Growth, Change, and Racism


A personal reading challenge I had for myself this year was to read 200 books. I reached the goal (and will surpass it slightly). It’s interesting that book #200 is Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.

Many years ago I saw the movie and was impressed, but forgot specifics, only retaining the general impression. So I came to the book with no memory of actual story line except for the injustice of racism.

Ragtime is set in the New York City area in the early 1900’s. At this time the railroad was transportation king. Henry Ford was just starting the first mass production lines for automobilies. Pierpont Morgan was the richest man in America if not the world. Europe was moving closer to the conflicts that sparked World War I. Henry Houdini toured the world with his escape acts and illusions.

The story of Coalhouse Walker Jr. is the hardest hitting, in your face part of this novel. It’s a story of bigotry, racism, independence, and revolution. This Negro’s stance of what he will accept as redress is firm. His car was vandalized by a group of white men who cornered him. He won’t accept anything less than having his automobile returned to its pristine condition. By the time the car is returned, he knows what will be the consequences of his actions. He is prepared to accept that as long as he can get his followers away free.

But there are other, less obvious layers to this novel. Those layers help make this into a novel that is becoming a classic. There is another story of bigotry with the Jewish man Tateh and his young daughter. After he leaves the Jewish slums of New York and becomes successful in movies he changes his name and affiliation. He knows as a European royal he will be accepted in a way a Jewish man wouldn’t.

The story line that struck me the most is how the culture was changing and how people were accepting those changes. To me, that is the major idea in this novel. America was changing due to the constant influx of immigrants and industrialization. Father (no other name is ever given) is the person who portrays the effects of the changes. Within in few years he moves from the stalwart, explorer family man to a man who isn’t quite sure of his place in the world.

In the last 100 years we have seen so many changes in the world, industry, and culture that we now expect them constantly. Change isn’t easy, but that’s what we have to live with. In the early 1900’s cultural change was still very slow because it was new. Since the Civil War things were the way they had always been, at least to men like Father.

What point am I trying to make? I’m really not sure. This book has been rolling around in my head in the days since I finished it.

Humankind doesn’t change that much. We still find ways to hate as well as love. We always seem to have an “us versus them” mentality with some group or another. Change will always be disturbing. Perhaps Ragtime is only a snapshot of man’s recurring sins. Perhaps, though, it will help some of us see ourselves and our prejudices. Perhaps someone will understand that change continues. Then the novel has succeeded in its message.