Wednesday, September 07, 2011


Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, is a collage of real and fictional characters, set at the beginning of the 1900s on the East Coast of the United States. It follows many characters, but the main family, who we only know as Mother, Father, the little boy (and possible narrator), and Younger Brother touch on all of the other characters and events at some point in the novel.

Evelyn Florence Nesbit ca. 1902

The story and the century begins with the "scandal of the century," which involved famed beauty Evelyn Nesbit and her husband Harry K. Thaw, who shot and killed her former lover, Stanford White, on the roof of Madison Square Garden. Evelyn visits Harry, whom she loathes, in jail, but secretly prays for his conviction and execution. As much as she hates her husband, without a sponsor she seems rudderless, and soon becomes enamored of a young girl who lives in the Lower East Side, playing at filling in for the girl's missing mother.

Evelyn begins to visit the little girl regularly, with the hesitant approval of the girl's father, Tateh. At the same time she is being followed, wherever she goes, by Younger Brother, who has become obsessed with her. One evening Evelyn accompanies the little girl and Tateh, a socialist, to a meeting that features activist and anarchist Emma Goldman, who recognizes Evelyn in the crowd. When Tateh realizes that he has been letting his daughter spend time with a notorious "whore," he leaves New York and Evelyn never sees either of them again. Goldman consoles the disconsolate Evelyn:
We know, both of us, what it means to have a man in jail. There was silence for some moments. Of course, your man is a pervert, a parasite, a leech, a foul loathsome sybarite, Goldman said. Evelyn laughed. An insane pig, Goldman said, with a twisted shrunken little pig's mentality. Now they were both laughing. Yes, I hate him, Evelyn cried. Goldman grew reflective. But there are correspondences, you see, our lives correspond, our spirits touch each other like notes in harmony, and in the total human fate we are sisters. Do you understand that, Evelyn Nesbit? She stood and touched Nesbit's face. Do you see that, my beautiful girl?
Emma Goldman, mug shot

Another major story in Doctorow's American quilt centers on Coalhouse Walker, his betrothed, a girl named Sarah who lives with Mother and Father and works as a sort of housekeeper, and the racist volunteers of the Emerald Isle firehouse. Coalhouse, a promising ragtime/jazz musician, has an altercation with Willie Conklin and the members of the volunteer fire company that changes his life and the lives of many others forever.

In an act of racism, humiliation, and vandalism, Conklin and company refuse to let Coalhouse drive through on a street he has traveled many times before. While he goes to the police to ask for help, the firemen deface Coalhouse's Model T Ford. He tries to gain redress, at first through legal measures, but then, when he is ignored because of his race, he takes matters into his own hands and becomes an anarchist. The tide of public opinion finally turns against Conklin, but it may be too late for Coalhouse.
From the beginning Conklin had been unable to understand how anyone who was white could feel for him less than the most profound admiration. The more unpopular he became the more piteous his bewilderment.
Ragtime also features historical figures Robert E. Peary and his expedition to the North Pole, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan, who makes an amusing observation about the royal families of Europe:
The conviction came over him that they were obsolete. They were all related, from one country to the next. They had been marrying one another for so many centuries that they had bred into themselves just the qualities, ignorance and idiocy, they could least afford.
Harry Houdini, circa 1905

When Doctorow has Harry Houdini crash his car into a telephone pole outside the house of Mother and Father, he is setting the stage for how all the lives of his characters, real and imagined, will collide throughout his story. Doctorow writes beautifully and the prose and stories flow effortlessly. My only complaint would be that the book might be a bit longer. Once someone is out of the story, out of the point of view of a central character, they're out. I wanted to read more about Evelyn, even after she left Younger Brother's life. But Ragtime is a great read, and a great glimpse into maybe not the facts, but the feelings of America at the start of the 20th century.

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