One of life’s eternal questions is this: does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? From depictions of daily activities on cave walls to artistic representation in film, one cannot help but wonder whether these images merely capture life as it is or influence how it will be. The novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow is no different.
Originally published in 1975, Ragtime was listed as one of the best English-language novel of the twentieth century and would eventually become a hit Broadway musical still on stage up to this day. Set from 1902 to 1917 , the novel could almost be read as a historical document originating from that time despite its being published nearly six decades after its premise. For one thing, the realism behind the story stems from the juxtaposition between the two settings and the families which inhabit each: the nouveau riche suburbanites living comfortably in New Rochelle and the impoverished Jewish immigrant struggling to raise a daughter in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The story introduces the suburbanites first, solely referring to the main family via common nouns such as “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother.” Already in a way this enhances the story’s historical value, because as time progresses names are lost, the memory of people reduced to nameless photographs archived in museums. Within the first paragraph of the story’s introduction there are some key historical facts that come into play and highlight the general themes of the story. Not even three sentences in, the book reads, “patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900s. 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 theaters, operas, ballrooms…That was the style, that was the way people lived…There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants” (Doctrow 2). Already the cookie-cutter cleanness which allowed for the those who lived away from urban areas to make a comfortable living for themselves.
Yet, as with all eras, there are nefarious undertones. With Father’s career as a bunting and flag manufacturer and the statement about patriotism being a reliable sentiment, Doctrow highlights anti-immigrant sentiments that would come to legal fruition via the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Alien Act of 1918, both acts making citizenship and patriotism a must to avoid negative repercussions. Differentiation between social classes, particularly the wealthy lifestyles of those living outside the city, are also underhandedly addressed. At one point the Little Boy mulls over his desire to see the immigrant performer Harry Houdini, whose “audiences were poor people–carriers, peddlers, policemen, children” (Doctrow 3). Each a profession for the uneducated, each prevalent on the Lower East Side, far beyond the white walls of New Rochelle. The family has their own proper past times to attend to, such as tennis, alienating them further from dirty street vaudeville, a street present through the depiction of Tateh and Little Girl.
The complete opposite of the previous family’s, the lifestyle of Tateh and his daughter depend heavily on the Jewish community on which they so rely on due to the lack of tolerance received anywhere else. Their urban habitat on the Lower East Side is dirty and land-based, the opposite of the liberating feeling and mobility the family’s nautical lifestyle on New Rochelle allows for. It would make sense, then, that a people shunned from society due to their religion would then congregate together, as many Italians and Jews on the Lower East Side were wont to due. Their societal status also impedes on their methods of making a living, forcing them to resort to either paltry sums (such as Tateh’s profession as a street silhouette cutter) or a life a crime, making it no wonder that the Mafia has roots in the Lower East Side. Particularly, it allows for the upper crust of society to keep those of a lower status under their thumb, something which unfortunately happens to Tateh’s daughter, Little Girl. A great beauty, Little Girl attracts the attention of a city socialite, whose frivolous ways eventually ruin the lives of Little Girl and her father, who, with their new introduction to wealth, find themselves more miserable than in their previous state. This highlights the idea of the United States as a “melting pot” being rather modern idea. Although Tateh and Little Girl live in the States and eventually reach a high economic status, they are still outsiders that were more comfortable living amongst people of their kind, not the cosmopolitan city folk or the rich suburbanites.
It is hard to discern between art and reality, life and depiction. Perhaps in the end, they are mere reflections of the truth and must be taken with equal gravity. The struggle of Tateh and Little Girl is not obsolete nor uncommon, and despite the book’s fictional story, one must take it as truth in order to allow true progress.