The leading characters in E. L. Doctorow’s very splashy Ragtime are a family, called by name Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, and “the boy,” plus Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry K. Thaw, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, Baron Ashkenazy and his daughter, Booker T. Washington, the Fire Chief of New Rochelle, the District Attorney of New York. Near the beginning we learn this about America at the turn of the century:
Children suffered no discriminatory treatment. They were valued everywhere they were employed. They did not complain as adults tended to do. Employers liked to think of them as happy elves. If there was a problem about employing children it had to do only with their endurance. They were more agile than adults but they tended in the latter hours of the day to lose a degree of efficiency. In the canneries and mills these were the hours they were most likely to lose their fingers or have their hands mangled or their legs crushed; they had to be counseled to stay alert.
Baron Munchausen might well ask: “Was you there, Doctorow?” Indeed, had the Baron turned up in the pages of Ragtime to ask that question, Doctorow would have been delighted to answer: Yes. No. Wait and see.
Your basic historical novelist plods along, takes the evidence as given, filling in details when needed, seeking accuracy as well as truth; the fun, be the author Anya Seton or John Dos Passos, is to mix the “real” or the “known” with the “imagined” and to end up with a confectionery or acerbic or somberly insistent sense of the way it once was. More recently some American novelists, high-flying and showmen all, have been ransacking history along with everything else. In Gravity’s Rainbow we learn about the toilets in the men’s room of the Roseland Ballroom when Malcolm X was there shining shoes; in Alan Lelchuk’s American Mischief Norman Mailer is murdered and the Fogg Museum blown up; in Doctorow’s own The Book of Daniel, trickily based on the story of the Rosenbergs, there is a conversation between Molotov and James F. Byrnes, carefully indented as if it were being quoted from a document.
Now here, in Ragtime, what had been a pastime becomes a way of life: Houdini escapes from the prison in which Harry Thaw is incarcerated; Father sets out for the North Pole with Peary; Emma Goldman massages Evelyn Nesbit until “the younger woman began to ripple on the bed like a wave on the sea,” at which point Mother’s Younger Brother jumps out of a closet and on top of Nesbit; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria does not know who Houdini is and “congratulated him on the invention of the aeroplane.”
Treat it as game and it will turn serious; treat it as serious and it becomes fun, rippling, careless, careful. Certainly one cannot say Anya Seton or John Dos Passos is “truer to history.” The tendency in Doctorow, in Pynchon and Lelchuk, in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, in Philip Roth’s essay in which Franz Kafka teaches Roth Hebrew, is to insist that these more purely or openly imagined versions are truer than those historical fictions that always give facts where facts are known. Reading these books, one is constantly dared to doubt that the essential truth is being told, to draw some dividing line where truth is separated from fiction. In the passage quoted above, for instance, about children in mines and mills, one knows that Doctorow is “right,” perhaps even right about “the facts.” That is followed by this:
One hundred Negroes a year were lynched. One hundred miners were burned alive. One hundred children were mutilated. There seemed to be quotas for these things.
It’s fun to ask, if one is to doubt these sentences, just where the doubting is to begin, what checking to do. Then:
It became fashionable to honor the poor. At palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. Guests came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs. Ballrooms were decorated to look like mines with beams, iron tracks and miners’ lamps.
The Baron is soon routed; Doctorow was there, not there. The moment one relaxes, lets the prose perform its acts of curious and splendid levitation, accepts it all as “fiction,” Doctorow is there to ask: “Fiction? Are you sure? Was you there?”
Ragtime is blandly and confidently assertive, laying its short sentences like steps on the road to nowhere, so we can’t see ahead, anticipate; the characters are rhetorical ploys, but splendid. Doctorow is never confused by life, though he is often dismayed, and his impudence is both witty and grave, so we can be pleasantly caught between feeling that he is only a novelist on holiday and that all other visions of the period before his may be the really irresponsible ones. Even the ironic juxtapositions that Doctorow loves almost sentimentally may be right, necessary. Because so many of the juxtapositions are of nasty rich and suffering poor, his politics tend to seem leftish, but Doctorow tells with amusement and affection the story of a radical starving Jewish artist on the Lower East Side who becomes Baron Ashkenazy, movie maker and millionaire. His vision is of the Seventies more than of the Sixties, and the juxtapositions themselves entrance him more than any political view of history.
There is, however, a rather serious flaw in Ragtime, and I suspect it is related to a similar flaw in Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. The first half of the earlier novel is a truly disturbing and anxiety-producing account of the cruelties and inabilities of Daniel Lewin’s life in 1967, all the result of having lived twenty-five years in the shadow of the lives and deaths of his parents who so closely resemble the Rosenbergs. Most of this is “made up,” but the model of lives we all know about helps beautifully to implicate us in the action, to make the making up not seem simply willed on Doctorow’s part. In the second half, however, Daniel becomes simply an investigator, an exposer of history, so the tension between the present tense of 1967 and the past of 1947-1954 is lost, and Daniel “himself” is lost in the unrolling of Doctorow’s historical vision.
Doctorow may have sensed this, sensed that his talent didn’t lie in creating “selves” but in laying out, impudently and gravely, historical actions which did and didn’t happen. The result is freer, the inventing about actual people more unabashed. I didn’t like the first half of Ragtime as much as the first half of The Book of Daniel, but unquestionably it is very good. The characters are figures rather than people, the result is all surface, but the surface shimmers and shines.
But once again Doctorow has tried to put it all together in a damaging way in the second half of the novel. He turns from vignettes and commentary to a plot that will end in a spectacular series of scenes. The central figure is Coalhouse Walker, a sternly dignified and determined black musician who courts a woman who lives with Father and Mother in New Rochelle; who has his sternly dignified Ford messed up by a group of rowdy firemen; who demands reparations for the damage and embarks on a program of bombing to get them; who takes over the J. P. Morgan Library with the help of Mother’s Younger Brother, who has himself moved from loving Evelyn Nesbit to making armaments; who gets his car remade and the rowdy fire chief arrested but who must become a martyr in the process. But when the book becomes a story impudence is practically lost. Early in the novel Doctorow’s calmly written sentences can lead to one fine surprise after another and to a reader’s delighted sense that if this isn’t history, so much the better. But a story leading to an inevitable climax organizes this inventiveness, and the steps to nowhere become steps to somewhere predictable, and the ingratiating sentence-by-sentence surprises are gone. Here is Goldman responding to Coalhouse Walker’s takeover of the library:
As an anarchist, I applaud his appropriation of the Morgan property. Mr. Morgan has done some appropriating of his own. At this the reporters shouted questions, Is he a follower of yours, Emma? Do you know him? Did you have anything to do with this? Goldman smiled and shook her head. The oppressor is wealth, my friends. Wealth is the oppressor. Coalhouse Walker did not need Red Emma to learn that. He needed only to suffer.
But Goldman here is exactly as we expect her to be, and the Booker T. Washington who responds to her statements is precisely as we expect him to be as well. Not so earlier, when Goldman could spot Nesbit in an audience and end up giving her a massage.
It’s hard to make a whole book out of what Doctorow does best here; it’s excellent in vignettes and short passages but unsuited for plots where we come to know the characters too well; “Was you there?” becomes a question to which we can nod “Yes” too easily when it comes to the novel itself. I suspect, too, that the whole idea of the takeover of the Morgan Library belongs more to the style of 1970 than to 1910, though that may not be a crucial objection. The real problem is that after the story gets into full swing Doctorow can’t keep us from relaxing with his fictions, and as a result story makes his history predictable and easy just as politics makes Dos Passos’s history predictable and easy in U.S.A.
Still, no one has written a book quite like Ragtime, just as no one had written one quite like The Book of Daniel. Doctorow’s restless and witty thoughtfulness seems like some combination of Pynchon, Edward Gorey, and William Appleman Williams, and certainly no one ever was that before. He creates a world where Houdini could meet the Archduke Ferdinand, where Father from New Rochelle could go to the North Pole with Admiral Peary and lose his marriage in the process, where Evelyn Nesbit could flee to the Lower East Side, where the radical Jewish artist she meets there could become a film maker and meet Mother in Atlantic City and eventually marry her. Mother could have been my grandmother; perhaps the Baron Ashkenazy could have been Doctorow’s grandfather. He makes one play such tricks, and take the tricks seriously, until one laughs. Ragtime may not be an entirely successful book, but the writer who can do this, and as well as Doctorow has, need set no limits on what he can do next.