RAGTIME / E.L. Doctorow 1975. (320 pgs)
First Sentence: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Very familiar, folksy but distant third-person narrator, who is intimately aware of the characters, their actions and their setting, but maintains a separation as if not to become personally responsible for them or their activities. This is supported by the intimation that the story you are about to hear took place in a slightly glamorized past, but is being told as if that past was just a few minutes ago.
Setting: As you might grasp from the title of the book and its first sentence we are in America, with a capitol ‘A’, when Teddy Roosevelt was President, deals were “square” and the First World War was barely yet a murmur.
What we learn in first paragraphs: In these opening paragraphs we are clearly set down in a universally familiar location: a house that Father built with the fortune from his bunting business and a description of its “stoutness.” From this simple address we move quickly upward in a flurry of patriotic public pastimes, hang out with Teddy Roosevelt, swing back to “Little Boy” playing on his porch, while skimming the muted agreement that fallen women best go elsewhere to fall, and end up in media headlines that create public opinion. Two and a half pages later, the first, very long, paragraph ends with, “And though the newspapers called it the Crime of the Century, (Emma) Goldman knew there were ninety-four years to go.” It is confirmed. The year is 1904. As a reader I feel secure being placed firmly into a period of history by an author who utilizes the brash histrionics of media sensationalism and historical characters – Emma Goldberg, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Houdini – in contrast to the consumers of such as played by generic characters, Father, Mother, Younger Brother and Little Boy. In Ragtime the faces of America are the faces we see in the headlines and chiseled into stone at Mt. Rushmore. The faces of you and me hold the majority, but are vaguely ubiquitous and somewhat interchangeable.
What we learn in first 10 pages: Right off the bat we are told, “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.”, and yet we can see that, “Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants.” The first ten pages that we are in that America were really and truly anything can happen. Little Boy dreams of Harry Houdini and on the next page Harry Houdini’s car breaks down in front of their house and the great magician comes in for tea. After a couple of magic tricks, Little Boy warns Houdini and ends the first chapter with the prophetic exclamation, “Warn the duke,” intended, I presume, as a premonition to the beginning of the First World War. What vastness! The first chapter slices through an enthusiastic consciousness of post turn of the century giddiness, proclaiming an echo from Voltaire, “everything is as it is” and how “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Cue marching band. Unfurl bunting!
Chapter two is brief, personal and shadowy, beginning in the aftermath of sex, albeit interrupted by Houdini’s visit, traveling through the prospect of death and Father’s imminent departure with Perry’s third expedition to the North Pole, and ending with a metaphysical snapshot of the precious timing of life – as Perry’s expedition travels away from the Statue of Liberty a rag ship packed to the railings with dark eyed immigrants (get it, Ragtime) passes on its way into New York Harbor.
Plot & Expectations: From these first ten pages my expectations for the book are huge. Doctorow has brought forth a world that is in the transition between individual craftsmanship and the production line of Henry Ford, literally. Ford Motor Company began in 1903. Ragtime begins in 1904. Immigrants are pouring through Ellis Island. Father has enlisted with Admiral Perry, Younger Brother is in love with the woman responsible for the crime of the century and Mother will wait. The reader is set up for a story that can go in any direction.
Notes: Ragtime was made into a movie and decade and a half later into a Broadway musical.