Ragtime: A Novel

by E.L. Doctorow
1974

Ragtime book cover

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Ragtime is a form of jazz, a musical genre written for the piano that enjoyed great popularity between the late 1800s to the early 1920s.

So, one might assume that E.L. Doctorow chose to tell Ragtime, his most compelling turn of the century story of America, in a jaunty, syncopated or jazzy rhythm. His third-person prose clearly have a poet’s touch, written in an experimental lyrical style the likes of which readers had never quite experienced, at least not until the publication of this 1974 winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award.

Now, having rounded up a few of Doctorow’s post-publication interviews regarding the work, I’m not sure that–style-wise–he saw the book quite that way. What I think the author might lay claim to is simply being a storyteller, something that’s been going on since the painting of ancient hieroglyphics and perhaps more significantly the birth of the Bible.

That said, what Doctorow does in Ragtime is take the liberty of any good storyteller (again, the Bible exemplifies this) by making up words and thoughts that actual people never said. This is commonplace in fiction today, but as Doctorow said in one of those aforementioned interviews, “(it) opened the gates!”

The novel tells the story of an upper class white New Rochelle, New York, family on the eve of WWI. With the family—mother, father, little boy, infirm grandfather and the mother’s rather strange younger brother—as the centerpiece, Doctorow’s plot features Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a black Jazz musician. Walker, in a sense embeds himself in the family by relentlessly pursing Sarah, a needy young lady of color, and her child that the (white) family has graciously housed.

This talented musician’s uppity demeanor—his stylish dress, facility with the language and showy Model T-Ford—eventually makes him the target of white bigots who destroy his prized Model T. Coalhouse then pursues justice with great ferocity and violence until the novel comes to its dramatic and tragic ending.

Quite a story, a tapestry woven by the skills of one of our great writers. But what makes Ragtime (other than the dominant Coalhouse Walker centerpiece and the coincidental endings for a number of the characters) inherently great reading are the real-life people of the day, who, in their own way, move the larger story along. This is done throughout by Doctorow’s manufactured chance meetings of fiction and fact with the likes of the tycoon J. P. Morgan; Harry Houdini; Admiral Peary; Henry Ford; Emma Goldman, the renowned activist; and Evelyn Nesbit, a former chorus girl waltzing in and out of the plot.

From the pure fictional side we are introduced to Tateh, a poor immigrant Jewish peddler whose story runs parallel to Coalhouse’s tale. And in the end we learn that there’s bad news-good news for these two central characters. As Coalhouse fans the flames of his own horrible fate, Tateh (coincidently) marries the story’s widowed “Mother” and becomes a major player in the launching of one of America’s life changing industries–moving pictures.

Here we meet Coalhouse for the first time: One afternoon, a Sunday, a new model T Ford slowly came up the hill and went past the house. The boy, who happened to see it from the porch, ran down the steps and stood on the sidewalk. The driver was looking right and left as if trying to find a particular address; he turned the car around at the corner and came back. Pulling up before the boy, he idled this throttle and beckoned with a gloved hand. He was a Negro. His car shone. The bright work gleamed. There was a glass windshield and a custom pantasote top. I’m looking for a young woman of color whose name is Sarah, he said. She is said to reside in one o these houses.

The boy realized he meant the woman in the attic. She’s here. The man switched off the motor, set the brake and jumped down. Then he climbed the stone steps under the two Norwegian maples and walked around the side of the house to the back door.

When Mother came to the door the colored man was respectful, but there was something disturbingly resolute and self-important in the way he asked her if he could please speak with Sarah. Mother could not judge his age. He was a stocky man with a red-complected shining brown face, high cheekbones and large dark eyes so intense as to suggest they were about to cross. H e had a neat moustache. He was dressed in the affectation of wealthy to which colored people lent themselves. He wore a fitted black overcoat, a black and white hound’s-tooth suit, gray spats and pointed black shoes. He held in his hand a charcoal-gray cap and driving goggles. She told him to wait and closed the door.

Here through Evelyn Nesbit, the famous showgirl, we are introduced to the Jewish street-artist Tateh and his lovely daughter: “A girl in a pinafore and high-laced shoes sat playing in the muck along the curbstone. A little dirty-faced girl. . . . The girl had straight black hair that fitted her head like a helmet. She had olive skin and eyes so brown they were black. She gazed at Evelyn without curiosity. She was the most beautiful child Evelyn had ever seen. A piece of clothesline was tied around her wrist. Evelyn stood up followed the clothesline and found herself looking into the face of a mad old man with a closely cropped gray beard. The end of the line was tied around the old man’s waist. He wore a threadbare coat. One sleeve was torn. He wore a soft cap and a collar with a tie. He stood on the sidewalk in front of a display cart of framed silhouette portraits pinned to a black velvet curtain. He was a silhouette artist. With nothing but a small scissors and some glue he would make your image by cutting a piece of white paper and mounting it on a black background. The whole thing with the frame cost fifteen cents. Fifteen cents, lady, the old man said. Why do you have this child tied with a rope, Evelyn said. The old man gazed at her finery. He laughed and shook his head and talked to himself in Yiddish. He turned his back to her. A crowd had gathered when the car stopped. A tall workingman stepped forward and removed his hat with respect before translating for Evelyn what the man had said. Please, missus, he said, so the little girl is not stolen from him.”

Ah, now for a sampling of those real life characters whothough Doctorow’s historic vignettes—help make this the novel Time called “One of the best ten books of the decade!

Harry Houdini: Across town the little boy in the sailor suit was suddenly restless and began to measure the length of the porch. He trod with his toe upon the runner of the cane-backed rocking chair. He had reached the age of knowledge and wisdom in a child when it is not expected by the adults around him and consequently goes unrecognized. ……..He felt the circumstances of his family’s life operated against his need to see things and to go places. For instance he had conceived an enormous interest in the works and career of Harry Houdini, the escape artist. Houdini was a headliner in the top vaudeville circuits.

And then, lo and behold: “An automobile was coming up the hill from North Avenue. As it drew close he (the little boy) saw it was a black 45-hosepower Pope-Toledo Runabout He ran along the porch and stood at the top of the steps. The car came past his house, made a loud noise and swerved into the telephone pole. The little boy ran inside and called upstairs to his mother and father. Grandfather woke with a start. The boy ran back to the porch. The driver and the passenger were standing in the street looking at the car. . .

A number of people looked on from their front yards. But Father, adjusting the chain on his vest, went down to the sidewalk to see if there was something he could do. The car’s owner was Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. He was spending the day driving through Westchester. He was thinking of buying some property. He was invited into the house while the radiator cooled. He surprised them with his modest, almost colorless demeanor. He seemed depressed. His success had brought into vaudeville a host of competitors. Consequently he had to think of more and more dangerous escapes. He was a short, powerfully built man, an athlete obviously, with strong hands and back and arm muscles that suggested themselves through the cut of his rumpled tweed suit which, though well tailored, was worn this day inappropriately. The thermometer read in the high eighties. Houdini had unruly stiff hair parted in the middle and clear blue eyes, which did not stop moving. He was very respectful of Mother and Father and spoke of his profession with diffidence. This struck them as appropriate. The little boy stared at him.

Houdini’s departure: “The chauffeur was waiting, the car was parked correctly. Houdini climbed in the seat next to the driver and waved. People stood looking on from their yards. The little boy had followed the magician to the street and now stood at the front of the Pope-Toledo gazing at the distorted macro cephalic image of himself in the shiny brass fitting of the headlight .Houdini thought the boy comely, fair like his mother, and tow-headed, but a little soft-looking. He leaned over the side door. Goodbye, Sonny, he said holding out his hand. Warn the Duke, the little boy said. Then he ran off.

*The little boy’s ability to see the future is foreshadowed which explains his telling Houdini to warn Duke Ferdinand.

Sigmund Freud: “Freud arrived in New York on the Lloyd liner George Washington. He was accompanied by his disciples Jung and Ferenczi, both some years his junior. They were met at the dock by two more younger Freudians, Drs. Ernest Jones and A.A. Brill. The entire party dined at Hammerstein’s Roof Garden. There were potted palms. A piano violin duo played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. Everyone talked around Freud, glancing at him continuously to gauge his mood. He ate cup custard. Brill and Jones undertook to play host for the visit. In the days following they showed Freud Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum and Chinatown. Catlike Chinamen gazed at them out of dark shops. There were glass cabinets filled with litchi nuts. The party went to one of the silent films so popular in stores and nickelodeons around the city. White smoke rose from the barrels of rifles and men wearing lipstick and rouge fell backwards clutching their chests. At least, Freud thought, it is silent.

“. . . The entire population seemed to him over-powered, brash and rude. The vulgar wholesale appropriation of European art and architecture regardless of period or country he found appalling. He had seen in our careless commingling of great wealth and great poverty (he sees Tateh on the street) the chaos of an entropic European civilization. He sat in his quiet cozy study in Vienna, glad to be back. He said to Ernest Jones, America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.

Here Evelyn Nesbit, the chorus girl in search of another and more meaningful life, meets Emma Goldman, the anarchist and feminist whose speeches and writing helped turn the Century. “Emma Goldman’s subject was the great dramatist Ibsen in whose work, she said, lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society. She was not a physically impressive woman, being small, thick-wasted, with a heavy-jawed masculine face. She wore horn-rimmed glasses that enlarged her eyes and suggested the constant outrage to her soul of the sights she saw. She had immense vitality and her voice rang, and Evelyn, after getting over her relief to discover that Goldman was simply a woman, and a rather small woman at that, was swept up by the oratory of the powerful ideas that lifted her mind like a river. In the heat and constant excitement rising from the audience she allowed her shawl to drop to her shoulders. There were perhaps a hundred people present, all sitting on benches, standing along the walls while Goldman spoke behind a table at the front of the room. The police department had stationed men prominently at the doors and at one point a police sergeant tried to stop Emma’s address, claiming she had been advertised to speak on the subject of the drama but instead was talking about Ibsen. Jeers and catcalls drove him from the hall. Goldman, however, did not join the laughter, knowing from experience what an embarrassed police force inevitably did. She spoke now with great rapidity and as she spoke her eyes ranged restlessly over the audience and came to a stop, again and again, on the alabaster face of Evelyn Nesbit. . .

J.P. Morgan, considering Henry Ford one of his few equals in the world, breaks bread with Ford at the Morgan mansion. At the conclusion of the opulent luncheon Morgan indicates to Ford that he would like him to come to the library, a museum stocked with historic life shaping treasures, where their conversation would continue. “Mr. Ford, Pierpont Morgan said, I want you to be my guest on an expedition to Egypt. That is very much the place, sir. This is where it all begins. I have commissioned a steamer designed expressly for sailing the Nile. When she’s ready I want you to come with me. We must go to Luxor and Karnak. We must go to the Great Pyramid of Giza. There are so few of us, sir. My money has brought me to the door of certain crypts, the deciphering of sacred hieroglyphs. Why should we not satisfy ourselves of the truth of who we are and the eternal beneficent force which we incarnate?

Ford sat slightly hunched. His long hands lay over the wooden arms of his chair as if broken at the wrists. He considered everything that had been said. He looked at the sarcophagus. When he had satisfied himself that he understood, he nodded his head solemnly and replied as follows. If I understand you right, Mr. Morgan, you are talking about reincarnation. Well, let me tell you about that. As a youth I was faced with an awful crisis in my mental life when it came over me that I had no call to know what I knew. I had grit, all right, but I was an ordinary country boy who had suffered his Mc Guffey like the rest of them. Yet I knew how everything worked. I could look at something and tell you how it worked and probably show you how to make it work better. But I was no intellectual, you see, and I had no patience with two-dollar words.

Morgan listened. He felt that he mustn’t move.

Well then, Ford continued, I happened to pick up a little book. It was called An Eastern Fakir’s Eternal Wisdom, published by the Franklin Novelty Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And in this book, which cost me just twenty-five cents, I found everything I needed to set my mind at rest. Reincarnation is the only belief I hold, Mr. Morgan. I explain my genius this way—some of us have just lived more times than others. So you see what you have spent on scholars and travelled around the world for find, I already knew. And I’ll tell you something, in thanks for the eats, I’m going to lend that book to you. Why, you don’t have to fuss with all these Latiny things, he said waving his arm, you don’t have to pick the garbage pails of Europe and build steamboats to sail the Nile just to find out something that you can get in the mail order for two bits.

The two men stared at each other. Morgan sat back in his chair. The blood drained from his face and his eyes lost their fierce light. When he spoke, it was with the weak voice of an old man. Mr. Ford, he said, if my ideas can survive their attachment to you, they will have met their ultimate test.

Nevertheless the crucial breakthrough had been made. About a year after this extraordinary meeting Morgan made the trip to Egypt. Although Ford did not go with him he had conceded the possibility of an   awesome linage. And together they had managed to found the most secret and exclusive club in America, the Pyramid, of which they were the only members. It endowed certain researches which persist to this day.

This unique story—where fact meets fiction—is so pleasing to the reader’s ear that one can almost hear Coalhouse, fingers flying across the keys, playing in the background. More than a wonderful read, Ragtime is a rare lyrical novel. Just turn the pages and give it a listen!

For a copy of Ragtime, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can purchase E.L Doctorow’s 1974 classic for little more than Tateh charged for one of his street art cutouts. Simply click on the book’s cover.