Ragtime: History and Fiction
E.L. Doctorow was arguably the first American author to portray American history in a less than perfect light. He illustrates an early twentieth century America rippling with strife and social turmoil. Doctorow subtly asserts the need for change within the American social structure against a backdrop of historical characters. Doctorow combines fact and fiction to write his interpretation of the early twentieth century in which he asserts was a time of social struggle where there was a need for change. The book is both accurate and highly opinionated.
The novel open in 1902 New Rochelle, New York, where social tensions ran high and conflict between the poor and upper classes was emerging. The social tension is portrayed by the story of a black man who faces much strife as he tried to get his car reinstated after white firefighters damage it. This very struggle is so frustrating it leads the character to committing crime. This is symbolic of Doctorow’s views concerning the Black struggle to regain freedom and identity damaged and altered by the white influence in their lives.
Doctorow sympathizes with the poor and lower classes. The protagonists of the novel, Tateh, Coalhouse Walker and Sarah all represent social challenge. Other characters which act as protagonists include Mother, a wealthy white woman who lives a stereotypical life with a stereotypically emotionally unavailable husband and Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist who was originally a Jewish immigrant who disguised his roots to become successful, illustrate the necessity for change and reinvention.
Doctorow’s Ragtime opens in the home of upper class family, Mother, Father and son. Mother is portrayed as a content and faithful housewife. Father, a common stereotypical upper class male who takes for granted his home life, leaves to go on an adventure in the artic. This character is resistant to change and does not evolve with the story as the other characters do. Doctorow illustrates disdain for the resistance to change. This is illustrated by father’s inability to accept his wife’s growing sexuality as well as his views on immigration and the immigrants that play on a baseball team which Father seems to generally resent. Mother is prompted to initiate change when she discovers and takes responsibility for an infant buried alive in her backyard. The baby belonged to Sarah, a Black washerwoman, who abandoned the baby. After seeking out Sarah, Mother, begins to transform into a more sensual and passionate character. We see her growing discontentment with her marriage which leads to a relationship with Tateh.
The reader is also introduced to Harry Houdini, a notorious illusionist and escape artist of the early twentieth century.
Doctorow emphasizes the need for change in America by incorporating themes of change, rebirth and regeneration throughout the novel. Each character in the book embarks on an epic journey of transformation. These changes are embodied in the physical transformation from one social class to another. For example the character Tateh goes from being a poor street peddler to a wealthy movie producer. He marries Mother, who is transformed from a one sided character, the contented housewife, to a woman of passion and daring who has the gumption to leave her unappreciative husband.
Houdini embodies transformation in many ways as well. He changes his Jewish name and alters his behavior to cover his religious heritage to become a wealthy escape artist. This is symbolic in many ways. Houdini’s made superficial changes to create an illusion which gained him success.
In conclusion, Doctorow uses historically imagery to illustrate an early American landscape of social strife and a need for change. Doctorow depicts a realistic version of American society that was beginning to show the symptom of centuries of racisms, female repression and a growing hunger within the lower classes to move up in the social classes.