Jane Sullivan is a journalist. She was born in England to Australian parents. Since 1979, she has lived in Melbourne, and writes a column and features about books and writing for The Age. Jane's first novel, The White Star, was published by Penguin Books Australia in 2000. Below she discusses E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime.
Jane Sullivan on Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
When I came back to re-read Ragtime after 30 years, the scene I remembered was the dirty one. Scandalous society beauty Evelyn Nesbit is lying naked on her bed. She has just had an all-over massage from Emma Goldman, a heroic anarchist and feminist with possible (no, make that certain) lesbian tendencies. Evelyn is possibly (make that certainly) having an orgasm. Mother's Younger Brother is hiding in the closet, and at this point he falls into the room.
He was clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.This scene transfixed me at the time, I think particularly because of the word 'jism', which I had never heard before, let alone seen in print. It seemed much more excitingly obscene than the more familiar four-letter words.
I read Ragtime in the 1970s because, like The Da Vinci Code today, it was the book that everyone was reading. It was hailed as the novel that would change novels forever. An extravagant claim, in retrospect: but I can see where it was coming from.
'The Most Acclaimed Bestseller Ever Published' says the blurb on the cover of my rather nasty orange British paperback edition from 1976; I'm not sure if that is still true, but it probably was at the time.
It was about America in the early 1900s, a period overshadowed by the Great War that followed, a place and a time I knew nothing about. I remember I didn't just feel I was reading a book about another world. I felt I was plucked up, carried off and dropped right in the middle of it.
Since then, I've read and enjoyed other books by E.L. Doctorow, but I felt no urge to return to Ragtime until I happened to read an essay he wrote for the Washington Post about how he came to start the novel. He had just finished writing The Book of Daniel and his mind was blank from emotional exhaustion. Sitting in his study, on the top floor of his house in New Rochelle, New York, he decided to write about the wall he was staring at.
The wall was part of a house that was built in 1906. He imagined first the house, and then New Rochelle, and how the place would have looked when the house was new. He thought of trolley cars, people wearing white in the summer, women carrying parasols, Teddy Roosevelt as president.
Something very like those first jottings is on the first page of Ragtime. Short, breathless, deadpan sentences introduce us to the particular, the universal and the downright peculiar.
Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.Within a couple of pages of my re-reading, I experienced the sensation I had forgotten from the first time. I was dizzy. Doctorow swoops you over his landscape like an army helicopter, zooms in on small, intimate scenes, gives you a staccato burst of events, then pulls out to reveal another panorama.
Even on re-reading, it takes a long time to work out what the book is about. That is because although it focuses more and more on certain recurring characters - in particular, three families, whose lives become intertwined - it is also about the birth of a rampaging capitalist society.
Birth is a violent event, so this is an era of extreme contrast and volcanic change. Doctorow writes about the very rich and the very poor; Negroes and immigrants; pillars of society and criminal outlaws; scandals that filled the newspapers; and quiet but no less momentous events behind the scenes.
Most of Doctorow's stories are true: or, more accurately, imagined from the truth that is recorded, or from stories about his own family. There are many real historical celebrities here, some major characters, others cameos. Harry Houdini learns to fly. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung share a boat in the Tunnel of Love. Teddy Roosevelt bags game.
One of the best set pieces is a meeting of mutual incomprehension between two of the most powerful men to emerge in twentieth-century America, the financier J. Pierpont Morgan and the up-and-coming motorcar manufacturer Henry Ford. The way their minds don't meet is comic and prophetic.
Another longer, recurring set piece, with the vigorous melancholy of a ballad, is the story of Coalhouse Walker, a quiet and dignified Negro musician (they didn't talk about African-Americans then, and they scarcely talked about Negroes) who is gradually driven into crime and anarchy.
These days, it's not so unusual to come across historical novels with a wide canvas and a readiness to imagine the outrageous exploits of real people, even in areas of their lives they would have done anything to keep hidden. Back in the 1970s, Ragtime was stunningly different. The critics loved it, but were also a little alarmed. C.P. Snow thought the book would be argued about, disapproved of, found impossible to put into any slot.
I suspect many readers of Ragtime today would still argue, disapprove and search in vain for the right slot. But that goes to show the book is still alive, still making us dizzy, still showing us the great heaving lyrical chaos that gave birth to the Western world we live in. I laughed when I re-read it, I got angry at horrible injustices, I shivered a little, and I smiled in delight.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]