It's funny, it's very clever with its use of scales, for everything in literature is worth a mention: from a simple shadow on the floor to the features of the general populace of the great American metropolis--this novel has it all. "Ragtime" is entertaining, wholesome, very educational, & I would urge every American History teacher to add it to the syllabus.
The author E.L. Doctorow to mix things up, has an abandoned newly born black baby, found and saved by the unnamed family near their home. So when he is harassed by the volunteer firemen led by racist chief Will Conklin, jealous of Walker's Model T Ford, passing the station, the well dressed and soft spoken black man, demands justice, when his car is damaged by them. Not receiving satisfaction from the uninterested local authorities, he reported the incident to, and takes justice into his own hands...which causes much destruction , more than the fireworks family ever imagined; to the usually quiet, small town , no justice, no peace the writer seems to say .
Today I was thinking of the 101 reasons why I love books, the actual physical papery pagey spiney things with words all over them, and one of the reasons was that they're not machines. At work, of course, chained to the pc - actually it's a laptop on a docking station with two screens, I wonder when they'll add me a third, and although I'm emailing and talking to people all day long (sexy voiced nurses from France and Argentina and Ohio some of the time) still it's all software this, click here, upload that, database, gateway, you know. Enough of that - let's listen to some pre-war hillbilly or some French 60s stuff I got recently - iPod, more machinery - everything digitised, everything turned into waves and dots and Hoggs Bison particles. They're trying to turn books into machinery.
It moves relentlessly from place to place, person to person, with non-stop description, assertion, connection, reversal. It's like travelling in an empty railway carriage as the scenery of events passes by, with billboards flashing the names of contemporary celebrities: Admiral Peary, Teddy Roosevelt, Stanford White, Freud, Houdini. Plot is really the history of the epoch, a new age in America. Character is the making of that history by immigrants and street people and freaks and the new suburbanites and the Robber Barons of Fifth Avenue and Murray Hill. The principle characters are roles not people: Father, Tateh (Yiddish for Daddy), Younger Brother, The Boy. To have a proper name in Ragtime means the character is disposable background used to connect the principle roles to historical events: Houdini comes to the suburban house and exchanges adventure-tales with Father; Evelyn Nesbit, notorious wife of a celebrity-murderer, has an affair with Younger Brother and falls in love with Tateh. The immigrants want out of New York, the aspiring rubes want in. The only thing more irritating than immigrants is black folk, specially when they start acting like they was white folk. Industrialisation has taken an unexpected direction: not the factory-model of England so effectively attacked by Marx, but in the construction of giant corporate cartels controlled by a few hundred financiers. But whos worried: the American world runs on parallel rails of steel that have no obvious terminus. At least that idea would keep the momentum, the crowds, the traffic, the striving upward, the excitement of 20th century America going; even if the ultimate destination isn't a religious paradise but entirely un-thought and unknown.
But I still hold that 'Ragtime' was influential on Mailer's later historical novels and even nonfiction. OK, so, perhaps Mailer and Doctorow are more like kissing cousins.
Sometime early in his career E.L. Doctorow figured out a great formula for historical fiction. He takes real life iconic figures from whatever era hes covering and has them interact in believable ways with his fictional characters. An upper middle-class family in New Rochelle was one focal point of the book, and a Jewish immigrant and his young daughter were another. Anytime killing people is part of your agenda, I like to believe youre inviting an Extremist label to your cause, but I didnt get the feeling from the book that E.L. agreed. When hes just telling his stories, I think hes great; as an essayist on morality, maybe less so.
Washington, Emma Goldman and even the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to name a few are weaved into this story along with our fictional characters. At times the stories of the real and imaginary intersect in a curious manner. It was a bit too sweeping in such few pages for my taste and at times it was confusing as the plot jumped around. What I found to be the most stimulating was the story of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. From ragtime musician to outlaw, he was undoubtedly the most fascinating of fictional characters here.