A beautiful, crazy quilt of humanity – Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow, an aide-memoire of a modern classic

Why write about a book published over forty years ago? Because not enough time has passed to call it a classic on one hand and because there is a danger of the title getting buried in the avalanche of books that are published every week on the other. And we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that, although it seems that everything has already been said a long time ago, a fresh review can offer a new insight since, no matter how much we like to think that everything that stems from our minds is original, all of us are shaped by the times we live in.

So, Ragtime. A music genre which is essentially a mixture of European classical music and African syncopation. The American society that E. L. Doctorow portrays in his same-named novel can be seen as an unusual cocktail made of the European value system and the African ʻuntamed spirit’ at the beginning of the 20th century. An American new money family, a Jewish broken family, and a black incomplete family without the blessing of the law are ʻrags’ that, together, weave the beautiful quilt of society. “Dull gray was for Jews – their favorite color, he said. Red was for the swarthy Italian. Blur for the thrifty German. Black for the African. Green for the Irishman. And yellow for the cat-clean Chinaman, and cat also in his traits of cruel cunning and savage fury when aroused. Add dashes of color for the Finns, Arabs, Greeks, and so on, and you have a crazy quilt, Riis cried, and a crazy quilt of humanity!”

And indeed, the early 1900s were more crazy than beautiful although we always tend to find beauty, honor, and romance in long-gone times. They weren’t crazy only because: “Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants.” It is, simultaneously ridiculous, incredible, and daring to say something like that for a country founded by emigrants who brought black slaves with them. But members of the white upper-middle-class at the turn of the century certainly believed in those words. And surely, that’s exactly what the first family thinks. By the way, members of said families do not have names, but roles: Father, Mother, The Little Boy, Tateh, Mameh, The Little Girl… Surprisingly and sadly as history has it, members of the Negro family are the only ones with names since their role in the community is still unclear.

Father of the middle-class family is a self-made man, an epitome of the American dream. He was born into a wealthy family which lost everything because of his father’s unwise investments. But Father managed to gain wealth again by making fireworks and flags since “patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900s”. In keeping with his position in society, he marries a beauty. She will bear him a healthy male heir.

But Mother doesn’t love Father. Marriage is a job too and she invested cleverly, as much as she had a say in the whole business. Father takes care of her safety and needs; Mother takes care of the house and produces a son. Father would like to make love more often, but Mother brings order even in copulation, which is fitting. Everything is appropriate. During a rare disagreement when Mother disturbed their conventional life with her interest for the Negro family, Father accuses her: “You victimized us all with your foolish female sentimentality. Mother regarded him. She could not remember any time in their long acquaintance when he reproached her. She knew he would apologize; nevertheless, tears filled her eyes and eventually ran down her face. Wisps of her hair had come undone and lay on her neck and over her ears. The father looked at her and she was beautiful in the way she was as a girl. He did not realize the pleasure he felt in making her cry.” At the seaside, since Father took care of the problem, Mother rewards him by allowing him to make love with her more often since he deserves, but she is appalled by the contours of his manhood in his bathing suit in broad daylight.

Father is slowly becoming a victim of the passing time. He resembles a man who made a fortune by investing in computers and regularly advertising his products in the Sunday papers at the end of the 20th century, but twenty years later he doesn’t understand the concept of influencers and marketing on social networks. Are the first decades of every new century equally uncertain because everything we considered certain and safe slowly dies, and scary changes are relentlessly flowing with the new tides?

Mameh and Tateh are prototypes of immigrants: first of all, they lack the prudence of the white American couple. Everything about them is exaggerated ‒ misery, despair, joy, maladjustment, rigidness. Like all immigrants, “They waited for their life to change. They waited for their transformation.” And they will experience changes all right, one way or the other. Mameh will do what almost every mother would do if she believed that was her only choice. Tateh will do what almost every traditional husband would do. Those newcomers are unreliable, they can disappear overnight as if they had never existed, they are the first to accept subversive ideas but even then you can’t expect them to be consistent. They are resourceful and, if they take advantage of random favorable circumstances, they can change their lives, even their identity, and become bearers of social change. Even baseball, an American invention since the Americans rejected any suggestion that it evolved from an English game, isn’t safe before the wave of immigrants. “There was a first baseman named Butch Schmidt, and others with names Cochran, Moran, Hess, Rudolph, which led inevitably to the conclusion that professional baseball was played by immigrants. When play was resumed, he studied each batsman: indeed, they seemed to be clearly from the mills and farms, rude features, jug-eared men, sunburned and ham-handed, cheek bulging with tobacco chew, their intelligence was completely absorbed in the effort of the game.” Immigrants are slowly entering all pores of society, taking over the white Americans rights and privileges acquired through their origins, and will certainly assume even the right to patriotism. They will soon push themselves right into all those parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theaters, operas, balls. They will wear white in the summer and women will carry white parasols. It is terrifying since it seems that there is no way to defend society from the integration of immigrants and, at least from the white American Father’s point of view, it even looks like the whole world will become dependent on those who make their fortunes on illusions – just like Harry Houdini or today’s influencers. Wealth itself becomes an illusion, no matter how real hunger is.

The third family isn’t recognized before the law, which is in line with the belief that Negroes are beings ruled by their instincts. A man and a woman, with names, and symbolic ones too! ‒ Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah ‒ succumbed to passion and got a child out of wedlock. Sarah surrenders to fear and tries to get rid of the baby, then succumbs to depression to finally capitulate to hope, happiness, and love. However, true love isn’t contemplated, and nothing good can come out of thoughtlessness. Animals are thoughtless, people know better than that. But hope can be man’s greatest enemy, and the path of love can simultaneously be the path of death. At least for Negroes. Interestingly, the black baby survives the earth, which almost killed Houdini, the master of escapes. Why is the Earth merciful towards a black baby born out of wedlock? It seems that the black baby boy is a symbol of resurrection. The son resurrects, but the father will have to die. The black father foolishly tried to fight for his dignity. “It seemed to be his fault, somehow, because he was a Negro and it was a problem that would only adhere to a Negro,” the white Father thinks. “He thought, for instance, there was no reason that the Negro could not with proper guidance carry every burden of human achievement. He did not believe in aristocracy, except the individual effort and vision. He felt his father’s loss of fortune had the advantage of saving him from the uncritical adoption of the prejudices of his class.” As a Negro, the father has no right whatsoever, except accepting the most difficult, demeaning labor. “On the tobacco farms, Negroes stripped tobacco leaves thirteen hours a day and earned six cents an hour, a man, a woman or a child. Children suffered no discriminatory treatment. They did not complain as adults tend to do it. Employers liked to think of them as happy elves. If there was a problem about employing children it had to do only with their endurance. They were more agile than adults, but they tended in the latter hours of the day to lose a degree of efficiency. In the canneries and mills, these were the hours they were most likely to lose their fingers or their hands mangled or their legs crushed.” Of course, if talented, a black man could become an entertainer, just like the name of Scott Joplin’s song, just like a circus animal, or a freak. Coalhouse Walker Jr. seized that opportunity and made good of it to its limits, even above the limits. But then, oh such ungratefulness!, he wanted to deny an idle, envious white man the right to make a fool of him. Such a joke ‒ a Negro trying to save his dignity, what does he even know about dignity? And, of course, since justice fails him ‒ all-seeing as a virtue, an abstract idea or a Muse, blind before individual cases, just like in, say, Les Miserables ‒ he does what is expected of a black man. “To get justice, Coalhouse Walker was ready to have it done to him.” Yes, justice is just another illusion. Even Booker T. Washington condemns him instead of understanding his suffering and the most he can offer is: “I will intercede for the sake of mercy that your trial will be swift and your execution painless.” Because at the time, more than fifty years before Elvis Presley’s song In the Ghetto, that was the only option.

And what about the privileged ones that don’t have to think about putting bread on the table, those who have the luxury to venture into unpractical things like contemplating about purpose? J. P. Morgan asks Henry Ford: “Has it occurred to you that your assembly line is not just a stroke of industrial genies but a projection of organic truth? After all, the interchangeability of parts is a rule of nature.” Yet, we seem to think that the feeling of being stuck on a hamster’s wheel or an assembly line is reserved for our stressful, hard-working times when everyone and everything is interchangeable. Or that those rich men with white cats and eye-patches trying to become gods are oh-so.original. Morgan says: “The earliest recorded mention of special people born in each age to alleviate the suffering of humanity with their prima theologia comes to us through the Greek in the translated writings of the Egyptian priest Hermes Trismegistus … Why do you suppose the idea which had currency in every age and civilization of mankind disappears in modern times? Because only in the age of science these men and their wisdom dropped from view … They are with us in every age. They come back, you see? They come back!” Sure, every age needs new gods, new secrets, new truths, and new meanings of life. But does it do you any good if money brings you to the door of certain crypts? Can it make you fathom the truth of who we are and the eternal beneficent force that we incarnate, is there anything greater than this life, any greater journey that awaits us?

That depends on the reader. Maybe everything is an illusion, even life itself. Houdini realized that, Tateh understood that, Mother instinctively felt that. Those who reject that knowledge will never accept the changes that are becoming even faster because time itself is quickening. The cycles are shifting ever more rapidly, so much that the laws of natural selection are susceptible to change. However, the biggest change is related to miracles. They are getting realized and, thus, cease to be miracles. And life without miracles is like a colorless flower without a smell, which is the most terrifying threat.

So, as Scott Joplin said and Doctorow quoted at the beginning of this intricately weaved novel: Do not play this piece fast, it is never right to play Ragtime fast…

Genre: Fiction, Classics

Describe this book with one word: Provocative

The perfect beverage to sip while reading this book: Lemonade

This book’s best musical buddy: The Entertainer ‒ Scott Joplin

Awards: National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (1975), Nebula Award Nominee for Novel (1976)

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