What do Harry Houdini, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, J Pierpont Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman have in common? Fans of EL Doctorow’s 1975 masterpiece Ragtime will be jumping up and down with their hands in the air. All of these real historical characters – and a slew of lesser known ones, too – are central characters in this remarkable novel. We are fairly accustomed to novelisations of real characters nowadays – Charles Lindbergh in Philip The Plot Against America, for example, or John Brown in Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter or Fyodor Dostoevsky in JM Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. And Doctorow, of course, returns to the device in later fiction too, such as his telling of the story of the Collyer Brothers in Homer and Langley, or General Sherman in The March. He had done it before, too, with The Book of Daniel, about the Rosenberg case, more famously immortalised in fiction in the opening line of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. But at the time, Ragtime was innovative. And controversial.
In a later interview, Doctorow noted:
I heard secondhand that the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, was very critical of the book, that someone prepared a major review and he said no. I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people had never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.
Ragtime truly is extraordinary in the way it melds real and fictional characters. Moreover, the technique is vital to the thematic thrust of the novel, given that it focuses on the establishment of the American nation and the development of the American psyche: the process of assimilation of millions of immigrants from dozens of countries, particularly throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries was an extraordinary piece of national re-invention. It saw people almost literally become someone else as they threw off the trappings of their old lives and adopted new ones; it saw ordinary people grow to prominence and fame; and it saw famous citizens slide into lives of unutterable fantasy and delusion. America at this time was massively polarised between people playing out different types of ragtime – the ragged poverty of the underclass on one hand and, on the other, the syncopated, life-affirming joyousness lived out by those innocent rich who had no idea what was to unfold in the rest of the century.
Drawing the disparate real-life characters together are three fictional families around whom the novel revolves. Firstly, there is Father, Mother, the Little Boy, Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother, a middle-class, well-to-do family making a good living from Father’s fireworks and flag-making business (gunpowder and the sanctity of the flag – what could be more quintessentially American?). Secondly the immigrant family of Mameh, Tateh and The Little Girl, who initially live in abject poverty but (the surviving members, at least) end the novel with unimagined riches. And thirdly the black ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, a maid whom he makes pregnant, and their illegitimate baby. And so, of course, we have a cross-section of the melting pot that became America. The way these three families come together is clearly connotative of the establishment of this brave new country and we, the readers, are forced to recognise that beneath the veneer of progress terrible hardships and deprivations and cruelties abounded. For Coalhouse, in particular, a victim of terrible racism, the idealism of this young nation is a blighted notion indeed.
Part and parcel of the development of this new America is, of course, industrialisation. The Industrial Revolution may have started in Great Britain but it flourished in twentieth century America. Enter Henry Ford, and the principle of the assembly line. As Ragtime explains:
From these principles Ford established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture - not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts.
One can read Ragtime, then, as a critique of modernity and the dehumanising effect of progress and technological advance. The novel ends during the First World War, a calamitous event the immediate (though not the underlying) cause of which was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, another character who makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Indeed, the assassination itself, by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in August 1914, is dramatised in the narrative. Given that Modernist sensibilities regularly decried the First World War as proof of the calamitous turn that humanity had taken since the Enlightenment, such a critique of the novel’s thematic intentions might seem apposite.
And yet it is not sufficient, I think to explain the complexity of Ragtime. For all Doctorow’s unblinking gaze on the less salubrious aspects of American nationhood, it does not feel, to me, like a reactionary social critique of hubristic modernity in the way of Eric Voegelin and novelists who advanced his theories, such as Flannery O’Connor. Rather, I would say it is closer in tone to Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, which likewise did not flinch from portraying the seedier side of life but managed to do so without being either too critical or too sentimental. Doctorow, a beautifully nuanced writer, asserts a similar degree of balance. How does he do it?
Principally, he does it by nature of the narrative itself and, in particular, the three fictional characters who dominate it. The scene is set from the word go. This is the opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
That one word – “seemed” – tells us all we need to know about this edenic scene which is being suggested to us. Although their stories are, initially, separate, the three families begin to coalesce and it is clear that each impacts on the other in manifold ways. The connections of humanity are mysterious things, the community of being is a web we cannot see and do not control. A simplistic reactionary binary of technology/modernity – spirituality/tradition will not suffice here.
The very first chapter of the novel ends with The Little Boy speaking to Harry Houdini and telling him, apropos nothing at all, “Warn the Duke.” This means nothing at this stage, but it becomes clear that this little boy has some form of divinatory powers. Later in the novel, Houdini does indeed meet the Duke – Archduke Franz Ferdinand – but he doesn’t “warn” him and we know the outcome. Those little connections of humanity, those random chances, those coincidences and happy or unhappy occurrences that populate our existence: these are the stuff that matters in our lives. And those writers, like Cormac McCarthy, who suggest that, for all our hubris, our paths are ordained from the very first and we can have no say in our own progress, are simply wrong. Doctorow knows there is much wrong with our modern ways of life, but he is equally certain that the remedy is in our own hands. That is what Ragtime can teach us.