E.L. Doctorow: Ragtime

E.L. Doctorow used to be an author I had never read but was quite certain I would not like. I’m not even sure what the reason for that was – I saw the movie Daniel and disliked it, and maybe transferred that dislike to the author of the novel (The Book of Daniel) the film was based on (and yes, I’m aware I should have known better, but we’re talking about my ca. twenty year old self here who was a lot quicker to judge than I am today), or maybe I considered him to conventional during my hardcore  modernist / postmodernist phase, or maybe it was something else altogether I cannot now remember.

Somewhat less vague is the reason why I got interested in him again after all, namely me stumbling across various mentions of Ragtime as a novel important for the development of the historical novel in the 20th century. As I have always had a soft spot for historical novels, and an interest in how a genre that belongs so distinctly to the 19th century and its unshaken belief in the capability of fiction to represent the real has managed to not only survive into the 20th and 21st centuries but also has re-invented itself several times over to remain alive and relevant. While that had me teetering on the brink of reading a novel by him, it was his recent death that pushed me over, with its rather uncomfortable reminder that I am slowly but steadily running out of time to read and so had better get to it.

Ragtime was named, as Wikipedia informs me, for “its syncopated, or ‘ragged’, rhythm” and one can see after reading just a few pages how this fits the book, in particular its language. It is written mostly in short, simple sentences, in a very matter-of-fact style; and several references to an anonymous “we” that is collecting and presenting evidence made me think of a chronicle or some kind of report. But again and again there are interspersed between the plain statements longer sentences, where language takes off and becomes fanciful, lyrical even, disrupting the steady flow of facts, or – to stay in the metaphor – syncopating them, introducing an off-beat element. And also pretty quickly it becomes obvious  how this fits the content of the novel as well when on the unblemished white of the petit-bourgeois world there are more and more outbreaks of colour, immigrants and negroes disrupting the orderly world of the Anglo-Saxon middle classes.

There seems to me to be a certain double entendre in the novel’s title – “ragtime” not only as the musical genre of that name, but also literally as a time of rags; very early in the novel one of its many protagonists (if one wants to call them that,  more on that later) sees a “rag ship” coming into harbour filled with dark-skinned immigrants just as he leaves on an expedition for the white wastes of the North Pole. It’s maybe a bit too blatant, but one cannot deny that the irony that Doctorow has arranged here is quite exquisite. Rags, then, are everything that is outside of the orderly (and always immaculately dressed) white middle classes, the immigrants, the negroes, the working classes (one also can’t but thing of the Lumpenproletariat which actually might be translated literally as “rag proletariat”). Doctorow sets his novel at the start of the 20th century, at a time when all kinds of social unrest were fermenting, when Unions and socialists (actual socialists, that is, not what passes for it these days in the muddled minds of most Republicans) still had a public voice in the USA, and where in fact many people were expecting the US to be the first country to have a Communist revolution (a much  more likely candidate than Russia).

I think what Doctorow tried here is to write an anti-Bourgeois novel – quite an ambitious project considering how much the bourgeoisie has made the novel form its own during the 18th and 19th centuries. And his formally most audacious move in achieving this is to remove the individual protagonist; Ragtime is very far from being the Bildungsroman of a single consciousness rising from immaturity to becoming a responsible citizen, but instead presents a whole host of protagonists (I did not bother to count, but it is an astonishing number for such a comparatively short novel) without favouring any of them but instead jumping from character to character gradually coalescing the threads into some kind of whole by letting them criss-cross each other again and again.

Which might not appear all that dissimilar from what Dos Passos did in Manhattan Transfer, but Doctorow goes a step father – while Dos Passos has a multitude of protagonists they still are individuals with their own, distinct personalities. The fictional protagonists in Ragtime, on the other and, do for the most part not even have names but are family archetypes, Father, Mother, Younger Brother etc. Only very few fictional characters have names, and they without exception are non-white, non-middle class like the Jew Tateh or the negro Coalhouse Walker jr. “Coalhouse” by the way being very close to how an English speaker would pronounce “Kohlhaas,” the titular protagonist of a novella by German 19th century writer Heinrich von Kleist which apparently was the original inspiration for Doctorow’s novel (and there are some interesting connections to be made between the two, not just the – very obvious – similarities in plot). Coalhouse’s identity is borrowed, then, and he remains (just like Kleist’s creation) a very ambivalent character  – it never becomes quite clear whether he is confident in his identity as a person of colour or simply imitating the white man.

While Doctorow keeps his fictional characters for the most part anonymous archetypes, there still is a huge amount of name-dropping in Ragtime, as he introduces a large cast of non-fictional, historical figures. The list includes people like Sigmund Freud, Pierpoint Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini. By turning them into characters in a novel, Doctorow of course fictionalises them, but at the same time he also short-circuits his novel with history. He is of course not the first to have historical characters mix with his fictional ones, that tradition goes as far back as to the very beginning of the genre, to Walter Scott. But I don’t think any other writer has done it with quite the enthusiastic abandon of Ragtime, where we get a veritable parade of them,  marching to the novel’s ragged, syncopated rhythm.

The best description of Ragtime is actually to be found in the novel itself, and as it not only precisely captures its feeling and structure but also is beautifully written, I’m going to deviate from my usual habits and quote a bit in closing this post:

“Coalhouse Walker Jr. turned back to the piano and said ‘The Maple Leaf.’ Composed by the great Scott Joplin. The most famous rag of all rang through the air. The pianist sat stiffly at the keyboard, his long dark hands with their pink nails seemingly with no effort producing the clusters of syncopating chords and the thumping octaves. This was a most robust composition, a vigorous music that roused the senses and never stood still a moment. The boy perceived it as light touching various places in space, accumulating in intricate patterns until the entire room was made to glow with its own being.”


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