E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 book Ragtime is listed as 1 of the 100 All-Time Best books. When it was published, Time Magazine listed it as one of the best ten books of the decade. You can read the full book free online Here: I’ll be listing many of the passages that I consider to be significant below, and for page references, please see the paperback version of the book published by Plume in 1976.
“Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast….” Scott Joplin
In its opening chapters, Ragtime seems to be the telling of several unconnected vignettes about people who actually lived in New York in about 1902. It almost seems that some of the clips are designed simply to help create the setting and the time frame of the book. As the story progresses, some of the people in the vignettes are drawn into the loop, but at first, I found the reading to be a bit confusing and disjointed. Following, I have provided some background information for a few of the characters who make cameo performances throughout the book.
One of the stories in Ragtime is about Evelyn Nesbit:
Here is what Wikipedia says about Evelyn Nesbit:
“Florence Evelyn Nesbit (December 25, 1884 – January 17, 1967), known professionally as Evelyn Nesbit, was a popular American chorus girl, an artists’ model, and an actress.
Nesbit Drawing by Charles Dana Gibson
In the early part of the 20th century, the figure and face of Evelyn Nesbit were everywhere, appearing in mass circulation newspaper and magazine advertisements, on souvenir items and calendars, making her a cultural celebrity. Her career began in her early teens in Philadelphia and continued in New York, where she posed for a cadre of respected artists of the era, James Carroll Beckwith, Frederick S. Church, and notably Charles Dana Gibson, who idealized her as a “Gibson Girl”. She had the distinction of being an early “live model”, in an era when fashion photography as an advertising medium was just beginning its ascendancy.
“Nesbit claimed that as a stage performer, and while still a 14-year-old, she attracted the attention of the then 47-year-old architect and New York socialite Stanford White, who first gained the family’s trust then sexually assaulted Evelyn while she was unconscious. Nesbit achieved world-wide notoriety when her husband, multi-millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, shot and murdered Stanford White on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden on the evening of June 25, 1906, leading to what the press would call “The Trial of the Century”.
Harry Kendall Thaw
The book Ragtime begins in the home of a wealthy flag maker, who lived in New Rochelle, New York. His wife’s younger brother is infatuated with Evelyn Nesbit.
Setting for the Book Ragtime:
“In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair. The best part of Father’s income was derived from the manufacture of flags and buntings and other accoutrements of patriotism, including fireworks. Patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900’s. Teddy Roosevelt was President. The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms. There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. They visit 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. On Sunday afternoon, after dinner, Father and Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door. Grandfather fell asleep on the divan in the parlor. The Little Boy in the sailor blouse sat on the screened porch and waved away the flies. … The air was salt. Mother’s Younger Brother in his white linen suit and boater rolled his trousers and walked barefoot in the salt marshes. Sea birds started and flew up. This was the time in our history when Winslow Homer was doing his painting. A certain light was still available along the Eastern seaboard. Homer painted the light. It gave the sea a heavy dull menace and shone coldly on the rock and shoals of the New England coast.” pgs. 3 – 4.
The Fog Warning by Winslow Homer
“The afternoon was a blue haze. Tidewater seeped into his footprints. He bent down and found a perfect shell specimen, a variety not common to western Long Island Sound. It was a voluted pink and amber shell the shape of a thimble, and what he did in the hazy sun with the salt drying on his ankles was to throw his head back and drink the minute amount of sea water in the shell. Gulls wheeled overhead, crying like oboes, and behind him at the land end of the marsh, out of sight the tall grasses, the distant bell of the North Avenue streetcar tolled its warning.” p. 5
” An automobile was coming up the hill from North Avenue. As it drew closer he saw it was a black 45- horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout. He ran along the porch and stood at the top of the steps. The car came past his house, made a loud noise and swerved into the telephone pole. … The driver and the passenger were standing in the street looking at the car: it had big wheels with pneumatic tires and wooden spokes painted in black enamel. It had brass headlamps in front of the radiator and brass sidelamps over the fenders. It had tufted upholstery and double side entrances. It did not appear to be damaged. The driver was in livery. He folded back the hood and a geyser of white steam shot up with a hiss.” p. 7.
“The car’s owner was Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. He was spending the day driving through Westchester. He was thinking of buying some property. He was invited into the house while the radiator cooled. He surprised them with his modest, almost colorless demeanor. He seemed depressed. His success had brought into vaudeville a host of competitors. Consequently he had to think of more and more dangerous escapes He was a short, powerfully built man, an athlete obviously, with strong hands and with back and arm muscles that suggested themselves through the cut of his rumpled tweed suit which, though well tailored, was worn this day inappropriately. … Mother had ordered lemonade. It was brought into the parlor and Houdini drank it grateful. The room was kept cool by the awnings on the windows. The windows themselves were shut to keep out the heat. Houdini wanted to undo his collar. He felt trapped by the heavy square furnishings, the drapes and dark rugs, the oriental silk cushions, the green glass lampshades. There was a chaise with a zebra rug. Noticing Houdini’s gaze Father mentioned that he had shot that zebra on a hunting trip in Africa. Father was an amateur explorer of considerable reputation. He was president of the New York Explorers Club to which he made an annual disbursement. In fact in just a few days he would be leaving to carry the Club’s standard on the third Peary expedition to the Artic. ” pgs. 7 – 8.
. . .
The Arrival of the Immigrants
“The next morning, after a champagne breakfast with the press, the men of Peary’s polar expedition cast off the lines and their sturdy little ship, the _Roosevelt__, backed out of her berth into the East River. Fireboats sent up sprays of water which misted in rainbows as the early morning sun rose over the city. Passenger liners tooted their basso horns. It was not until some time later, when the _Roosevelt__ had reached the open sea, that Father was persuaded of the actuality of the trip. As he stood at the railing there was transmitted to his bones the awesome unalterable rhythm of the ocean. A while later the _Roosevelt__ passed an incoming transatlantic vessel packed to the railing with immigrants. Father watched the prow of the scaly broad-beamed vessel splash in the sea. Her decks were packed with people. 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. The wind came up, the sky had turned overcast, and the great ocean began to tumble and break upon itself as if made of slabs of granite and sliding terraces of slate. He watched the ship till he could see it no longer. Yet aboard her were only more customers, for the immigrant population set great store by the American flag.” pgs. 11-12.
“Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of the immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn’t pronounced and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. 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. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes. Irish kids pulled the beards of old Jews and knocked them down. They upended the pushcarts of Italian peddlers.” p. 13.
“But somehow piano lessons began to be heard. People stitched themselves to the flag. They carved paving stones for the streets. They sang. They told jokes. The family lived in one room and everyone worked: Mameh, Tateh and The Little Girl in the pinafore. Mameh and the little girl sewed knee pants and got seventy cents a dozen. They sewed from the time they got up to the time they went to bed. Tateh made his living in the street. As time went on they got to know the city. One Sunday, in a wild impractical mood, they spent twelve cents for three fares on the streetcar and rode uptown. They walked on Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue and looked at the mansions. Their owner called them palaces. And that’s what they were, they were palaces. They had all been designed by Stanford White.” p. 14.
. . .
“In the killing summer heat politicians up for reelection invited their followers to outings in the country. Toward the end of July one candidate led a parade through the streets of the Fourth Ward. He wore a gardenia in his lapel. A band played a Sousa march. The members of the candidate’s Benevolent Association followed the band and the entire procession made its way to the river where everyone boarded the steamer _Grand Republic__, which then set a course up the Long Island Sound to Rye, New York, just beyond New Rochelle. The steamer overloaded with perhaps five thousand men, listed badly to starboard. The sun was hot. The passengers jammed the decks and crowded the railing for a breath of air. The water was like glass. At Rye everyone disembarked for another parade to the Pavilion, where at picnic tables the traditional fish chowder was served by a small army of waiters in white full-length aprons. After the luncheon speeches were made from a band shell. The band shell was decorated with patriotic bunting. This has been provided by Father’s firm. There were also banners with the candidate’s name spelled in gold and small American flags on gold sticks that were given as favor at each table. The men of the Benevolent Association spent the afternoon consuming beer from kegs on tap, playing baseball and throwing horseshoes. The meadows of Rye were dotted with men dozing on the grass under their derbies. In the evening another meal was served and a military band played a concert, and then came the culmination of the entertainment: a display of fireworks.” pgs. 18 – 19.
. . .
“Houdini … was a Jew. His real name was Erich Weiss. He was passionately in love with ancient mother whom he had installed in his brownstone home on West 113th Street. In fact Sigmund Freud had just arrived in America to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and so Houdini was destined to be, with Al Jolson, the last of the great shameless mother lovers, a nineteenth-century movement that included such men as Poe, John Brown, Lincoln and James McNeill Whistler. Of course Freud’s immediate reception in America was not auspicious. A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.” p. 30.
. . .
Poverty in New York City
“He sat in his quiet cozy study in Vienna, glad to be back. He said to Ernest Jones, America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake. At the time of course not a few people on those sores were ready to agree with him. Millions of men were out of work. Those fortunate enough to have jobs were dared to form unions. Courts enjoined them, police busted their heads, their leaders were jailed and new men took their jobs. A union was an affront to God. The laboring man would be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, said one wealthy man, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom had given the control of the property interests of this country. If all else failed the troops were called out. Armories rose in every city of the country. In the coal fields a miner made a dollar sixty a day if he could dig three tons. He lived in the company’s shacks and bought his food from the company stores. On the tobacco farms Negroes stripped tobacco leaves thirteen hours a day and earned six cents an hour, man, woman or child. Children suffered no discriminatory treatment. They did not complain as adults tended to do. Employers liked to think of them as happy elves. If there was a problem about employing children it had to do only with their endurance. They were more agile than adults but they tended in the latter hours of the day to lose a degree of efficiency. In the canneries and mills these were the hours they were most likely to lose their fingers or have their hands mangled or their legs crushed; they had to be counseled to stay alert. In the mines they worked as sorters of coal and sometimes were smothered in the coal chutes; they were warned to keep their wits about them. One hundred Negroes a year were lynched. One hundred miners were burned alive. One hundred children were mutilated. There seemed to be quotas for these things. There seemed to be quotas for death by starvation. There were oil trusts and banking trusts and railroad trusts and beef trusts and steel trusts. It became fashionable to honor the poor. At palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. Guests came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs. Ballrooms were decorated to look like mines with beams, iron tracks and miner’s lamp. Theatrical scenery firms were hired to make outdoor gardens look like mines with beams, iron tracks and miner’s lamps. Theatrical scenery firms were hired to make outdoor garden look like dirt farms and dining rooms like cotton mills. Guests smoke cigar butts offered to them on silver trays. Minstrels performed in blackface. One hostess invited everyone to a stockyard ball. Guests were wrapped in long aprons and their heads covered with white caps.” pgs. 33 – 35.
” Evelyn saw stores with Hebrew signs in the windows, the Hebrew letters looking to her eyes like arrangements of bones. She saw the iron fire escaped on the tenements as tiers of cellblocks. Nags in their yokes lifted their bowed necks to gaze at her. Ragmen struggling with their great junk-loaded two-wheeled carts, women selling breads from baskets carried in their arms: they all looked. The driver was nervous. He wore gray livery with black leather jodhpurs. A girl in a pinafore and high-laced shoes sat playing in the muck along the curbstone. A little dirty-faced girl. Stop the car, Evelyn said. The driver run around and opened her door. Evelyn stepped into the street. She knelt down. The girl has straight black hair that fitted her head like a helmet. She had olive skin and eyes so brown they were black. She gazed at Evelyn without curiosity. She was the most beautiful child Evelyn had ever seen. A piece of clothesline was tied around her wrist. Evelyn stood up, followed the clothesline, and found herself looking into the face of a mad old man with a closely cropped gray beard. The end of the line was tied around the old man’s waist. He wore a soft cap and a collar with a tie. He stood on the sidewalk in front of a display cart of framed silhouette portraits pinned to a black velvet curtain. He was a silhouette artist. With nothing but a small scissors and some glue he would make your image by cutting a piece of white paper and mounting it on a black background. The whole thing with the frame cost fifteen cents.” pgs. 36 – 37.
[Evelyn Nesbit becomes extremely concerned about the daughter of this silhouette artist who is a socialist. He encouraged Evelyn to go with hi to hear the political activist Emma Goldman speak. Goldman was a Jewish immigrant and a feminist. In the book Ragtime, there is mention of the fact that Emma Goldman was involved in the killing of Henry Frick.]
Mother Finds a Discarded Baby
In Chapter 9, the reader returns to the original household in New Rochelle, and the mother of the household finds a baby that had been buried in her back yard.:
“Mother had dug something up. She was brushing the dirt from a bundle which she held on her lap. The maid let out a scream and crossed herself. The little boy tried to get a look at it, whatever it was, but Mother and the maid were on the ground, brushing the dirt off, and for a moment he couldn’t get past them. Mother’s face had turned so pale and suffered such an intense expression that all the bones of her face appeared to have grown and the opulently beautiful woman he revered was shockingly haggard, like someone ancient. He saw, as they brushed the dirt away, that it was an infant. Dirt was in his eyes, in its mouth. It was small and wrinkled and its eyes were closed. It was a brown baby and had been bound tight in a cotton blanket. Mother freed its arms. It made a small weak cry, and the two women grew hysterical. The maid ran into the house. The boy followed his mother to the house, running alongside her as the small arms of the brown baby waved in the air. The women washed the baby in a basin on the kitchen table. It was bloody, an unwashed newborn boy. The maid examined the cord and said it had been bitten. They swaddled it in towels, and Mother ran to the front hall to phone the doctor. The boy watched the infant closely to see was breathing. It barely moved. Then its tiny fingers grasped the towels. Its head slowly turned as if through its closed eyes it had found something to look at.” p. 58
. . .
“Within an hour a black woman was found in the cellar of a home on the next block. She was a washwoman who worked in the neighborhood. She sat outside the house in the police ambulance and Mother brought the baby out to her. When the woman took the baby in her arms she began to cry. Mother was shocked by her youth. She had a child’s face, a guileless brown beautiful face. She was the color of dark chocolate and her hair looked chopped and uncared for. She was being attended by a nurse. Mother stepped back on the sidewalk. Where will you take her, she said to the doctor. To the charity ward, he said. And eventually she will have to stand charges. What charges, Mother said. Well, attempted murder, I should think. Does she have family, Mother said. No, ma’am, the policeman said. Not so’s we know. The doctor pulled down on the rim of his derby and walked to his car and put his bag on the seat. Mother took a deep breath. I will take the responsibility, she said. Please bring her inside. And despite the best advice of the doctor and the remonstrations of the police, she would not change her mind.
“So the young black woman and her child were installed in a room on the top floor. Mother made numbers of phone calls. She canceled her service league meeting. She walked back and forth in her parlor. She was very agitated. She felt keenly her husband absence and condemned herself for so readily endorsing his travels. There was no way to communicate with him any of the problems and concerns of her life. She would not hear from him till the following summer. She stared at the ceiling as if to see through it. The Negro girl and her baby had carried into the house a sense of misfortune, of chaos, and now this feeling resided here like some sort of contamination. She was frightened. She went to the window. Every morning these washwomen came up the hill from the trolley line on North Avenue and fanned into the houses. Traveling Italian gardeners kept the lawns trim. Icemen walked alongside their wagons, their horses straining in their traces to pull the creaking ice wagons up the hill. When the sun set that evening it lay at the bottom of the hill as if it had rolled there. It was blood red. Late at night the boy woke and found his mother sitting beside the bed looking at him, her golden hair plaited and her large breasts soft against his arm when she leaned over to kiss him.” pgs. 59 – 60.
To be continued