Is the American Dream for Anybody?

Diploma Thesis, 2010

38 Pages, Grade: 4




1. Ragtime – Music and History; Critique and the Unique Narration

2. When Literature Meets Cultural History; Ragtime as a Work of Midfiction; Doctorow’s Style

3. Characters; History is Fiction…

4. Kleist, the Forgotten Genius




In the following thesis I am going to look at Edgar Lawrence Doctorow’s novel Ragtime (1975) from different perspectives, taking into consideration its genre, the era it represents, the diversity of origins and lifestyles the people of that era stand for and also the possibilities pursued by the immigrants settling for America in the first decades of the 20th century.

In the first chapter the title will be examined first. It is a type of music the structure of which is similar to that of the novel which is not an accident. According to Doctorow himself the structure of the novel perfectly follows the patterns given by ragtime music which has surface and secondary connotations, too. Also the themes and techniques will be examined of which the mirror is the most important. Two perfect mirrored image-pairs are Coalhouse Walker – Scott Jolpin (1868-1917) and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) – Al Jolson (1886-1950) so their figures will be examined and compared. Coalhouse Walker’s surface and hidden qualities are very similar to those of Scott Joplin, the father of ragtime. Some evidences of this accordance are obvious (the epigraph, their job, color of skin etc…) so next to these I will have to concentrate more on the indirect, concealed references. The positive and negative critique of the novel Ragtime will be demonstrated along with the special narration as it starts the line of works with an obscured and overshadowed narrator with almost a cameo-role.

In the second chapter I am going to examine Doctorow’s writing style and some of his other works. Ragtime is a semi-historical novel which means it blends real and fictional people, locations and events. I will have a look at the origins and the 20th-century versions of this genre in order to show Doctorow’s genius and mastery of the historical novel. As Ragtime is not entirely a piece of historical writing, I need to demonstrate the other elements that mix and also mellow the otherwise quite rigid genre to make it into a more spectacular semi-fiction. When reaching out for history Doctorow automatically undertakes the role of the cultural historian but he does it as he likes it. He does not want to be accurate, he does not wish simply to retell facts but wants to use them for a colorful story in which they do not have to show history as it was but as it could have been. Doctorow wants to entertain us with his novel and being faithful to history is not one of the criteria of show-business. I will also have a look at the trends that form today’s American novels and show Doctorow’s place in this process. Doctorow in his False Documents[1] states „that there is no fiction or non-fiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative.” (26) and being a writer is the proper job because a writer is privileged, and "alone among the arts, literature confuses fact and fiction" (18). This novel is also a national Bildungsroman and as such it looks at the various stages of American history in the 20th century. This tendency can also be observed in the metamorphoses of some major characters.

The novel’s main characters can be divided into three very distinct social groups: white Anglo-Saxon, upper-middle class people; immigrants (Jewish); and the African-Americans who turn out to be the motor, the mastermind of the whole story. The third chapter gives me the chance to examine the status of colored people in the early years of the 20th century and along with this the life-conditions, treatment and job opportunities the newly arrived immigrants had to face. Jewishness becomes important when the story gets to Harry Houdini, the famous magician and later Tateh, his wife and his young daughter. They are all immigrants coming to the New Land pursuing happiness. The treatment and acceptance was quite the same for people of color and immigrants as none of them were given equal rights and opportunities as the local whites so the ’non-whites’ had to fight hard to gain equality and extinguish discrimination. Social injustice was greater than ever before. People other than white were treated as inferior beings, lived in crowded tenement houses or on the streets. The most important proof will be based on Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and his brilliant photos.

According to many sources the figure of Coalhouse Walker is modeled after Michael Kohlhass, major figure in Heinrich von Kleist’s (1777-1811) short story, Michael Kohlhaas (1811). Their struggles are the same resulting in their own jurisdiction no matter how many innocent people have to die for the cause. Doctorow once called his own book „a quite deliberate hommage”[2] to the Kleist story. In this chapter I am going to reveal the similarities between the figures and deeds of the two freedom-fighters and I will also have a look at the evolution of the depiction of injustice and revenge in classic and modern literature. In the fourth chapter I will examine some of the greatest works written on the theme of revenge, hatred and violence starting from Eumenides, Shakespeare and other literary giants.

My thesis will be concluded with a praise for Doctorow and his work. Besides the personal impact Ragtime and Doctorow’s other works had on me I will have a look at the afterlife of the novel as it has been remade as a film, directed by Milos Forman and most recently as a successful Broadway musical giving a late homage to Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha and other works of „minority” writers and works about these people in turn.

1. Ragtime – Music and History; Critique and the Unique Narration

The title is the first thing that comes to our sight sometimes even before we start reading. Titles can be long, detailed as in the baroque era or simple, dense, one-word titles just like in our case. This latter is more frequent in modern times and they usually express in one single word the theme, content and the mood of the whole novel. This novel has a simple syntax with short, condensed sentences. Ragtime, if we are a little bit concerned about music, can evoke a musical genre which is the predecessor of jazz. Musicwise ragtime has fast rythm, circular, synkopatic structure and this system can be explored in the novel, too as the plot changes rapidly from one place to another even within a chapter (for example New Rochelle Þ North Pole). The characters disappear and reappear in a later chapter unexpectedly then finally die out and never come back again. Ragtime is the music played so well by Coalhouse Walker Jr. and this is the music of the era until jazz is born. Within the novel in five passages the words „rag” or „ragtime” refer to music but there are six passages in which „rag” or its derivations do not mean anything musical but something connected to poverty and immigrants, two major symbols within the novel.

If we take the title for a music-genre then it is the predecessor of jazz and was popular around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Ragtime as a style and generally music is the central metaphor of the novel and everything is located around and connected to it. The most famous ragtime musician must have been Scott Joplin, the Black wonder. Besides the Kleist-Kohlhaas-Coalhouse parallels, which I am going to examine later, now I have to highlight that the figure of Coalhouse Walker Junior shows many common characteristics with Scott Joplin, and these are sometimes more obvious than the other similarities. Ragtime is one of the first words that definitely links the two African-American musicians. An instruction of ragtime by Joplin constructs the epigraph of the novel: „Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast.” As this sentence opens the novel, it is obviously very important and wants to attract attention. If we have not realized the similarities between the music and literary genre after the first reading, rereading the epigraph must give us the hint.

Some of the proofs of the similarity of Joplin and Coalhouse include their origin; „Joplin and Walker are both reported to have come from St. Louis to New York at about the same time.” (Berryman 84). Both of them were African-Americans which is also an obvious similarity. Their occupation was musician, to be correct, ragtime-jazz musician, and Walker played the famous pieces (take for example the Wall Street Rag or the even more remembered The Maple Leaf Rag) composed by Joplin. This reference can not be innocent, the author’s intention must have been to make up a character bewilderingly similar to Joplin. There is another very obvious parallel; in the novel’s opening chapter we read about a baby found in the garden of the white family in New Rochelle. This baby turns out to be the son of Walker and Sarah who will finally unite into a family with the support of the parents of the supposed narrator. This is the same as the plot in one of Joplin’s two operas, Treemonisha: it „tells the story of a dark skinned infant discovered beneath a tree. The child […] matures through adversity to become a symbol of black pride and triumph.” (ibid.). The Walker-baby is adopted by the narrator’s family and in the end he „become[s] the minority hero of a series of films created in Hollywood by his third father” (ibid.), the self-made Baron Ashkenazy. The end of the two musicians are also similarly tragic. Coalhouse Walker led a freedom-fight to protect his rights and get back his stolen property. His violent actions were not rightful but still we can understand his motifs if we consider his hurt and the way he was treated by the white community around him. He becomes a terrorist and fights for his right with his own tools: he arranges a private army, occupies a public library hiding invaluable treasures. He finally dies, but not for nothing: he saved his pride and became a legendary freedom-fighter who could be envied by Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King or even Malcolm X. This sad end reflects that of Joplin who was constantly rejected by white men in power and ended up in a mental asylum; „[h]e sought in vain for a producer in New York to stage Treemonisha. Bitterness and disappointment convinced Joplin that racial prejudice was the cause of his rejection as a serious composer.” (ibid.85). He is remembered after a few famous pieces like The Maple Leaf Rag but his other five hundred works, including a ballet and two operas, are basically unknown for the audiences. This was the case until 1972, when Treemonisha was finally staged and also The Collected Works of Scott Joplin were in print. Doctorow’s aim to write a novel depicting someone with the same issues as Joplin also gave a burst to the revoke of the great ragtime composer. Joplin and Walker both died for a racial prejudice related issue, though they were not the only ones.

According to Berryman „Doctorow allows history and fiction to mirror one another until the reflections become interchangeable.” (ibid.84). This is true not only in the case of Walker but concerning the other characters, too. In many cases real historical characters meet the fictional ones and they talk to each other, do something together, discuss their problems and dilemmas and share their opinions about the world around them. Still referring to Berryman’s ideas, „[t]he rhythms of violence and rebirth are syncopated in Doctorow’s novel like the rich interplay of recurring themes and melodies in ragtime music.” (ibid.85). Berryman emphasizes that „the importance of mirrors in Doctorow’s novels suggests how much Ragtime has in common with the legend of Narcissus. Does the narrator lose himself like the hero of the Greek myth in the vain pursuit of his own image?” (ibid.78). The answer in no because the narrator has different perspectives; „[he] shows a variety of faces reflected in a decade of history, and he knows that the images will be shattered when the decade ends in war. It is not the vanity of the narcissistic quest that […] concerns him, but rather […] the inevitable destruction.” (ibid.). The narrator does not like what he sees when he looks into the mirrors „but he is fascinated with the cycles of change.” (ibid.). These cycles of change have been celebrated for thousands of years: they are thought to be capable of bringing peace, well-being and happiness after a sad-bitter period. Fortune is an extremely fragile privilege and the ones who recognize and accept this are the only people who can succeed in life: „[t]he one successful character in the novel is […] the immigrant father who can rise to power and fortune in Hollywood because he knows that history is a reel of illusions.” (ibid.83).

Brian Roberts in his Blackface Minstrelsy and Jewish Identity: Fleshing Out Ragtime as the Central Metaphor in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime deals with the entertainment-business concentrating especially on Jewish and African-American entertainers like Houdini, Al Jolson and also Joplin. Jewish entertainers had better chances than African-Americans because their color of skin was closer to white than their black fellows. They did not have to conceal their looks, they looked like the standard American citizens. Jolson, as a unique exception, did exactly the opposite and looked like a real „Negro”. He was the very first Jewish person doing entertainment for a living. He was often referred to as „the world's greatest entertainer” or the „ragtime demigod”[3]. The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture writes that „Jolson was to jazz, blues, and ragtime what Elvis Presley was to rock ’n’ roll”. He usually performed in blackface makeup and this, along with his choice of music, introduced African-American music to white people, even if it was not his primary intention. Also, Jolson was notable for his fight against any forms of discrimination on the Broadway stages. Without this help Scott Joplin’s opera, Treemonisha, maybe would not have ever been staged.

The only 20th century mirror-image of Jolson was Harry Houdini. He is a central figure concerning „replication and circularity within Ragtime” (Roberts). Besides being a magician and an entertainer, he was a famous modern-age „shameless mother lover”[4], probably one of the last ones. Also Al Jolson was considered to be a great admirer of his own mother and nothing proves this better that his hit My Mammy. This affection for our mothers has had a long story: it stems from the 19th century, „involving such men as Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln” (ibid.). „The narrator’s comparison of Houdini with Jolson intimates the magician’s complicity in the blackface tradition.” (ibid.). This parallel has to do something with the sensitivity and perfect artistry of the two men. These mother-loves were not corporal ones, rather their addressee were the stereotypical African-American mothers or housemaids, as Roberts puts it.

A peculiar part of My Mammy:

Everything is lovely
When you start to roam;
The birds are singin', the day that you stray,
But later, when you are further away,
Things won't seem so lovely
When you're all alone;
Here's what you'll keep saying
When you're far from home:

The sun shines east, the sun shines west,
I know where the sun shines best--
My little mammy,
My heartstrings are tangled around Alabammy.
I'm comin',
Sorry that I made you wait.
I'm comin',
Hope and trust that I'm not late, oh oh oh
My little Mammy,
I'd walk a million miles
For one of your smiles,
My Mammy! Oh oh oh...

The words are similar to those in a real love-poem but the addressee is not a lover but the own mother of the speaker. The pronouns are in the first person singular (I, my). The prosaic citation from Ragtime depicting the separation of Houdini and his mother has the same feeling and mood as the above mentioned poem-part:

„Houdini’s ancient mother, Mrs. Weiss, came down to the pier to see him off. She was a neat little woman in black. He kissed her and hugged her and kissed her hands and went up the gangplank. He ran back down the gangplank and kissed her again, holding her face in his hands and kissing her eyes. She nodded and patted him. He ran up the gangplank and waved. [. . .] He continued to watch her small black figure and ran around to the port deck when tugs faced the ship downriver.” (Doctorow 104).

Though the narration is in the third person singular here, the idea and content are quite similar; both of them are about the love and care for the mothers of the two men and the fear of separation and loneliness. „As if to compound the scene’s complicity in the blackface tradition, the narrator gestures toward Mrs. Weiss as “mammy,” echoing Jolson’s phrase “my little mammy” by describing Houdini’s mother as “little woman in black”.” (Roberts). Besides the special structure, narration makes this novel unique and along with its treatment of time and history it has been discussed for many decades now. No matter how laudative or reviled the critique has been, nobody can disregard the novel Ragtime, especially since a film, and more recently a theater play have been remade.


[1] False Documents is an essay published in a collection titled Essays and Conversations.

[2] E. L. Doctorow and Christopher D. Morris, Conversations with E. L. Doctorow (University Press of Mississippi, 1999), 124.

[3] This epitheton ornans comes from Robert Oberfirst’s book titled You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet. London: Tantivy, 1980. p. 123.

[4] Roberts quotes Harter and Thompson.

Excerpt out of 38 pages


Is the American Dream for Anybody?
Universität of Szeged  (Dept. of Arts)
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In this thesis paper I tried to have a look at Doctorow's novel, Ragtime (1975) from different perspectives. It has received praising and also not so good critique but I am proud of my work!
Doctorow, Ragtime, historical novel
Quote paper
Agnes Szucs (Author), 2010, Is the American Dream for Anybody?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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