John Raeburn
American Studies Department
University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242 USA

E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and American Cultural History

    Published in 1975 to critical acclaim and popular success, Ragtime was E.L. Doctorow’s fourth novel and his “breakthrough” book, establishing him as one of the leading American writers of the generation that came of age in the midst of the Cold War. His first two novels, Welcome to Hard Times (1960) and Big as Life (1966), toyed with the conventions of genre fiction (the Western and science-fiction, respectively), and attracted only desultory attention, although the first if not the second has subsequently come to be regarded as significantly foreshadowing his later work and a strong novel in its own right. The Book of Daniel (1971), however, was a succ?s d’estime, fictionalizing with great imaginative brio the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and recreating (as well as contrasting) the special political atmospheres of the Old Left of the Thirties and Forties, Fifties McCarthyism, and the New Left of the Sixties. But its structural and narrational complexity kept it from becoming much of a popular success, and Doctorow determined to write a next novel that, as he said, “garage mechanics would read.” How many mechanics read Ragtime is unknown, but it was, as he hoped, a best seller, one that has had an uncommonly vigorous and continuing popular appeal, as the enormously successful musical version of it mounted in the Nineties testifies.
    Ragtime undertakes to fashion a cultural history of the first two decades of the twentieth century, doing so by interweaving the fates of three fictional families with actual personalities and events of the Oughts and Teens. Each of the fictional families is emblematic of one or more of the cultural circumstances of those years. The white New Rochelle family, its members enumerated by their structural position in it-hence Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, the Little Boy, and Grandfather-represents the morally earnest and comfortable upper middle class that historians have identified as the constituency that gave force to the era’s “progressivelquote reform impulses. The larger social grouping that this family exemplifies was a familiar one in the historiography of this era in American culture. Indeed, it is fair to say that most of the accounts of what historians denominated quote the Progressive Era” had centered on the activities and concerns of just such people.
    This was not the case with the social groupings represented by the other two families, which were largely invisible to historians during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. On the novel’s very first page its narrator startlingly remarks, “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants,” and while this is meant to suggest the limited prospect of the New Rochelle family, it describes as well the selective vision that had also characterized American historical narratives. The family of Tateh and Mameh (Yiddish for father and mother) and their little girl are emigrants from the Jewish Pale, evoking the Jews, Slavs, and Italians who arrived in the United States by the millions between 1880 and 1920. Like many Jewish immigrants, Tateh is a democratic socialist, and with his transformation from committed socialist to assimilated capitalist filmmaker Doctorow meant to invoke the fate of radicalism, specifically Jewish radicalism, in American culture. When such immigrants appeared in the historical literature, they usually did so sentimentally, as “huddled masses yearning to be free,” in the words of Emma Lazurus’ poem learned by every American schoolchild, or as presenting social problems that progressive reformers set about to solve. The social grouping represented by third family, of the “Negro” ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker, his common-law wife Sarah, and their child, did not enjoy even this minimal depiction in historical discourse about the Oughts and Teens, just as African Americans more generally were invisible to white Americans until the Civil Rights Movement forced recognition of their circumstances.
    Locating fictional characters within a defined past has long been a means by which novelists assume the role of cultural historians, as in The Scarlet Letter or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but in Ragtime Doctorow more conspicuously and self-consciously dons the historian’s mantle by making actual historical personages and events central features of it, even in some cases by having the fictional and historical figures interact. Thus, Booker T. Washington, the preeminent African American of the turn of the century, counsels Coalhouse Walker, and Mother’s Younger Brother pursues a relationship with Evelyn Nesbit, the femme fatale at the center of the era’s most sensational murder, of the architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, the scion of a wealthy Pittsburgh industrial family. Dozens of “real” personages populate the novel, from Freud on his only American visit to the financial magnate J.P. Morgan to the “escapologist” Harry Houdini, giving to it a historical density rivaled in American literature only by John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, Doctorow’s most important literary model.
    History saturates Ragtime, but scrupulous chronology-the spine of normative historical writing-does not. Only two dates are mentioned, both in the first pages, 1902 when Father built the New Rochelle house, and 1906 when Thaw murdered White. Nonetheless, a loose sense of chronological development is maintained by references to well-know historical events, such as Peary’s discovery of the North Pole in 1909, the IWW-led Lawrence, Massachusetts strike in 1912, and the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by German U-boat attack in 1915. Doctorow’ s history is a highly selective one as well. Left out or only fleetingly alluded to are phenomena emphasized by most historical accounts of this era: “progressive” political reform-on the national scene, presidential efforts to bring under federal oversight the activities of business corporations, and on the local level, attempts to curtail the pernicious influence of urban political “machines”mdash and in foreign affairs the rise of the United States to world power status and the nation’s involvement in World War One.
    The writing of any history is ineluctably a process of selection, no such beast as a “comprehensive” history even remotely possible, not even for a village much less an entire national culture. The question then is, what choices for inclusion has the historian made, and to what ends? Or, to put it another way, why did Doctorow choose these years from about 1900 to 1920 to center Ragtime on, what view of them did he wish to propose, and what hopes did he have for his interpretation of them? This last inquiry raises yet another. In one sense all written history is present tense, about the historian’s own time as well as the past one he or she is nominally writing about, and it cannot be otherwise because the historian is enmeshed in his or her own culture, just as the people being written about were in theirs, and this inescapable fact shapes the history being written, infiltrating into it the preoccupations of the historian’s own era. What traces, then, of the Sixties and early Seventies, the time of Ragtime’s composition, may be found in it?
    The novel’s title itself provides a hint of Doctorow’s ambition. An era’s characteristic music often provides the cultural historian with a shorthand term for designating its central themes, as in e the Jazz Age” of the Twenties or “the Acid Rock Era” of the Sixties. In fact, taking their cue from Scott Fitzgerald and adopting his nomenclature, many cultural historians have denominated the Twenties as a watershed decade, when technological and industrial modernization attained maturity and a new consciousness emerged utterly unlike that of the pre-war era. Such a view was fortified not only by Fitzgerald’s fiction, but also by that of his contemporaries like Hemingway and Dos Passos, as well as by such social scientists as Robert and Helen Lynd in Middletown, arguably the most important study of American culture in the interbellum years. By titling his novel Ragtime, Doctorow at once participates in this historical convention and implicitly stakes out a claim that his period is at least as central for understanding twentieth-century American cultural history as the decade following it, and, as the novel unfolds, the Era of Ragtime in fact anticipates more revealingly than the Jazz Age the major themes dominating the rest of the century. Thus, with Ragtime, Doctorow engaged in an act of historical revisionism, proposing a new scheme of periodization that would rearrange posterity’s understanding of its antecedents.
   Ragtime was revisionist in another way as well, also anticipated by its title. The inventor of ragtime music was the African American Scott Joplin, whose admonition not to play the music too fast provides the novele s epigraph, and the dominant figure of the novel’s latter half is Coalhouse Walker, whose profession is playing Joplin’s music. The novel’s title thus squarely locates its center of gravity in the activities of African Americans and, more broadly, in those of marginalized social groups outside the prevailing male and WASP hegemony, working class Jewish immigrants like Tateh and Harry Houdini, political and cultural radicals like Emma Goldman and Mother’s Younger Brother, incipient feminists like Mother, and black proto-revolutionaries like Coalhouse Walker’s followers who occupy the Morgan Library and proclaim an insurrectionary Provisional American Republic.
    Doctorow’s emphasis on such outsiders and their dissatisfactions with how American life was organized contrasts with the standard historical interpretation of this period that prevailed at the time he was composing the novel. Professional historians denominated it “the Progressive Era” and emphasized how Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had moved to control the power of big business while other middle-class reformers initiated reforms in the structure of government that diffused political power more broadly and democratically. For these historians the Progressive Era was the first step in a continuing reform process that, after an interregnum of conservative reaction in the Twenties, reached its apex in the New Deal and Fair Deal of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman in the Thirties and Forties. The story they told was one of a half-century in which the excesses of capitalism were brought under control, working men and women formed unions and secured a fairer share of the fruits of their labor, and political reform made the society more democratic and inclusive. Such change was possible because, they believed, there was broad agreement among most Americans about political means and ends and this consensus engendered evolutionary rather than revolutionary change.
    Virtually none of the phenomena emphasized in this standard interpretation finds a place in Doctorow’s conspectus of this era. Instead of consensus, he emphasizes conflict, between blacks and whites, capital and labor, men and women, haves and have-nots, and it is these conflicts which hold the key to the meaning of American history. Instead of a stately and rational unfolding of reform that makes the society more equitable and democratic, he portrays a society in which fundamental questions of legal and economic equality are left unaddressed and in which financiers like J.P. Morgan aggrandize power that outstrips any government’s. Moreover, the most articulate spokespersons who oppose these developments are not middle-class reformers, who are virtually absent from the novel, but outsiders and dissidents like Goldman and Walker. In place of the historianse basic optimism about American “progress,” Doctorow substitutes an ironic skepticism about whether any such progress is possible, at least not without a fundamental reordering of social, economic, and political power. This mordant view is underscored by the fates of the novel’s most principled characters: Coalhouse Walker is assassinated and his followers scattered; Emma Goldman is deported; and Tateh abjures his political principles and recreates himself as their antithesis, as an émigré aristocrat.
    If, unlike the professional historians, Doctorow did not formulate his Era of Ragtime as the Progressive seedbed of the more extensive reforms of the New and Fair Deals, he did make it the forerunner of the ferment of the Sixties. Coalhouse Walker’s insurrection would find its analogue in the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims and an avatar of Coalhouse himself would seem to be Malcolm X; feminists would hold up Emma Goldman as among the most important of their foremothers; Mother’s Younger Brother’s moody romanticism that leads him to despise his own bourgeois origins and thus to embrace political radicalism anticipates the middle-class children who constituted the New Left; and even Evelyn Nesbitquote s brief flirtation with radical activity seems to be echoed by Patty Hearst’s sixty years later. Three major correspondences link these two eras: a substantial degree of social and political violence; the development of a grassroots, utopian, and non-Marxist radicalism; and, perhaps most important, the new cultural visibility and access to the public arena of groups formerly denied it, Jews primarily in the earlier period, as represented by Tateh, and African Americans in the later one
    These characteristics of the Sixties help to explain the features of the Oughts and Teens that Doctorow chose to emphasize (and in the case of Coalhouse Walker’s rebellion, to invent, since no such black insurrection occurred in those years), and they illustrate how the preoccupations of the historian’s own time can influence the history he or she writes. All serious historians strive to be more than antiquarians, that is, they want their understanding of the past to have some contemporary relevance as well, to illuminate by their long view of human behavior the problems and potentialities in their own culture. In the case of Ragtime, the effort was not so much to suggest that history was cyclical, or that it repeated itself as farce, as Marx would have it, as to provide a lens that paradoxically distanced and yet made more intimate the dynamics of change and resistance to it that characterized both eras. Such a lens encouraged readers-garage mechanics or otherwise-to develop a more discerning and critical view of the history of which they were the products and likewise of the history that they were themselves participants in.