Although too many people, unprotected by social safety nets or workplace regulations, lived and worked in squalor, the first decade and a half of the twentieth century brought with it a general sense of hope and optimism, and it’s the paradoxes of this period, the progressive enlightenment and conservative barbarism, the frosty rationality and fuzzy superstition, the fervent patriotism and homicidal anarchy, that E.L. Doctorow builds his 1974 masterpiece, Ragtime, around.
Set in New Rochelle, NY and New York City, the book centers on an upper-class family known only by their roles in relation to a young male observer: Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather. And while they could stand-in for any of a certain type of family – well-off, white, entrepreneurial – they are remarkable, in all their anonymity, for they ways in which they burst out of type, in spite of themselves: Father, a manufacturer of patriotic paraphernalia, tags along with his flags on Arctic expeditions, something of a hobbyist explorer; Mother, radically progressive without knowing it, befriends Sarah, the black mother of the illegitimate baby Mother finds buried in the garden, and ends up raising the black child as her own; Younger Brother builds bombs to aid a series of rebels after his heart is broken by the infamous Evelyn Nesbit, wife of the morphine-addicted sadist and millionaire, Harry Thaw. In what was billed as ‘The Crime of the Century’, Thaw famously blew off the face of Nesbit’s long-time lover, the architect, Stanford White, in the roof-top garden at Madison Square Gardens.
And it's not just Younger Brother rubbing elbows with celebrities; throughout this book, the whole family has connections of varying importance with historical figures: Mother serves Harry Houdini lemonade when his car breaks down in front of the house; a heartbroken Younger Brother takes to following Emma Goldman and her revolutionaries around; Father helps to end a standoff in J. Pierpont Morgan’s house. And while this anonymous family plays its bit role in history, cultural trends bring the major players together: J. Pierpont Morgan tries to interest Henry Ford in joining his secret society founded on Egyptian-flavoured occultism; Harry Houdini impresses a mistaken Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the inventor of a flying machine; Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung happen upon Evelyn Nesbit at a street art stall devoted to silhouette art.
Meticulously researched, this book alludes heavily to historical facts, however, Doctorow’s deft hand keeps the narrative from sagging under the weight of it all, and just as no historical account can ever be free of interpretation, Doctorow’s wonderful prose, however deceptively declarative, is steeped in judgment. For example:
At palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. Guests came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs. Ballrooms were decorated to look like mines with beams , iron tracks and miner’s lamps. Theatrical scenery firms were hired to make outdoor gardens look like dirt farms and dining rooms like cotton mills. Guests smoked cigar butts offered to them on silver trays. Minstrels performed in blackface. One hostess invited everyone to a stockyard ball. Guests were wrapped in long aprons and their heads covered with white caps. They dined and danced while hanging carcasses of bloody beef trailed around the walls on moving pulleys. Entrails spilled on the floor. The proceeds were for charity.Or elsewhere:
[Harry Houdini’s] audiences were poor people – carriers, peddlers, policemen, children. His life was absurd. He went all over the world accepting all kinds of bondage and escaping. He was roped to a chair. He escaped. He was chained to a ladder. He escaped. He was handcuffed, his legs were put in irons, he was tied up in a strait jacket and put in a locked cabinet. He escaped. … He escaped from a sealed milk can filled with water. He escaped from a Siberian exile van. From a Chinese torture crucifix. From a Hamburg penitentiary. From an English prison ship. From a Boston jail….He was buried alive in a grave and could not escape, and had to be rescued . . . Today, fifty years after his death, the audience for escapes is even larger.
For all the hubris and optimism of the early 20th century, these were far from perfect times, and Doctorow embodies some of the good (the success found by disenfranchised groups in the arts) and the bad (virulent racism) in the character of Coalhouse Walker. Coalhouse, a black musician, doomed by his well-groomed confidence and articulate manner, is the father of the baby Mother found in the garden. When Mother and Father take Sarah and the baby into their home, Coalhouse drives out every Sunday from Harlem, his shiny red Model T Ford glinting through the streets of New Rochelle like a flickering flame. This is too much for the men of the Emerald Isle Engine, a volunteer fire brigade, and when Coalhouse fails to show them the deference they feel due, they destroy his car. After Sarah is killed during her misguided attempt to appeal to the government for help, Coalhouse’s sets out for revenge, bringing New Rochelle to its knees in terror.
The tragedy of Sarah and Coalhouse is the tragedy of that first decade of the 20th century - Lady Justice had yet to be blindfolded -- the era, like its music, a mashup of pride and shame, of patriotic marches and blackface cakewalks, but with war rumbling across Europe, optimism deflated and “the era of Ragtime had run out, with the heavy breath of the machine, as if history were no more than a tune on a player piano.”