they all assume symbolic qualities, representing all those like them, just as Ford and J.P. Morgan represent capitalists and Houdini represents entertainers. In a similar way, the family without names seems to represent the generic American family, the mainstay of the "American Dream".

It is with this simplified version of reality that Doctorow sets out to depict the USA. The title gives us another way to look at the US which fits in with Doctorow's themes, though this is never emphasised in the actual body of the novel: through ragtime. This music became popular at the time in which the book is set, and was one of the earliest expressions of the consciousness of the opressed which genuinely transcended boundaries of race and class. (That is why Coalhouse is so upset when asked to play some "coon music", for that is a form of music derived from black culture which has been made acceptable - by being emasculated - and which is played by white musicians in blackface.)

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