Sunday, August 19, 2012

'Ragtime' Revisited: A Review of E.L. Doctorow's Masterpiece of True Fiction

by Len Hart, the Existentialist Cowboy

I've lost track of my many 'reads' of E.L. Doctorow's great novel: Ragtime. I will probably read it that many times again. Every 'read' has been a new experience; and with every 'read', I learn something new.

Initially, as a lover of music to include 'Ragtime', I was attracted to the novel by its title. A review in a major news magazine peaked my interest. Here was a novel that included a vast array of real and fictional characters --Houdini, J.P. Morgan, a pioneer 'Ragtime' pianist called 'Coal House Walker', Evelyn Nesbett, Emma Goldman, 'Mother's Younger Brother', Robert Peary, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbett, Stanford White, Harry Thaw, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Countess Sophie Chotek, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Theodore Dreiser, Jacob Riis and Emiliano Zapata.

There was also 'Tateh' and his young daughter. Tateh made 'silhouettes', selling them to help him to feed his little daughter and, if there was any left-over, himself. His fortunes improved when he learned how to make his creations appear to move. Eventually, the struggling Tateh became a director in the 'new' industry of motion pictures.

Like a creation by Tateh, all of these characters come to life and 'move' in Doctorow's book.

I do not recommend this book to anyone who is incurious. I do not recommend this book to anyone who is unwilling to see American history through fresh eyes. I do not recommend this book to those who cannot appreciate a different or fresher point of view. I do not recommend this book to anyone who cannot see the world through the eyes of the world's richest man and, on the next page, the eyes of the very poorest.
"Professional historians denominated it “the Progressive Era” and emphasized how Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had moved to control the power of big business while other middle-class reformers initiated reforms in the structure of government that diffused political power more broadly and democratically. For these historians the Progressive Era was the first step in a continuing reform process that, after an interregnum of conservative reaction in the Twenties, reached its apex in the New Deal and Fair Deal of Presidents Roosevelt and Truman in the Thirties and Forties. The story they told was one of a half-century in which the excesses of capitalism were brought under control, working men and women formed unions and secured a fairer share of the fruits of their labor, and political reform made the society more democratic and inclusive. Such change was possible because, they believed, there was broad agreement among most Americans about political means and ends and this consensus engendered evolutionary rather than revolutionary change."

--E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and American Cultural History, John Raeburn, American Studies Department, University of Iowa

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