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Archive for July, 2009

Ragtime – E.L.Doctorow – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 1, 2009

Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast — Scott Joplin

The march of history is impersonal, relentless and randomly mechanistic in its own way. We just dont know in which direction the mechanism works. Maybe that prompted the famous historian Sir Herbert Butterfield to say that “History is just one bloody thing after another.” Shorn of any reverence and romanticism, I sometimes feel that history is just that – one bloody thing after another. Yet to look back at these sequentially bloody things and make sense of them can be a very fascinating experience. I always enjoyed reading books that gave me a sense of history. Especially those books which give me perspectives of history seen and experienced by ordinary people living through momentous changes. E.L.Doctrow’Ragtime is one such book that I have read in the recent past where history is blended with fiction to produce a brilliant concoction of fictionalised history

The book is set in the early twentieth century when America was witnessing massive influx of immigrants, rise of wallstreet barons like J.P.Morgan, dehumanising changes in manufacturing ushered by the introduction of assembly line by Henry Ford, struggling, tottering and oppressed trade unionism, rising acceptance of anarchism and feminism, altering race relationships especially the rise of militant rejoinders as form assertion of black identity, growing popularity of cinema and the ubiquitousness of railroads. Into this kaldeioscopic flux of developments, Doctorow introduces us to CoalHouse Walker – a highly accomplished black pianist who after extended life of a wandering musician, comes to reclaim his lover Sarah and their child of wedlock. Sarah and the child are under the protection of a liberal minded and sympathetic white couple. For a large part of the book the son of this couple is the main narrator in the book. Walker is well mannered and given to very stylish living. In the course of his visits to Sarah, he becomes a victim of racial abuse and his car gets vandalised. Failing to obtain appropriate redressal, Walker seeks revenge by declaring war on the fire service force of NewYork. Sarah gets killed trying to lodge a petition with high ranked politicians. Enraged by this huge personal loss and as a last resort, he and a band of his followers takeover the private museum of J.P. Morgan and threaten to blow it up with dynamites. In this quest for justice, Walker is joined by the brother of Sarah’s protector who is a white man and who embraces the anarchist views of Emma Goldman. On a different note Doctorow also builds the story of a socialist worker and artist Tateh who disillusioned by the futility of trade unionism embraces capitalist ethos and undertakes making of movies for mass consumption. By dint of force Walker gets back his car rebuilt by the same people who vandalised it but in the process of surrender gets shot. The narrator’s family and Tateh come closer with the narrator’s mother getting married to Tateh. As multiple strands of the story starts to get intertwined, Doctorow mixes history with fiction imaginatively and in the process the reader gets to see Booker T Washington, Houdini, Freud, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and the sowing of seeds for first world war along with a superb sense of the period

My first reaction to reading this book was a sense of disbelief for this was the kind of book I always wanted read and get to know of a writer who could write like this. Doctorow is outstanding in bringing the rage of an age to the fore. Fusing both fiction and fact, Doctorow builds unforgettable characters. CoalHouse Walker will remain as great a black character as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, William Styron’s Nat Turner or Braithwaite’s Mark Thackaray. Even a majority of the minor characters also stand out in their own way quite well. Although he draws deeply from the wellsprings of modern history, the culling and subsequent marshalling of facts always remain subservient to the story telling. It is this aspect of the narration that I enjoyed immensely. Doctorow‘s narrative skills are outstanding. There is a cleanness and ease to his prose that just grabs you from the word go. Consider two of his passages. The first where the onset of spring is being described:

“Spring, spring! Like a mad magician flinging silks and coloured rags from his trunk the earth produced the yellow and white crocus, then the fox grape and forsythia flowering on its stalks, the blades of iris, the apple tree blossoms of pink and white and green, the heavy lilac and the daffodil. Grandfather stood in the yard and gaving a standing ovation. A breeze came up and blew from the maples a shower of spermatozoic soft-headed green buds. They caught in his sparse gray hair. He shook his head with delight, feeling a wreath has been bestowed…. everywhere the sap rose and birds sang” ……………….   or the march of Sarah’s hearse

Sarah’s coffin was bronze. The hearse was a custome Pierce Arrow Opera Coach with an elongated passenger compartment and a driver’s cab open to weather. The top was railed with brass and banked with flowers. Black ribbon flew from the four corners of the roof. The car was so highly polished the boy could see in its rear doors a reflection of the entire street. Everything was black including the sky… There were several town cars for carrying the mourners to the cemetery. The mourners were mostly musicians….. They were Negro men with closely cropped hair, tightly buttoned dark suits, rounded collars and black ties. The women with them wore dresses that brushed the top of their shoes, wide-brimmed hats and small furs around their shoulders……….The cortege moved slowly. Children ran behind it and people on the sidewalks stopped to stare… Passengers on the trolley cars along the outer lanes of the bridge stood up in their seats to see the grand parade. The sun shone. Gulls rose from the water. They flew between the suspension cables and settled along the railings as the last of the cars went by”  — this to me is like a cinematic view generated by the panning of the camera from all angles including the top (where gulls are made to look from the top on behalf of and for the readers)

With a bit of research on the web, I became aware that Ragtime was a kind of music popularised by Scott Joplin. It enjoyed its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918 before being pushed aside by Jazz. I listened to the Maple Leaf Rag – a Joplin’s composition and was taken in by its rhythm, simplicity and appeal. The novel is also set during this period and deals with a musician who is deeply influenced by Scott Joplin. In fact at one place in the novel he plays this piece for the protectors of Sarah. Maybe it is a reason that prompted Doctorow to call this wonderful, deeply satisfying and remarkable book Ragtime. I rejoice that I have discovered E.L.Doctorow and now I am looking forward to reading his Loon lake and The Book of Daniel – both of which I have in my collection

Afterword: I listened to the rendition of Maple Leaf Rag by Gianni Guida on Youtube many times over and found it absolutely brilliant

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