Editor's note: On March 12, the National Book Critics Circle will present its 40th annual awards in six categories — fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, biography, criticism and poetry. This week, we look back to a 1975 Tribune review of the first novel to win the NBCC Award: E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime."
Some otherwise astute musical academicians still dismiss ragtime as "whorehouse music." It was that, but it isn't dismissible. All Scott Joplin, its master, adds up to is the best American composer up to now apart from Charles Ives. Pieces like "The Easy Winners" — rigidly controlled like classical works, in sharp contrast to the romanticism of ragtime's Dionysian offspring, jazz — express with an unspeakable precision and poignancy the gay-sad mood of black Americans at the turn of the century. Moreover, because they are the work of a genius, and genius knows no race or color or time, they also express to some extent the gay-sad mood of everybody everywhere at all times.
"Ragtime" isn't a novel about ragtime music; indeed, ragtime music is barely mentioned in passing. Why, then, begin a review of it with a paragraph about ragtime music? Because this is a novel clearly inspired by that music and by the queer light it throws on the time in which it flourished and suffused with its mood and almost its rhythms. Because it is not a novel about ragtime but a novel in ragtime.
"Ragtime" is basically the story of an upper middle class white family in New Rochelle, New York, and its black servant and her daughter and lover, in the years 1902-1913. Its hero, a black musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr., is not introduced until about halfway through — hardly within the rules for the "well-made novel." But the device is perfectly within them for well-made ragtime, which is characterized by the serial introduction of entirely new themes. Its narrative style is unorthodox consisting entirely of indirect discourse with no dialogue and a point of view that is neither subjective nor omniscient, merely reportorial; but then, ragtime music was so unsettling to orthodox listeners that they had to pigeonhole it as whorehouse music. It is full of coincidences and implausibilities; that is because, like ragtime, it is not about life but about a dream of life.
Coalhouse Walker Jr., lover and fiance of the unnamed family's maid, Sarah, drives his brand-new Ford from Harlem into New Rochelle, where a group of roughneck firemen waylay it and, as a racist prank, spatter it with mud, rip its cloth top, and defecate in its back seat. Walker protests to the police, is arrested, and is bailed out by Father, the head of the family.
Shortly thereafter, Sarah, attending a local rally receives a blow in the chest from a militiaman's rifle that results in her death. The embittered Walker forms a black radical coalition that is a deliberately anachronistic parody of the black radical groups of the 1960s.
After first blowing up a couple of New Rochelle firehouses, the Coalhouse Gang becomes notorious. A New York newspaper, unable to find a picture of Walker, prints one of Scott Joplin and labels it Walker. Finally the Coalhouse Gang executes its climactic act of defiance against the white world: It invades and takes possession of the J.P. Morgan mansion and library in New York City, demanding that Coalhouse's automobile be returned to him in its original condition. After negotiations, the demand is met. Coalhouse, who has been promised safe conduct, walks out into the street and is gunned down by police.
That is the plot and the reviewer has no compunction about recounting it, because, as to both physical and emotional content, it occupies a comparatively small part of "Ragtime." It is a fable that serves as an excuse for a great deal of social observation, and for the introduction of numerous real historical people, each of whom Doctorow (best known previously for "The Book of Daniel") freely and happily gives his own utterly unhistorical twists.
We see Evelyn Nesbit, a young beauty for the love of whom Harry K. Thaw killed the famous architect Stanford White, being seduced, more or less, by anarchist leader Emma Goldman. We see Thaw in the Tombs exposing himself to the astonished magician Harry Houdini (who figures as a recurring motif). We see J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford having a hilarious dialogue about reincarnation, and Morgan in Egypt fighting bedbugs on his deathbed.
This mixture of fact and fiction may confuse or mislead the unwary or historically uninformed reader, and it suggests a projection onto the past of the suspect techniques of the New Journalism. I, for one, although no friend of that aberration, am willing to forgive any historical novelist who makes his flights from historical fact as funny and pertinent as Doctorow makes his. Like Houdini's audiences, I am made to enjoy being fooled. As to the topical descriptions, they appear to be accurate enough to satisfy an exacting student of Americana. Certainly they are alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required.
But "Ragtime" is not social history disguised as a novel; rather it is the novel as social history, an imaginative flight based on the facts of the past but released rather than confined by them, as ragtime's music's muted madness is heightened by the limits of its rigid form. Literary comparisons are of limited value. One thinks of Dos Passos' "U.S.A." — a far more ambitious undertaking — but there history is encapsulated in separate sections, while here it is embedded in the fabric of the narrative. The real influence is not literary but musical.
"A certain light was still available along the Eastern seaboard" in those days, Doctorow says. "Winslow Homer painted that light. ... Odd things went on in lighthouses and in shacks nestled in the wild beach plum. Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable." The belief that a form of light, unique and recapturable, pervades a certain place in a certain time and no other, is characteristic of "Ragtime." It is not by chance that the figure of Houdini keeps recurring. What Doctorow is after is magic; the particular magic he sees, like Joplin's music, is a form of escape.
Joplin said — and Doctorow quotes as his epigraph — "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast. It would not be right to read "Ragtime" fast.
At the time of publication, John Brooks, who died in 1993, was a New Yorker staff writer, author of "The Go-Go Years" and president of the Authors Guild.
Unquestionably Doctorow’s most popular novel, made into a film in 1981, Ragtime is one more expression of its author’s satiric attempt to re-create American history and thereby create imaginative truth in place of dry, historical facts. Indeed, his fiction is deeply embedded in history, and most of his novels have dealt with a significant time in America’s past: Welcome to Hard Times (1960) portrays the settling of the West; The Book of Daniel (1971) exposes the American heritage of political radicalism and repression, specifically as it is manifested in the postwar era; Ragtime chronicles the metamorphosis of American life at the beginning of the twentieth century; Loon Lake (1980) describes the traumatic repercussions suffered by Americans as a result of the Great Depression; and World’s Fair re-creates the 1930’s from another angle of vision.
As might be expected, all of Doctorow’s fiction is political insofar as he portrays time and again the dichotomy that exists between how America is supposed to be ideally and the way it is actually. Yet the conflict between these two Americas is never resolved in his fiction; instead, in Doctorow’s novels America is like the floe-hidden sea on which Peary searches for the North Pole in Ragtime: It is in perpetual flux and resists being “fixed.” At one point in The Book of Daniel, the narrator observes: “Of one thing we are sure. Everything is elusive. God is elusive. Revolutionary morality is elusive. Justice is elusive. Human character.” Doctorow makes it quite clear in Ragtime, as in his other novels, that America—as it is defined in the Constitution—is itself elusive.