[This is a journal in 3 sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
25 October 2014
This is an astonishing novel. I read it once before, decades ago, and all I remember about it is that the lives of real people in the early years of the 20th Century intertwine with those of fictional characters. That happens in other novels, but not in the headlong, immersive way of Ragtime. It feels like time travel, but the way Doctorow handles the leap back into New York in the 1900s makes it feel as though your feet never, ever touch the ground. You’re in the Lower East Side, you’re on Ellis Island as unsympathetic immigration officers weigh up whether you should be sent back on the next ship to Europe, you’re in a cell with Harry Houdini, you’re with Freud searching in vain for a public lavatory. And that’s only a tiny selection of the locations and points of view Doctorow takes us to in these first 80-odd pages. I don’t know how he does it.
I’m not going to be able to do justice to the complexities either of the intertwining plots or the intertwining sexual and political themes. So what do you want to know? One of the fictional families whose lives we follow consists of middle class Father, Mother (and her Younger Brother) and the little boy. The other family are dirt-poor Tateh, Mameh and The Little Girl. All their lives are unsatisfactory – in entirely different ways, of course, but always because early 20th Century New York hasn’t yet figured out a way for any of its diverse populations to live. Father and Mother get on fine – except sex for her is no more than a duty and it’s ok for him to disappear for months on an Arctic expedition that is no more than a vanity project for Robert Peary. As for Tateh…. The instant he finds out that Mameh could only get a piecework rate they could live on by letting the boss screw her – these are the realities as Doctorow presents them – his Old World moral code dictates what he has to do. He throws her out.
I suddenly seem to be concentrating on sex. That’s probably because sex is one of Doctorow’s favourite issues – and, in particular, the weirdness of sexual mores in a world where the past really does seem to be a different country, and not only in the ethnically ghettoised poorer districts of the city. Tateh has brought his undisputable Jewish codes with him, but then Mother and Father are bound by codes of their own that bring them neither happiness nor insight. Our author, making use of nearly 70 years of hindsight, is able to hold up their behaviour for our examination as though this is some strange species rather than our human great-grandparents. So Father is appalled when he sees ‘Esquimos’ copulating, less for the unashamed openness of it, which is only to be expected from a race whose behaviour always shows them to be no better than children, but for the pleasure the woman clearly experiences as she thrusts her pelvis towards the man.
But this being an E L Doctorow novel, nothing is ever that simple. Three of his named real-life characters – and I’ve only just realised that only his real-life characters have names – are involved in a sensational love triangle. Evelyn Nesbit, former model and literally the poster-girl for the advertising industry that is just beginning to recognise the value of celebrity, is married to a rich man who has just very publicly shot her lover, an equally celebrated architect. This is to be ‘the trial of the century’, and… and so on. Evelyn has had enough of her frankly crazy husband, although she likes the money and the freedom it brings. She is able to have her chauffeur take her to the poorest part of the city, where she meets… guess. Tateh, having to make a living, is a silhouette maker on the streets. Evelyn is besotted by his daughter – and in another of the novel’s criss-crossing paths, Younger Brother is besotted by Evelyn and follows her everywhere she goes. Ok…
…but now it’s time for Doctorow to arrange for Evelyn to go with Tateh to see the real-life Anarchist Emma Goldman. She notices Evelyn, and cites the way ‘one member of the audience’ has been made the victim of a male-dominated society. She also dismisses Socialism for the way it offers nothing to women and, after the Socialists in the audience cause enough of a row for the police to use it as an opportunity to break up the meeting, Goldman leads Evelyn out, takes her home, undresses her in a kind of politically correct striptease, massages her – and enables her to have what might be her first ever orgasm. Younger Brother, who has been hiding in the wardrobe (I’m not making this up, but Doctorow is clearly having fun doing just that) bursts out and helplessly ejaculates all over her.
That’s enough of that. What else is there? Class, for a start – and its corollary, the yawning gap between the rich and poor. Evelyn is the only rich person ever to be seen on the tenemented street where Tateh scrapes a living, although the rich have ‘poverty balls’ at which they dress like tramps and drink from tin mugs (all proceeds to the needy, of course). In this version of history, and it’s the only one we’ve got, philanthropists like Carnegie and Frick are really strike-breakers and monsters. And Harry Houdini, made rich enough by his famous feats to drive the best car available, becomes more and more depressed by the chasm he always feels between himself and the upper classes he would love to join. By the end of Part 1 he has gone to Germany to learn to fly and, as a favour to someone who seems to be a royal, is now teaching Germans. Guess who it is in the luxury carriage-built car. Go on, guess. It’s Franz Ferdinand, of course. Who else would it be in a novel like this?
Meanwhile Mother is becoming very dissatisfied with her husband’s absence, as Younger Brother isn’t doing enough to keep the company afloat. Tateh takes his daughter on serial streetcar rides ever further north, towards Boston. (You could do that then, our helpful narrator tells us.) Evelyn’s husband is found guilty and sent to a mental institution. She divorces him, hoping for a generous settlement, but gets only $25000. And this reader, at least, wonders whether this is what it might feel like if you could submerge your face in a bowl of water and find yourself, breathless, transported to a teeming world where nothing at all is what you expect.
I haven’t done justice to Doctorow’s narrative voice. Part of the immersive technique is his adoption of the language of the early 20th Century, its euphemisms and loaded terms. So sex between Father and Mother is described in terms of his visits to her bed, and there are embarrassed terms for genitalia – her girlhood, his sex – which only explode into frankness when a crisis is reached, so that we get Younger Brother’s rampant penis sending out great spurts of jism like bullets. Attitudes to race and class, in which the natural superiority of the middle class white man is blandly accepted, are a part of Doctorow’s language until they, too, explode. When Mother discovers a whimpering brown baby, shortly before the discovery of the desperate mother, she doesn’t condemn the woman as everybody else does. Perhaps considering the role of the father of the child, she decides to adopt both mother and infant. Without Father there, she is becoming capable of her own decisions.
What do you call it when, as an author describes a community, he imitates its modes of expression? Mimesis? Ventriloquism? Whatever, this is working because Doctorow adopts the points of view of all his characters, real-life and fictional, alongside their language. What he offers the reader isn’t so much the confident omniscience of the 19th Century author as the subtlety of the chameleon. In a chapter about Houdini we are entirely immersed in his hyperactive, dissatisfied mind. With Father, everything is self-satisfied, unquestioning complacency… and so on. It’s part of the immersion, part of the sense Doctorow gives us that we’re there.
Is this as impressive as Part 1? I miss that sense of being immersed in the noisy turmoil of a society having problems inventing itself as Doctorow focuses more on his core characters. And it seems to me that he pushes them into behaviour that suits some ulterior purpose, usually political. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against novelists having a political agenda – it’s rare enough, especially in the US – but… there can be a price to pay if they become mere mouthpieces or, worse, puppets. I might be overstating it, but this is how things sometimes strike me in Part 2. However… in Coalhouse Walker Jr, Doctorow might have created the definitive embodiment of why anyone might respond to the values of white America by way of a desperate act of terrorism. As a fictional creation he might be problematic, but we definitely see why he does what he does.
We don’t start with him. We start with Father, returning from the Arctic a shadow of his former self, haggard and with no trace of his proudly carried paunch. Instead he has a hideous sense of guilt over having slept with an ‘Esquimo’ woman – he remembers with disgust the particular part of himself he put inside her – and with a sense that the household has been getting on very well without him. There’s an almost mute black woman living upstairs, a wife who has learnt that running the company is well within her capabilities and, later, a brother-in-law who has bright visions of bigger and better fireworks. Which he demonstrates, leaving Father awestruck.
Change and reactions to it. This could be the subtitle of this whole section. (It seems that Doctorow likes to give us something we can keep a hold of.) Tateh, working somewhere north of Boston, becomes part of a strike and, with the greatest reluctance, is about to send away his daughter to be looked after by supporters. The reaction of the factory owners is to head off what is turning into a media catastrophe for them. Doctorow’s description of the near-atrocities they perpetrate – with the help of their cronies in the local legislature – is the most overtly political in the book so far, and I expect there was some kind of backlash amongst some readers in 1970s America. Is it the same mimetic technique that he uses elsewhere, adopting the lexis of the oppressed workers in order to convey their sense of righteous outrage? Maybe. Anyway…
The Girl is the only child to get on to the train, and Tateh manages to drag himself on board with her. They end up travelling all the way to Pittsburgh, and when he hears the unions have settled for a small wage rise, he decides he is through with labour politics. He stays in Pittsburgh and becomes – what? A personification of the clever European artists, many of them Jewish, who find a metier in American popular culture. He has invented a flick-book technique for turning his silhouettes into animated mini-movies, and is able to sell four of them for development for $25 each. It feels as though Doctorow is ticking a box.
Next. Things have been moving on in Father and Mother’s house. The reason why Younger Brother develops first a love of explosives and later an obsession with developing new weapons is because Evelyn has tired of him. (Did I mention that they’d become lovers near the end of Part 1? I’m mentioning it now.) So what’s a young man to do? He washes up with the anarchists again – I forget how, but it’s the sort of thing that happens in this novel – and gets some relationship advice from Emma Goldman, whose wisdom makes her seem like a 1970s woman sent back in time. (Perhaps that’s what she is.) She tells him not to put so much of his soul into a relationship, and especially not with someone like Evelyn. She describes how, if they’d married, she would have hated him within months. It doesn’t really help him.
The biggest development is the arrival at Father and Mother’s house, every Sunday afternoon for the whole of the winter, of a named but fictional character. You don’t even have to Google his name to establish whether he ever existed, because he so obviously never could have. He is a black man, born in Louisiana, who nevertheless doesn’t seem to know that he’s black. This is clearly a deliberate authorial ploy on Doctorow’s part. In Blazing Saddles, released the year before Ragtime, Mel Brooks uses the same trope for comic effect – a trope still in use 25 years later in Wild Wild West, in which Will Smith plays his late 20th Century self transposed to the mid-19th. In Ragtime Doctorow’s motive is more serious, a ‘what if?’ thought experiment. What if a black man behaved exactly like a white man in the first decade of the 20th Century – in a state where there had been no slavery for a hundred years?
Once Doctorow has set the experiment running, the effect is comic at first. Father and Mother are mystified by this impeccably behaved man paying his respects to the near-mute woman upstairs. (It’s Father, I think, who alerts the reader to his inability to perceive his own blackness.) But when the firemen at the local station play a trick on him, expecting him to play the game and ingratiate his way out of it like any other black man would, his behaviour is as mystifying to them as it has been to Mother and Father. But working men are not so polite, and soon Coalhouse Walker’s car, which he expects to be treated with respect, is vandalised. Willie Conklin, the fire chief, is first or second generation Irish, and Doctorow let us know very early in the novel how one oppressed minority in New York likes to take things out on another. He is as bad as his men in his treatment of Walker, and things escalate. Walker seeks redress in precisely the way that a white man would, attempting to take his case higher and higher when the local police show no interest. When he gets nowhere, he writes to the papers….
Sarah, the black woman he pays his respects to, is as much of an ingénue as he is and, in order to plead his case she makes a move towards the Vice President (I think) on an election tour. Keyed-up bodyguards, keen to avoid another assassination attempt, assault her so badly she eventually dies from her injuries. Result: Walker, appalled by the treatment they have both received – the vandalised car, half-sunk in the pond, is a symbol of it all – resorts to terrorism. He kills four firemen in the process. Mother is left, literally, holding the baby.
What else? Another obsessive, Houdini, is so disconsolate with grief over the death of his mother he first withdraws into himself then bursts out in frenzy of activity. His act becomes so extreme that parents take their children out before the end, and meanwhile he pursues the idea of making spiritual contact with his dead mother. (What is it with mothers in this novel?) He believes in the idea, but knows that most mediums are frauds. He sets about trying to find a genuine one whilst unmasking the fakers…. Which puts him in contact with all kinds of funny people, like a man who tells him of supernatural-sounding developments in physics in Europe, and two of the most famous entrepreneurs in America founding some kind of secret society. (These are Pierpoint Morgan and Henry Ford, and Morgan’s almost fascistic belief in himself as superman has nothing to do with the supernatural. Ford, as contemptuous of the ordinary man as Morgan in Doctorow’s presentation of him, seems to be going along for the ride.)
Politics, class, race, sex and the immutability of the human soul. Anything else? Probably, but it’s time to read on.
Parts 3 and 4 – to the end
It feels almost uncanny that in the story that has dominated the second half of the novel Doctorow is able to cover so many bases that seem urgently familiar in 2014. The radicalisation of young men, the willingness to kill or be killed in pursuit of a cause, suicide bombings…. ‘Coalhouse’, as the short-lived movement chooses to call itself, has many of the features of what we now call radical or political Islam – although, of course, in the mid-1970s it was the Black Power movement that white liberals were trying to understand. The conversation between Walker, the fictional exponent of violent action, and Booker T Washington, the real-life progenitor of the non-violent pursuit of Civil Rights, must have seemed eerily contemporary to Doctorow’s original readers.
With the inevitable death of its main protagonist this thread becomes, essentially, a distinct story in itself. This is no surprise. Doctorow described it as ‘a quite deliberate hommage’ to the novella Michael Kohlhaas by the German Heinrich von Kleist, based itself on one man’s quest for justice and containing many elements of the Coalhouse Walker story. But, as we have seen, Doctorow ties it to the rest of the novel through Walker’s contact with what he calls ‘the family’. By the beginning of Part 3, Younger Brother has been so radicalised by his own contact with Emma Goldman that he argues vehemently with his father about the merits of Walker’s case. Father sees it as his duty to use his own knowledge of the murderer to help bring him to justice. For Younger Brother the case is equally open and shut (or black and white). He uses the language of revolutionary politics to state Walker’s case, and there is a swift and permanent estrangement between him and Father. He seeks Walker out in Harlem and becomes his explosives expert.
Having this middle class white boy as a major player in what otherwise looks like a Black Power movement enables Doctorow to play some games not only with the complexities of race politics, but with the quintessentially American materialism and individualism of Walker’s cause. For Walker it has never been about race, and he treats Younger Brother exactly the same as his other young followers. In a neat reversal of roles the far more radical Younger Brother puts on black-face throughout the siege….
Meanwhile outside the Morgan Library, which Walker is threatening to blow to pieces, the whites are represented by the ambitious and ever more racist-sounding (real-life) DA of New York, Charles S Whitman. He finds himself in a stand-off he can see no way out of until Father steps into the frame. Hearing from Booker T Washington that Walker has moderated his demands – he only now wants the restoration of his car, not the death of Conklin – Father sees that negotiation is possible. The negotiations, following Father’s astonishment at seeing his brother-in-law in black-face and the inevitable arguments this leads to, result in a final ironic twist: Younger Brother, his face washed, will take Father’s place as the hostage guaranteeing Walker’s other followers safe passage in the car. The authorities won’t notice, Walker says because – wait for it – ‘One white face looks like another.’
Younger Brother isn’t happy about being the token white, with all the implications of guilt that come with the role. But what’s a man to do? He tells Father he has left something useful back at the factory, asks him to tell Mother that he always loved her, and is driven off in the Model T Ford that has always been the archetype of American individual materialism. From New York he drives it south to Mexico and, as Doctorow has already warned us, gets himself killed with Zapata in Part 4. America isn’t ready for his politics yet – and, as both the author and reader know all too well in 1975 (and 2014), never will be.
Other threads are tied up in ways that are just as audacious. The most brazen narrative coup takes place in Atlantic City. Father and Mother have taken their young son and the ‘brown baby’ to get away from the press, who have discovered – and, of course, misreported – their connection with Walker. This is at the height of his notoriety, and for some weeks they live a seaside idyll – only spoilt, eventually, when Mother can’t help imagining Walker as one of the players in the seafront ‘coon’ band. The coup arrives shortly after a guest who becomes the first they feel truly at ease with, a European baron full of enthusiasm for life, and with a beautiful young daughter. There are enough clues to tell us who this really is – the name of Ashkenazy, the fact that he is in motion pictures – but I was too slow to pick them up. But there, at the start of a new chapter: ‘And so the two families met.’ And if we still haven’t got it (I hadn’t), there he is in paragraph 2: ‘Every morning Tateh worked on the scenario….’ Ah. And Doctorow has Mother enjoying the exuberant company of this man just as she is becoming bored with her husband. By the end of the novel, some years later…
…Father is sailing for Europe on the Lusitania, notoriously sunk by the Germans and, equally notoriously, containing weapons and explosives bound for the Allies. And reader – I said it was audacious – some of the explosives are Father’s, in weapons designed by Younger Brother as his parting gift to the family. Which leaves Mother free to marry Tateh, and for the boy and the girl to get to know each other even better after their move to a movie-star life in a real Hollywood ending in California. You couldn’t make it up.
Other loose ends? Morgan makes his planned trip to Egypt and, as he reaches full-blown megalomaniac status (he wants to build a pyramid for himself to rival those of the pharaohs), he catches a chill and dies. Henry Ford doesn’t go with him, spending his time developing ever more efficient ways to make money. Houdini reaches a kind of calm, finally overcoming his grief as he and his team of detectives unmask more and more frauds. Which leaves the (fictional) Willie Conklin, leading a life of obscurity after his moment of fame – humiliatingly reassembling Walker’s ruined Ford from the chassis up, on the street in front of the Morgan Library. Clearly, in this universe, there is a God.
Writing at the approach of the final quarter of the 20th Century, Doctorow explores what must have seemed like a new world of possibilities at the start of it. But Emma Goldman’s politics of revolution and radical feminism, always presented as two aspects of the same struggle, are routinely and ruthlessly suppressed. In the new century, as Doctorow presents it, the authorities are quick to stifle not only her voice but that of anyone who tries to disturb the status quo. The (fictional) case of Coalhouse Walker takes up a lot of pages, but it is immediately clear that he has no chance and he himself decides how it will end by resorting to acts of terrorism. Not so the strikers in the town where Tateh is working in Part 3. He gives up factory work because he can see that any concessions the bosses eventually make will be meagre, so the workers will always end up earning too little for them to afford to live a dignified life. The promise held out by the American Dream seems empty to the teeming masses who are present from the very start of the novel.
Doctorow does not once demur. He presents figures like Carnegie, Frick and Morgan as villains, and the reader does not need to be reminded that these are the men rewarded by a one-dimensional historical narrative that only celebrates success. But, through his fictional characters, he offers an almost comic parallel narrative to set beside this dark message. Father often cuts a ridiculous figure, and his success is based on the childlike patriotism of the new Americans: he makes fireworks and bunting. The story of Tateh and his daughter mutates, through some strategic authorial moves, from being the darkest in the novel – and we never do hear what happens to Mameh, thrown on to the streets for offering sexual favours to keep the family alive – into a Hollywood fantasy of success in the movies. Even in Coalhouse Walker, with the pristine Model T Ford that becomes the crux of his fight for what is only ever personal justice, he offers a satirical spin on the individualism of the American Dream. Men like Ford succeed because men like Walker buy into the fantasy of freedom he sells.
It feels like a different, far more serious novel from the one I read in the 1970s. Perhaps it’s clearer now how many of the issues it raises were of concern at the time. Emma Goldman – despite, I’m sure, being quoted directly at times – could be a feminist speaking in the very year that Doctorow was writing. Then there are the rights of African Americans, and the best ways to achieve genuine equality. And, with the Woodstock generation moving into its twenties and thirties, plenty of readers would recognise Younger Brother’s full-on radicalism and nod ruefully over the common fate of idealists. (The explosions in the novel remind me of the famous sequence in Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point in which an architect-designed house and the trappings of modern consumerism are blown up in elegant slo-mo.) Not that there’s anything straightforward about Younger Brother’s brand of idealism. It’s his obsession with explosives and ordnance that leads to Father’s ill-fated attempt to profit from war – perhaps Doctorow’s only nod towards the recently ended conflict in Vietnam.
But it’s the comedy that wins out in the end. It’s like all great satires: for all its dark corners, and in spite of its underlying message that nothing ever gets any better, it’s a feel-good novel. It’s as though history, as Doctorow muses on the final page, ‘were no more than a tune on a player piano.’ Plenty of great tunes here.