Up until the late 1900’s, the American populace on the whole had assumed a very optimistic view of American history. Glossing over disgraceful events, emphasizing the brighter points in our history, our culture has attempted to ignore the obvious fact that we have had, and still have, our fair share of problems. In Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow unabashedly exposes some of the worst aspects of American life in our more recent history.
Doctorow doesn’t hold back anything, providing detailed examples of human cruelty and sacrifice, and the evolution of American society. While critiquing American society was not the sole purpose of his novel, Doctorow does expose and examine many issues that people tended to ignore like the impoverished immigrant working class, racism, and feminism. The emphasis Doctorow places on these issues makes it clear that he thought, ‘… America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.’ ; (33).
The period in American history at the turn of the 20 th century is commonly referred as the Gilded Age. This is in reference to the increased size of the lower classes and the emergence of the elite capitalist as a new hegemonic class that possessed riches and power that were practically undreamt of. This era saw a dramatic increase in the size of the lower classes as immigrants filled the country and jobs became scarce, and a decrease in the size of the middle class. However, despite the less than ideal conditions that existed for many people in the country, middle and upper class citizens had the impression that they were in an era of prosperity. They turned a blind eye towards all the suffering and hardships of the lower class, in their perfect, ignorant world ‘There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants’; (3).
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Doctorow recognized the dominant attitude of the times for what it was, pure ignorance, and set out in Ragtime to educate the middle and upper class about the real world and the hardships that many people have to endure. In the beginning of the novel, the nameless family that the story revolves around has an air of purity to it. At this point in time everyone seems to be as it should be, they are well off financially, they have a normal family residing in a normal house in a normal neighborhood. The only member of the family who has any inkling of the darker times ahead is the mother who thinks to herself ‘Yet I know these are the happy years.
And ahead of us are only great disasters.’ ; (11).
She is the only one who realizes that life is too idyllic to remain that way. Father’s departure for the North Pole marks the beginning of what the family would have viewed as a decline in their quality of their lives. In truth however, they are merely opening their eyes to a world that is not as perfect as they had perceived.
As Father’s ship left the harbor, a passing immigrant ship caught his gaze and he could not remove his eyes from them. He saw ‘; Thousands of male heads in derbies. Thousands of female heads covered with shawls. It was a rag ship with a million dark eyes staring at him. Father, a normally resolute person, suddenly foundered in his soul. A weird despair seized him.’ ; (12) At the first sight of hardship in his sheltered life, Father finds himself not knowing what to do, or to feel.
He has never seen such poverty at such a close distance, and its very existence causes him to feel afraid almost. In the following chapter, Doctorow proceeds to speak of the immigrants: ‘They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole.
They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually.’ ; (13) Father’s unnerving brush with poverty leaves him stricken with hopelessness and a feeling of despair. Yet even then, the family had not witnessed the full truth of the lives of the impoverished immigrants.
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Doctorow then proceeds to describe in harsh, uncensored terms the reality of the situation. Doctorow’s disgust with American society was exemplified through this harsh examination of the life of immigrants. Another issue that comes up in the novel as an issue that deserves addressing, is that of racism. America has always been a sort of beacon to the oppressed peoples of the world, and in serving that role has accepted immigrants from all across the globe. Many people have said that America is a nation of immigrants, since virtually all of her citizens have a lineage that did not originate here.
Therefore, one would think that since America is composed of such a racially diverse population that racism would not be such a problem. The people would have recognized that they are all part of ‘a crazy quilt of humanity!’ ; (16) as Jacob Riis referred to his color-coded map for the ethnic divisions in Manhattan. But the truth is that racism still existed, indeed, it was much more of a prominent issue in this country. There was racism towards immigrants, towards blacks, towards the Irish, there was racism from the Irish to other immigrants.
In hoping to expose the racist attitudes of America, Doctorow exposes the unnamed family to the man Coalhouse Walker Jr. Coalhouse Walker Jr. was a fine gentleman. In his visits to the family’s house to speak to Sarah he was courteous and respectful, yet he did not debase himself or sacrifice his pride.
It was the very fact that Coalhouse Walker Jr. ‘seemed to able to transform the customary d eferences practiced by his race so that they reflected to his own dignity rather than the recipient’s.’ ; (134) that unnerved Father, who was accustomed to seeing Negroes in a position of humility. Father was actually worried by his visits, he thought that ‘There is something reckless about [Coalhouse]. Even Mathew Henson knew his place.’ ; (135).
The truth is that Coalhouse did not act like he didn’t know he was a Negro, he acted as though he were proud of himself and the way he had made his way in the world. Father simply didn’t realize that Negroes have pride too, and what he was seeing was not an upstart young black man but a prideful gentleman who knew his designated place in society but chose to ignore it. The true tragedy of this story, as it pertains to racism, is when Coalhouse’s car is desecrated and the steps Coalhouse takes to preserve his own pride. I found it extremely satisfying, and depressing at the same time, that so much chaos resulted from the defiance of one man to sacrifice his pride.
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Coalhouse’s story ends the only way it could have in a novel that was exhibiting the negative side of American society, in Coalhouse’s death. Yet Doctorow’s message is not intended to simply reprimand white people. It is to reprimand American society as a whole, for allowing these events that culminated in the deaths of many good people to occur in the first place. Another problem that was plaguing American society was the discrimination the majority of society had against women.
Throughout all of American history, women’s rights has been an issue that men have been trying to avoid. At the turn of the 20 th century when Ragtime takes place, women did not even possess the right to vote. Women were expected to fill the roles of mothers and wives, they were expected to live in a position of deference in respect to men. In this novel, women’s rights are championed through the characters of Emma Goldman and Mother, both of whom take charge of their own lives and seek to make the best of their situation.
Emma Goldman started out as an immigrant worker, and eventually became one of the most powerful Anarchists in the nation who spoke out against the oppression of the working class and women alike. She traveled around the nation giving speeches urging workers and women to break free of the shackles society has placed upon them. Eventually she was deported, but Doctorow writes about her with a certain admiration, exemplified through Tateh’s ‘great respect for her personal courage and integrity’; (44).
Mother is clearly the great example that Doctorow creates. Mother goes from being in a position of complete subservience to her husband and the rest of her male-dominated household, to running the family business and controlling the family. Eventually she is released from her obligations to her husband, but instead of remaining a widow she was happily remarried after a year to Tateh.
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Doctorow created this character as a role model for the young women of America. She followed her own desires, ignoring the restrictions that society had placed on women. She was not subject to racism, and was not repulsed to discover the truth that Tateh was an immigrant socialist, in fact she ‘accepted him without hesitation.’ ; (269).
Once again, Doctorow shows his distaste for the traditional values of American society by allowing Mother’s strong character to flourish and be happy in a society that was designed for men. Perhaps Doctorow did not think of America as a gigantic mistake.
The fact that the book ended on a hopeful note, with Mother and Tateh being married, gives the impression that Doctorow still has hope for America. But it is only with the help of people like Mother and Tateh, who incidentally are two of the few main characters still alive at the end of the book, that American society can hope to better itself. The ignorance of people to the poverty of the working class, the racism in an ethnically diverse culture, and the conservative stance of men towards women, are all problems that can be corrected with time and effort. It is to be expected that in a unique society like America problems will arise. Doctorow’s novel is more than a simple criticism of the United States, it is a statement of his belief that America can improve itself but there is much that needs to be improved.