Tuesday, April 03, 2007

E.L.Doctorow's Ragtime America

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

This article is not a review of the fourteen essays on literary, political, and historical topics that make up E.L. Doctorow's Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977-1992. It is my take on Doctorow's best known novel --Ragtime. I mention the essays because they are better appreciated after one reads Ragtime.

Doctorow's essay on the Constitution is the counterpoint to this author's steeped obsession with American culture and politics. The Constitution of his description is a lost Arcadia, our innocence, our ephemeral flirtation with legitimate government and Democracy.

It is unfortunate, however, that this extraordinary collection of essays is not as well known as are Doctorow's novels -Ragtime (my favorite), Billy Bathgate, Welcome to Hard Times (his first novel) or World's Fair, winner of the 1986 National Book Award. In fact, it is not even mentioned in Wikipedia though his other collection of essays, Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, is.

Good essays challenge the intellect at a time when it is easier to watch a music video designed to challenge the senses. It is uncomfortable to be challenged. It is easier to click a remote control in search of eye candy. It is easier to surf the web than deep dive for pearls.

Selected Essays, like Doctorow's Ragtime, is a curious mix of the best and the worst of American culture. For me, much of the appeal of Ragtime was the unlikely collection of real characters: Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, J.P Morgan, Evelyn Nesbitt, Emma Goldman, Stanford White, Harry K. Thaw, with fictional characters such as Father, Mother, and Mother's Younger Brother.

Most reviews of Ragtime miss the point. For example:
"In 10th grade, a teacher suggested that I read this book and do a report on it. I found one sex scene so shocking that I returned the book to her and suggested she was irresponsible for recommending it to a 14 year old."
The scene in question was most certainly the explicit "threesome scene" involving Mother's Younger Brother, Evelyn Nesbitt, the infamous "Gibson Girl", and Emma Goldman, the notorious socialist/anarchist.

Other fictional characters include Coalhouse Walker, a character that may have been inspired by Scott Joplin, and Sarah, the mother of his newborn boy. Sarah lives in New Rochelle with Mother, Father, and, until he leaves the nest, Mother's Younger Brother. A series of tragic events triggered by Coalhouse Walker propelled the 70's movie version of Ragtime though at least three main threads are woven artfully throughout the novel.

Of the three, none are more poignant than the story of Tateh and his little daughter. Tateh is a recent immigrant whose only skill is cutting out silhouettes. The pair face certain starvation in New York's lower east side until Tateh discovers that his "flip books" of sihoutetted ice skaters were marketable. By the end of the novel, Tateh is a successful film maker. It is the American dream from which we have all but recently awakened.

On the whole, however, Ragtime, though dreamily surreal, is true. Evelyn Nesbit was, in fact, an historical character but Mother's Younger Brother exists only in the person of many another real Nesbit admirer. And there were many.

This unlikely mix, this potpourri lunch, this surreal pastiche IS our history. This volatile concoction of characters wrapped up one century and helped shape another. From our vantage point in the early 21st Century, this era is too easily seen in sepia accompanied by ragtime. And, indeed, it was so until World War I awakened us to real nightmare.

At least one critic called Doctorow's collection of essays "unstartling":
This exiguous assembly of prefaces and assignments is unstartling: Jack London was "a workaday literary genius/ hack"; Hemingway was tormented; Orwelrs 1984 is concerned with "the political manipulation of reality through the control of history and language." In this salad bar of limp banalities, there is not a fresh thought, a crisp phrase, or a morsel of original research
Had Doctorow intended to "startle"? If I had not disagreed with the reviewer, I would not be writing about this little known book now. The above review is hash by a hack. In fact, other more intelligent reviewers were more receptive.
The essay that I find most interesting is entitled "Commencement," and is,in fact, the Commencement Address that Doctorow delivered to the Brandeis University graduating class of 1989. A theme in the address is taken from Sherwood Anderson and Doctorow refers to it as "the theory of grotesques." It goes something like this: The world is filled with many truths to live by, and they are all beautiful. Two that he first mentions are the truth of thrift and the truth of self reliance. There is a problem, however, when one of these truths is grabbed up and made into a cause to the exclusion of all other truths.
My favorite essay, naturally, is Doctorow's analysis of the Constitution. Doctorow seems to have made the argument that the Constitution is most notable for what it is not, for what it does not do, for what it does not say, for language it does not use.

The Constitution is a secular document. The word God is not used even once. The authority of the Constitution is not theological though it has, Doctorow claims, the voice of "Sacred Text". It uses the word "shall" though it makes no theological appeal. Significantly, the preamble cites the origin of Constitutional authority: "We the people....". It is a document of the people, by the people, for the people. It was the people --not God --who wrote the Constitution.

Often thought to be a document that guarantees that we be free, the Constitution does not use the word slave . Yet, it was Thomas Jefferson (not a delegate to the Constitutional covention) who had written "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". If in context the Constitution ensures our "freedom", it does not, therefore, do so upon a theocratic principle. It is not God who endows us with "unalienable rights". It is ourselves.

The Constitution, therefore, is an existentialist document entirely compatible with Sartre's assertion:
"Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself."
Indeed, a people are nothing but what they make of themselves. In the Constitution, we make of ourselves a free people. We are free because we have chosen to take responsibility for what we have made of ourselves.

If our brief flirtation with freedom is but a sepia toned dream of Doctorowesque fantasy, then, with Bush we awakened to nightmare. Still, our future as a nation lies not in God nor any person appointed by deities. Our fate is nothing more nor less than the choices we make. We may choose to end the nightmare. We may choose to end the Bush administration and, by reasserting our freedom, we define ourselves as a "free people".

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