"Ragtime as “False Document”: Narratives and a Constructed world in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime" by Gergely Vörös
Gergely Vörös is a postgraduate student at Comenius University in Bratislava. His research interests are related to postmodernist and contemporary US fiction. In 2018 he obtained an MA degree in English Literature from the University of Bristol. His MA dissertation by using Patricia Waugh’s definition of historiographic metafiction read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day as fiction that is not only conscious of its constructed nature but which aims to uncover the fictionality of our own world. Email: and
Abstract: According to E.L. Doctorow, there is no genuine difference between fact and fiction: “there is only narrative.” He believes that “the regime of facts,” the epistemological dominant of the world we live in, “derives its strength from [prescribing] what we are supposed to be.” In this sense, our microcosm does not merely revolve around the scientific dogma of its own infallibility, but the ruling scientific discourse defines us in our very beings and demarcates our agentic horizons. In short, it imprisons us. In Doctorow ‘s view, only literature can offer us a way out of the tyranny of this rationality. For, fiction, speaking in the vernacular of freedom, has the ability, by revealing what we “threaten to become,” to transform the stories that govern our world. Ragtime testifies to this awareness, put forward in “False Documents,” in the present work I will rely on Doctorow’s essay as a key to interpret the novel and my aim is to show how stories govern the microcosm of Ragtime, condition the subjectivity and fate of its characters, and how stories themselves offer a liberation from normative constraints.
Keywords: Doctorow, postmodernism, historiographic metafiction, power, narration
“My book is a false document,” claims E.L Doctorow in an interview about Ragtime (Gussow 4). Indeed, the novel revisits the early 1900s and, by blending historical figures and events with fictitious ones, blurs the lines between “the historic and the aesthetic, the real and the possibly real” (Doctorow 1993, 157). In other words, hoping to gain “authority for the narrative,” Ragtime claims to have been there (155). This is so because “the regime of facts,” the epistemological dominant of industrial society, “derives its strength from [prescribing] what we are supposed to be,” and, living in a world centred around the scientific dogma of its own infallibility, writers of fiction are no exception — they too need to play along with the pretences of their era (153). That is, if they are to be taken seriously, they need to maintain the illusion of verifiability. Yet, Doctorow does so in order to “give counsel” to point out our “contingency,” the very thing scientific discourse is desperate to keep hidden (157). For fiction, speaking in the vernacular of freedom, has the ability, by revealing what we “threaten to become,” to transform the stories that govern our world (153). This is so because, in Doctorow’s view, all forms of knowledge are rooted in storytelling, and there is no genuine difference between fact and fiction: “there is only narrative” (163). Therefore, “[w]hat we proclaim as the discovered factual world can be challenged as the questionable world we ourselves have painted” (152). As a result, in Doctorow’s view, fiction has the ability, by revealing the constructedness of the world, to free us from the narratives that circumscribe our lives and constrain us. In this work, as I am convinced that Ragtime testifies to this awareness, put forward in “False Documents,” I will rely on Doctorow’s essay as a key to interpret the novel. My aim, then, will be to show how stories govern the microcosm of Ragtime, condition the subjectivity and fate of its characters, and how stories themselves offer liberation from normative constraints. This way, I also hope to illuminate certain metatextual strategies the novel employs and provide a better understanding of the epistemological model Doctorow thus conceives.
The Constructudness of Ragtime’s World
The microcosm Ragtime presents us with seems to revolve around a narrative that sustains the white, male, capitalist domination and masks the injustices within it. For in the world the story recounts, “[o]ne hundred Negroes a year [are] lynched. One hundred miners [are] burned alive. One hundred children [are] mutilated. There [seem] to be quotas for these things. There [seem] to be quotas for death by starvation” (Doctorow 2007, 40). Nonetheless, in this world “[t]he best part of Father’s income [is] derived from the manufacture of flags and buntings and other accoutrements of patriotism, including fireworks” (10). The ruling narrative of industrial capitalism that appears to be “pressed upon” them, externally, “by pressing the subject[s] into subordination, assumes a psychic for that constitutes the subject[s] self-identity” (Butler 3). Then, by having a formative effect on their subjectivity, even the poor, the marginalised and the less fortunate conceive their lives along the dictate of industrial capitalism. That is, they accept its rule as self-evident and, in effect, buy into the narrative that furthers their exploitation. As, via an Emma Goldman remark, Doctorow points out “the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few […] [,] [b]y being persuaded to identify with them. […] the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich” (2007, 74). Dreams, in this case, deserve particular attention. For, it seems to me, they are the most intimate manifestations of the dominant rationality. Hence, using Doctorow’s words, dreams “are the first false documents […] they control us, purge us, mediate our baser natures, and prophesy our fate” (1993, 164). Then, Ragtime suggests, it is by penetrating our psyche that narratives control the world.
The narrative shifts in Ragtime appear to be reflective of the narrator’s transition from the acceptance of the ancestral perspective to constructing his own rationality. Indeed, the novel begins with the introduction of the early 1900s, using Theophilus Savvas’ words, through a “nostalgic view” (144). “Patriotism was a reliable sentiment […]”. “Teddy Roosevelt was President. […] There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. […]. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants” (Doctorow 2007, 10). However, by 1906 the narrator becomes conscious of the opposing voices to the rationality the “nostalgic view” seeks to reinstate. Hence, he is forced to admit that society was not homogeneous after all: “[a]pparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants” (11). I refer to the narrator as he because, for reasons I will soon discuss, I agree with Savvas that the narrator is the little boy (Savvas 139). Then, I think this shift is indicative of the fact that the little boy starts to conceive of the world through a separate rationality than that of his father. He “treasure[s] anything discarded. […] In his mind the meaning of something [is] perceived through its neglect” (Doctorow 2007, 96). In fact, being seen as a “discarded” item himself, his grandfather becomes the main source of stories, Ovid’s Metamorphoses in particular, through which the little boy begins to conceive himself and the world. As he finds “proof in his own experience of the instability of both things and people,” it becomes “evident to him that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction” (97-99). This, in my view, indicates the recognition that the “world in which we live” is ephemeral and that “reality is amenable to any construction that is placed upon it” (Doctorow 1993, 164). Indeed, by creating his self through discourses opposing the paternal rationality, the narrator’s account deconstructs the established narrative of the early 20th century America. And thus, Ragtime offers us the history of peoples “who lived and died in this country but were seriously absent from […] [historical] texts” (160).
Nevertheless, Doctorow suggests that narratives do not merely control us, but that our changing circumstances themselves influence our stories about the world. In this light, the narratorial transformation seems to be necessitated by the changes that occur in the little boy’s family. For, by Mother marrying Tateh and adopting Sarah’s child, by the end of the novel, from a white, middle-class family, they are transformed into a mixed heritage one. The little boy, then, as the “chronicler” of the family, attempts to construct a narrative able to converge identities that so far have been kept separated by the paternal rationality (Savvas 139). Therefore, this metamorphosis seems to be contingent on the relegation of Father from a central position into a marginal one in the family narrative. And as the little boy starts to refer to himself in the first person only upon his father’s death, suggests that not only his but the family’s identity itself is premised upon the transcendence of the outlines of the paternal story. In this respect, I think, Doctorow suggests that families work in a similar manner to societies—they are governed by stories. Yet, more importantly, that our very conditions of existence shape the stories we have about the world.
Narratives, Power, and Social Control
Whilst narratives, as I argue above, seem to be rooted in the felt conditions of our existence, they do not necessarily correspond to an assumed empirical plain. Nonetheless, the socially accepted worldview, based on “the bias of scientific method and empiricism,” tricks us into believing that the world is completely transparent to our vision (Doctorow 1993, 152-153). That is, as Donna Haraway argues, “accounts of a ‘real’ world do not depend on a logic of ‘discovery’, but on a power-charged social relation of ‘conversation’. […] The codes of the world are not still, waiting only to be read” (191). Instead, I would add, our codes about the world themselves structure our possible knowledge about it. A similar awareness is manifested in Ragtime. The novel suggests that the poor living conditions for immigrants persist and remain largely ignored, as “[m]any people [believe] that filth and starvation and disease [are] what the immigrant [gets] for his [or her] moral degeneracy” (Doctorow 2007, 22). That is, the hegemonic ideology serves the legitimise the meager living conditions of the inferiorly perceived groups as an organic part of the self-evident order. As social change is contingent on the transformation of the ruling narratives, their living conditions improve when Jacob Riis, a […] newspaper reporter and reformer, someone who “believe[s] in air shafts,” that “[a]ir shafts, light and air, would bring health” comes along and starts writing “about the need of housing for the poor” (22). What is more, such a shift in the prominent social narrative also initiates the demographic mapping of the immigrant population — their recognition. This underlines the assertion that stories dominate our lives. For “stories, effective stories, perform themselves into the material world — […], in the form of social relations, […] architectural arrangements, bodies, and all the rest. This means that one way of imagining the world is that it is a set of stories that intersect and interfere with one another” (Law 2). I would like to add, however, that, as Doctorow suggests, they not merely intersect but it is through stories that we fight for domination, recognition and survival.
The idea of the perceived world as a set of contesting stories also manifests itself on a metatextual level. In different words, Ragtime not only displays an awareness of the codes which may structure its reading but the novel nudges us to interpret it along those lines. For instance, the little boy’s agentic metamorphosis seems to yield a Freudian interpretation. For he not only writes out his father from the family narrative, but he does so in order to accommodate Tateh, whose name is, in fact, Yiddish for father. Hence, as it were, through the story the little boy constructs, it seems to me that he not only rids of his father but makes Tateh sleep with his mother. Furthermore, as Sarah’s arrival to the family coincides with Mother becoming more self-aware, “the black woman” moving into the attic is not merely an allusion to Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason but it seems to point towards the more contemporary, often Freudian, interpretations of her that nudge us to read Sarah as Mother’s so far suppressed self (Doctorow 2007, 127). Nonetheless, Doctorow does so consciously, for he directs our attention towards the contingency of our vision on our conceptual matrices when he writes that, as Freud is set to become widely known in America only after his death, “Houdini [is] destined to be […] the last of the great shameless mother lovers […]” (36). Consequently, I think, Ragtime not only shows awareness of its reliance on the codes the readers are familiar with, but it enters into a dialogue with the process of its own construction.
As it has already been suggested, stories function as means of sustaining the social order, which they execute, by imposing expected roles on the subjects. In this respect, Doctorow appears to be conscious of the constructedness of gender roles and that of womanhood itself. This is made most obvious when Father seeing an Eskimo couple having an intercourse is shocked by the “wife thrusting her hip upwards to the thrust of her husband. An uncanny animal song [comes] from her throat. This [is] something he [can] not write in his journal except in a kind of code. The woman [is] actually pushing back. It stun[s] him that she [can] react this way” (67). The previous scene makes Father to recall “[m]other’s fastidiousness, her grooming and her intelligence, and [finds] himself resenting this primitive woman’s claim to the gender” (67). That is, in Ragtime gender roles seem to be scripted by larger cultural narratives. And, as the Eskimo woman’s performed gender is not in line with the performed role expected of American women, Father is unable to recognise her femininity. This is reinforced by the fact that Father’s sexual encounter with another Eskimo woman is described as putting “his body into [a] stinking fish” (67). However, this also indicates that for Doctorow there is a separation between biological sex and gender. As gender appears to be a culturally contingent set of codes we attach to certain marks of biological sex, in fact, Doctorow suggests the existence of a sphere which cannot be completely grasped through language. Here, I would note, then, that Doctorow’s argument about the impossibility of distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction put forward in “False Documents,” instead of calling for radical relativism, seems to encourage scepticism towards the discourses through which we attach meaning to the world.
The expected gender roles, however, work in conjunction with other socially prominent codes, and thus, they sustain the patriarchal order. For instance, through a Goldman speech, Doctorow claims the masculine order is perpetuated by “the institution of marriage”—“the institution of brothel” (50). In other words, in Ragtime, marriage seems to figure as a ritualised code through which a man can obtain the commodified body. At least, this is what, through Evelyn’s marriage to Harry K. Thaw, Ragtime implies. For Evelyn’s corporal abuse in “the Schloss Katzenstein” and the subsequent “affidavit” against Harry is redeemed through Harry’s marriage proposal (28). Consequently, it appears that by marrying her Harry becomes Evelyn’s master. This way the novel indicates that women’s objectification is deeply embedded in the ruling social discourse. In fact, it is so much the case that exploiting their objectification allows women to attain more control over their lives. As Goldman says women are “forced by this capitalist society to find [their] genius in the exercise of [their] sexual attraction” (51). Certainly, Evelyn seems to figure as the prime example of this, as she accepts “the conditions in which” she is implicated in and triumphs (52). That is to say, Evelyn manages to use the prevalent discourse about feminine beauty to her own ends. Nonetheless, although she manages to broaden her agency, Evelyn becomes “a creature of their making”—“a creature of capitalism” (56). In this regard, she remains entrapped within the normative horizons of the patriarchal order. Consequently, Ragtime suggests that the codes which dominate our societies sustain the imprisonment of women.
In Ragtime racism too figures as an inherent code of the primary narrative of industrial capitalism. As Jacobus M. Vorster points out, the function of racism is to “legitimize the unequal distribution of the society’s resources, specifically, various forms of wealth, prestige, and power” (297). In this light, racism upholds social inequalities, by portraying them as an organic part of the self-evident world. That is, in Ragtime, racism normalises itself by hiding behind the facades of the order that is taken for granted. This the reason, then, that, in hope of a better life, the racially marked groups recognise the rationality that itself sustains their inferior position. And also, this why Father, who thinks “of himself as progressive,” believes there is “no reason the Negro could not with proper guidance carry every burden of human achievement” (Doctorow 2007, 185). Hence, the success of racially marked individuals appears to be premised upon their subordination to a rationality that privileges the racially unmarked population. The introduction of Booker T. Washington in Ragtime, then, seems to serve to underscore this point. For, as “at this time the most famous Negro in the country,” he has become “the leading exponent of vocational training for colored people. He [is] against all Negro agitation on questions of political and social equality. He […] called for the Negro’s advancement with the help of his white neighbour” (222). Washington’s example, then, points out that only those racially marked individuals are expected to succeed who comply with the order that is dictated by the hegemonic social discourse. Yet, as their success then becomes outlined in terms of an external rationality, in their success non-white individuals become alienated from their own being.
Narratives as Means of Liberation
In view of the above said, as Barbara Foley puts it, “it is significant that Coalhouse Walker, the novel’s hero, is in no way ‘typical’ of the prewar years; nor is the climactic event of the novel a plausible occurrence of the times” (95). In different words, in Ragtime Coalhouse figures as “a deliberate anachronism,” whose subjectivity seems to be conditioned by discourses that become prominent only much later on in American history (Savvas 144). As a consequence, he seems to be a contradiction to the expected role of the negro. For, it occurs to Father “that Coalhouse Walker Jr. [doesn’t] know he [is] a Negro. […] Walker [doesn’t] act or talk like a colored man. […] Father recognize[s] certain dangers in the man. […] There is something reckless about him”. Coalhouse does not know “his place” (Doctorow 2007, 133). He is, therefore, a “provocation” to the ruling social order, for he does not correspond to its expectations. Indeed, Coalhouse “create[s] himself in the teeth of such feelings” (142). The series of injustices that Coalhouse goes through are, in fact, attempts on the part of the social order to force him to comply with its dictum. Indeed, to the subjects of the governing narrative it all “seem[s] to be his fault, somehow, because he [is] Negro” (152). In this light, his rebellion is not merely an act of revenge, but a desperate attempt to rewrite the narrative that facilitates his sufferings.
Similarly to members of the black community, Doctorow implies that women too can take control over their lives and liberate themselves by subverting the socially dominant narratives that perpetuate their submission. When Father departs to the North Pole with the Peary expedition, he leaves Mother on her own to take care of the company, the family, and the house. Yet, Father’s absence seems to release her from the oppression of paternal rationality, and she “assume[s] executive responsibilities. […] Everything she [does] [stands] up under [Father’s] examination” (94). However, as upon his return Father notices, Mother has not only started to read about women’s suffrage, but he also finds “a pamphlet on the subject of family limitation,” by Emma Goldman (94). That is, Mother’s novel position seems to demand narratives through which she can conceive her emerging identity. The shift thus brought about in the power balance is perceived by father as his “exclusion” from the family home (91). Put it simply, Mother by no longer accepting the dominance of the patriarchal rationality strips Father of his privileged position. Indeed, from this point onwards Father can no longer feel “that extra light” by which he has felt “that as a family they [have been] touched” (181). In this respect, as there is no shared narrative that could blend together Mother’s new awareness with Father’s patriarchal rationality, they start to get alienated from each other.
Nevertheless, even those who can be regarded the products of the era seem to manifest a desire to break out of the stories which bind their social existence. In my view, then, Harry Houdini’s enormous popularity among the lower classes is rooted in the fact that his performances promise the illusion of liberty. That is, to the poor, “the escape artist” figures as a metaphor of liberation from the normative grip of the social constraints (181). Indeed, my assertion is supported by Angela Hague, who writes that the masses love Houdini due to “their fascination with his ability magically to transform—and escape from—a reality previously perceived as static and impervious to manipulation” (173). It may be no surprise, then, that those who “do not respond to his art […]” are “invariably of the upper classes” (Doctorow 2007, 33). For the illusion Houdini offers hints at the constructedness of the structures that maintain the dominance of the rich; it suggests they are “not from God but man-made, and as such, infinitely violable” (Doctorow 1993, 153). In this respect, Houdini seems to figure as a precursor to the turbulent demographic changes which become more manifest as Ragtime is nearing towards its end.
These shifts, however, erode the feeling of security the cultural dominant has provided to the established elites. For example, it is J. P. Morgan who, whilst feeling tied by the constraints imposed on him, can no longer identify with the governing discourse. For, he is pressed “to maintain the illusions of other men. For his Episcopal brethren he would build a cathedral,” For his family “he would continue to provide an image of domestic stolidity. And for the sake of the country he would live in as grand a style as he could summon […]” (Doctorow 2007, 117-118). As, however, he “ha[s] catapulted himself beyond the world’s value system,” in him emerges a wish for a metanarrative that can sustain his self-identity in the increasingly turbulent world (117). To this end, he uses his vast resources to conceive of a story that reaffirms his privileged position. Drawing on Egyptian mysticism, he attempts to “satisfy [himself] of the truth of who [he is] and the eternal beneficent force which [he] incarnate[s]” (125). Nevertheless, when Morgan presents his ideas to Henry Ford, initially, Ford, instead of being interested, ridicules him. As Ford explains in a book, “which cost [him] just twenty-five cents, [he has] found everything [he has] needed to set [his] mind at rest”. And as he goes on “you don’t have to fuss with all these Latiny things, he said waving his arm, you don’t have to pick the garbage pails of Europe and build steamboats to sail the Nile just to find out something that you can get in the mail order for two bits” (126)! That is, whilst Morgan’s story, based on empirical rationality, “presumes a world of fact [to be] discovered,” it is essentially no different to a book anyone can buy for a few cents (Doctorow 1993, 157). Consequently, this seems to reinforce Doctorow’s resonant proposition that “there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative” (163).
Ragtime suggests that fiction, by revealing what “we threaten to become,” possesses the power to shape the narratives that govern our world, and thus, to liberate us from our enslavement (153). This is the reason I believe that, upon Coalhouse Walker’s rebellion, “[q]uestions about [William Conklin’s] behavior [begin] to circulate through the city”. And, having the media picked up the story, William Conklin becomes “a despised person everywhere”. He “is hated as the stupid perpetrator of events leading to the death of men whom he [has] ostensibly commanded” (Doctorow 2007, 176). What is more, his T-model stands “as tangible proof of the black man’s grievance. […] After its picture [is] published people beg[i]n to come and see it in such numbers that the police ha[s] to cordon off the area” (190). In other words, the media, by reporting on and fictionalising the story, uncovers the true effects the ruling social discourse has on human lives, and thus, an “instructive emotion is generated in the reader[s] from the illusion of suffering an experience not [their] own” (Doctorow 1993, 151). Although Coalhouse’s story begets only minute changes in the public consciousness regarding the position of the marginalised population, it is implied Coalhouse’s is only one of the first of such stories, and, at the end of the ragtime era, as things are set to be played more quickly, perhaps, there are many more to follow. Tateh’s idea for a film at the conclusion of the novel, then, testifies to the hope that one day fiction will be able to make us see the world for what it truly is: “[a] bunch of […] pals, white black, fat thin, rich poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures in their own neighborhood, a society of ragamuffins, […] all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again” (Doctorow 2007, 176).
Reading Ragtime through the prism of “False Documents” allows us to see the world as an arena of contesting stories. Stories that we are told, we tell others and we tell ourselves seem to perpetuate the world. Ragtime too is a story: one that defines “the power to which the listener [is] subject and suggest[s] how to live with them” (Doctorow 1993, 154). In so doing, the novel not only points out the contructedness of the order we have taken for granted but it also reveals its own fictionality and deceives us honestly.
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- Doctorow, Edgar Lawrence. 1993. “False Documents.” in Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays. New York: Random House.
- ——. 2007. Ragtime. New York: Random House.
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