Ragtime Essay, Research Paper
Ragtime by Doctorow
At the turn of the twentieth century America witnessed the Progressive movement. The people had a desire to end the corruption in government and to control the big corporations. They took action by cleaning up the cities, making them cleaner and safer. Cities were redesigned, and housing codes were established. Not only were cities being reformed, but also institutions like laws, schools and government. The movement inspired a quest for social justice, more democracy in politics, and widespread economic regulation. Laws were forged to enforce the riddance of corruption in the marketplace. Teddy Roosevelt emerged as not only the leader of a nation, but also as the leader of the Progressive movement. He became known as the great trust-buster. He established the Pure Food and Drug Act which made food safer for the consumer. America developed an intense feeling of nostalgia for these times. It appeared as if times couldn t have been better. The Progressive Era was and is considered by some a warmer time; a time when things were less complicated. Today s society does not know of the other side to the Progressive Era. They do not remember these times as times of conflict and violence, as times of discrimination, as times when immigrants lived (and died) in filthy, unventilated tenements. This era is thought of as a nostalgic time. In a book titled Ragtime, through the portrayal of three different families, E.L. Doctorow presents these times as very anti-nostalgic.
One portrayal is of an immigrant Jewish family living in inner-city tenements. The family consists of Mameh, the mother; Tateh, the father; and their daughter. They were told that the little girl must attend school. Tateh was a peddler and Mameh sewed dresses, the two of them had a very difficult time paying their bills as it was. Pressured by constant financial needs, Mameh began selling herself into prostitution. The family shattered. Mameh left in shame and Tateh mourned her as if she were dead. He worked day and night, trying to sell his silhouettes on the street, all the while having the little girl tied to him with a rope so no one would steal her.
Another of the three families was a black family, living in Harlem. This family had never come together, so it was already shattered. The man, Coalhouse Walker, had a child with a young girl named Sarah. Not being able to support the child, Sarah tries to kill their baby. Another lady stumbles upon it and takes it into her home. Sarah moves in with the family. Coalhouse is a musician who is struggling to establish himself as an equal in society. He visits every day, but Sarah will not see him. Finally, they decide to get married and settle down as a family. However, before this could happen, Sarah was killed at a rally for the vice-president. Coalhouse goes off the edge, focusing all his rage and anger on being discriminated against by some racist fireman. He kills them and many more before he later holed up in Pierpont Morgan s estate, where he eventually is killed in a shootout. Meanwhile, the baby is left with no mother or father.
The third and final portrayal is that of an upper middle class white family living in a quiet subdivision outside of the city. The family is composed of Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and a little boy, the son of Mother and Father. Father owns his own company and is very successful. However, he is described as being out of touch with himself. He is constantly searching for order and success in his life. He goes on long expeditions around the world hoping to achieve success, but they only distance him from his family. When he returns from his trip to the north pole his relations with Mother have changed and he starts sinking into himself, turning into a zombie. Meanwhile Mother is hiding feminist literature under the bed. As Father sinks, she rises to be the new head of the family, not to mention a liberated woman. The little boy is odd, constantly quiet. He enjoys staring at his grandfather and reading the newspaper daily. All the while, Younger Brother is hanging up pictures of Evelyn Nesbit, his object of endless lust. He thinks of her day and night, following her around each day, constantly in the shadows. Withdrawn from everything else, he lives and breathes her name. When he is rejected, he turns rebellious, creating intricate explosives and becomes a revolutionary in Mexico.
Doctorow s novel clearly shows the Progressive Era as an anti-nostalgic time. While history books show the good things that came out of the time period, Doctorow displays society s daily hardships and conflicts. He describes the filthy crime ridden living conditions in the inner-city tenements. He portrays the difficult attempts of immigrant families to make a living. Doctorow exposes the burden having a child placed on people living in the ghetto, and the discrimination that they encountered on a daily basis. He shows that the inner cities and slums were not the only places that produced things not worth remembering. Even the upper middle class white families were affected by the time period. Everything was not polished and shiny. Family members went their own ways, and the women emerged from their subservient roles, learning about feminist movements. Families sometimes became dysfunctional and disjointed. This is what Docotorow showed in Ragtime.