Americans are fascinated by American history; what we may lack in length of time, we make up for in breadth of incident. This last weekend commemorated events that created this country but not every turning point can recorded by an arbitrary date . Sometimes it takes perspective to look back at a group of events and say, “Yes. At this point we were one type of nation and by here we were another.” E. L. Doctorow tracked one of those passages in one of his greatest novels, Ragtime. When the times start changing, we can hear the herald through music.
Ragtime is the story of when the US began really seeing itself as a nation of many. In the beginning are the upper-middle class Family (they have no names beyond their roles, e. g.Father, Mother, and Mother’s Brother. By remaining anonymous, these become every family) who want and see little beyond their beckoning home in New Rochelle and Father’s interest in exploring Distant Lands. The family occasionally interacts with the outside world but that world rarely touches them. Houdini may make their acquaintance or Mother’s Brother may chase after the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit but nothing really disturbs the serenity or isolation of New Rochelle.
That changes when the abandoned baby of Sara and Coalhouse Walker Jr. is found in Mother’s garden. Mother makes a decision, independent of Father, to care for this African-American child and his mother, rather than abandon them to the authorities. Through these two, the family will meet Coalhouse Walker, Jr. a ragtime musician and black man with all the inherent dignity and authority of his white counterparts. It is Mr. Walker’s requirement that he receive the same respect as every other man that finally brings this Family from the house in New Rochelle into the Family of Man.
Mama’s generosity also builds the bridge between her family and Tateh, the European immigrant and his daughter. Doctorow initially introduces these as acquaintances of Brother’s obsession, Evelyn Nesbit, showing the never-ending connections in our lives. Tateh develops from a street peddler in New York to a film director with the future of a Mack Sennett or Hal Roach. Through these two plots wander the famous and infamous of the Ragtime Era and we see the satisfaction of J.P. Morgan and the up-and-coming Henry Ford contrasted with the radical Emma Goldman and the educator, Booker T Washington. Each connection weaves back, one way or another to the family. By the end of this passage, neither the world nor the Family will ever be the same.
Ragtime has been successfully adapted both as film and a stage musical. If you get the chance to see the musical, pay attention to the opening number and how the three groups initially separate from each other. There is the Family, clad in Summer White, singing of their world filled with parasols and then the Black performers enter kicking red skirts sky-high. Finally the immigrants enter, bathed in blue light, and the three groups circle and ricochet around each other, occasionally meeting but too frightened to mingle. As the music builds, the drive of the rhythm and events dissolve their boundaries and the entire company sings of the energy that pulls society forward:
Beggar and millionaire Everyone, everywhere Moving to the Ragtime!
There we all are, different and alike, all moving toward our futures at the speed of Ragtime.