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MYTHS OF INDIVIDUALISM IN E.L.

DOCTOROW'S "RAGTIME"
Author(s): STEPHEN HARRIS
Source: Australasian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (December 2001), pp. 47-61
Published by: Australia New Zealand American Studies Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41053867
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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 47

MYTHS OF INDIVIDUALISM IN E.L.DOCTOROWS RAGTIME.

STEPHEN HARRIS

You are whatever you dare to think you are. And to be free to think
you 're something you yre not (not yet) t something better than what
you are - isn 't that the true freedom promised by this country to
which he was journeying?
(Susan Sontag, In America).

Contemplating his imminent departure from Poland, with its long and
compromising 'genealogies of concern and obligation', this central character
in Susan Sontag's recent historical novel gives expression to the now-hackneye
dream of the New World. Looking westward, he conveys a longing for the
promise of imaginative self-renewal - in effect at once a yearning fo
regenerative innocence and a fantasy of romanticised self-perfection - a promise
that coincides with the idea of America as a place of 'newness, emptines
pastlessness' where the individual can turn 'life into pure future'.1 That Ryszar
communicates his feelings in the ambiguous form of a rhetorical question (pu
to himself in the third person) is worth noting for, in what is also a now-familiar
story, what he and his fellow emigres inevitably discover is that the idea of self-
renewal is, in practical terms, a far more difficult proposition. Sontag's novel
more complex than this suggests, and is noteworthy for what appears to be he
revaluation of the symbolic significance of 'America' - the 'old' New World
that Sontag portrays in contrast to the contemporary United States.2 In restating
what arguably remains the central American idea - that of the potential fo
untrammelled self-transformation - within the form of an historical novel th
looks back to an 'America' of the past, Sontag's text serves as a fittin
introduction to E. L. Doctorow's historical novel Ragtime, a novel which offer
a more explicit critique of this very same idea.3

In an essay in which he contemplates the influence of ideas on the work of th


writer, Doctorow refers to America's 'great operative myth of individualism'
the formative and enduring national conviction that Americans are, 'th
independent entrepreneurs' of themselves, tending to define themselves 'by
anything . . . that points up their distinction from the larger community'.
Moreover, he says it is 'a myth that is being nullified by history', a cultura
fiction that is being superseded by the pressure of changing national and cultural
circumstances. While it will be comforting for some to believe this myth i
being anulled by the process of time, I think that Doctorow's remarks emphasise
the fact that the ideal of autonomous selfhood (as Frank Lentcchia puts it5 )
exists and persists as a powerful cultural imperative in the United States, however

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48 AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

much it may have been modified over time. That t


directly consonant with, and in a particular sense g
cherished American idea of freedom is certainly on
its ideological potency in the culture of the United

In focusing on this 'myth' of individualism - an 'Ameri


by Doctorow's reference to 'America' throughout Ragtim
distinction to be made. For, while this 'myth' as m
validation of the now-orthodox postmodern notion
than an ideological construct, Doctorow's comment
demonstrate a concern with America's compulsivel
self.7 That is, in insisting that 'the future for any
Doctorow asserts the need for Americans to recogni
the much-touted deconstruction of the self, but a diff
idea of themselves and their relationship to their societ
the dramatic centre of Ragtime - Coalhouse Walke
the constitutionally enshrined and culturally celebrated
political dissent - gives expression to the philosoph
arising out of the tension between the idea and
selfhood.

Before this line of thought is developed, it is impo


themselves, Doctorow's observations are not nov
importance of such a myth in such singular terms
different times, concern has been expressed about
have called America's national 'habit of the heart'. The novelists Theodore
Dreiser and Tom Wolfe have commented on the excesses of individualism; and
critics such as Quentin Anderson and Christopher Lasch have conducted
extensive critiques of what they see as destructive tendencies arising out of
individualism. The term itself has been debated - Karl Weintraub insists on a
distinction between individuality and individualism - while others such as Louis
Hartz have endeavoured to both describe and promote a 'new individualism'.
More recently, Richard Rorty has argued that the 'debate now going on under
the rubric of "individualism versus communitarianism'" is 'sterile' because such
discussions are conducted at levels of abstraction that are for all practical
purposes removed from any real social and political use. Rorty 's claim coincides
with arguments that recommend the move away from 'traditional, voluntarist
notions of the subject and poststructuralist determinism' in search of a more
'enabling and empowering notion of human agency'.8

In line with these more recent views, it should be said that, while Doctorow is
fully aware of the complex problem of self in the modern age (his novels Loon
Lake and The Book of Daniel being notable for their experiments with

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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 49

characterisation) he is not concerned with undermining


or the self per se. By the same token, neither is he cham
ideas of selfhood. Indeed, given the fact that the narr
radically resistant acts of an aggrieved black man wh
individuality as the only means of defending his sense
such propositions would seem untenable. This, in tur
Ragtime is a 'straight' political novel; and yet, while I
is a determined advocate of a more developed political
be wrong to read Ragtime in too categorical a man
misleading to talk, in the strictest sense, of Doctorow
philosophical postmodernist. This is despite the fact
individualism and the methods he employs in his fictio
for critics to discuss his work in these terms.9 (Critic
and Paul Levine read Doctorow not as a postmodernist
in my emphasis on the political effects of Doctorow'
critique of individualism, I am not favouring, or impl
either 'side', they are not mutually exclusive positions
focusing on an aspect of his work that has been overlo
The issues encompassed by these various debates a
politically complex, and it is a testament to the streng
that Ragtime incorporates this very complexity.
philosophical terms, provides Doctorow with a means
that convey this complexity is his sophisticatedly iron
historical novel, some discussion of which must be inc

Doctorow's treatment of history in Ragtime thorough


of the characters and, to a significant extent, the meanin
and yet, given the irony, it also complicates any inter
not simply finding in the past - that other country
differently - a 'scene' in which to dramatise such conc
rather dubious virtue of wisdom in hindsight - as if in cu
awareness of history we might be in a better positio
'myths'. Rather, he fashions an archly 'false' history-a
approach that can be explained as a means of challe
historical knowledge - an act of provocation compelli
between fact and fiction. To put it another way, we m
novel with the ironic eye of the fabulist.

Taking these assertions as read (so to speak), my argum


sceptical tone is characteristic of a distinctively ironic
a complex critical awareness. It is a method characteri
each sentence is oddly disjunct from another, the effect
'stills', much like frames in a film which, when run toget

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50 AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

the illusion of movement and continuity. Throughou


distinct friction created between the neutralising to
and the actual sense of the sentences (and thus the
described). In one fundamental sense, therefore, it h
events described actually happened; rather, it
detachment, the simulation of objective indifferen
important. The effect is an oddly enforced detachment
the characters, our empathies forcibly constra
impersonalising distance and thus never fully en
conventionally intimate sense.

What we must concede is that such a strategy run


profound scepticism concerning the materiality of h
in the effort to negate history as the foundation upon
be made n In view of the fact that Ragtime depicts
includes characters, both fictional and historical, wh
of American society, and places at the dramatic
insurrectionary acts of a defiant individual - that is, w
be a clear political agenda - this might be consider
crux of the interpretative problem, for the pervasi
any political reading. For example, how do we inter
slums: does the novel celebrate his creativity and innov
the odds, or does he, in his new guise of Baron Ashk
copy-book marriage with Mother, become a car
immigrant, one whose Gatsby-like self-transformat
of his socialist politics, and thus any sense of engage
Given the odd levelling effect of Doctorow's irony,
between the critiques of capitalist society perform
Goldman and the egomaniacal postulations of Pie
appears to forestall any evaluation: the radically
Coalhouse Walker and Goldman cannot apparently
have reached the limits of irony, in which the ironic m
impasse.

My contention here is that Doctorow, in archly contriving the authoritative


detachment of the (traditional) historiographical narrative, carefully 'places'
the past at an apparently fixed distance outside of the narrative. The effect is
not to insist that the historically 'real' is ultimately immaterial, but rather to
both play on the fact that there exists an intricate relationship between the literary
text and the referent history, and, therefore, remind readers of the power invested
in narrative itself.12 Seen in this way, the irony becomes combative in character;
it works to provoke a sense of engagement. In a dual sense, then, Doctorow's
novel is political for, in incorporating on the formal and dramatic level what

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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 5 1

might be called the politics of history-as-narrative, we


critique of the injustices occurring within history, b
acknowledge the power we have over the past, and th
present.

While Doctorow's narratorial technique creates a sense of epistemological


pressure around the act of reading, he compounds the sense of paradox by 'using'
history in a more practical sense. It has been observed often enough that Ragtime
pivots around the fortunes of three fictional families who represent three different
strata of American society: the white anglo-saxon protestant family, the Jewish
immigrant family and the black family. Along with a cast of recognizably
historical characters, we see their lives converge in different combinations and
often in the most unlikely ways. What underpins rather than actively propels
the action in Doctorow's novel is the fine webbing of connection, or to use the
character Emma Goldman's word, 'correspondences'. The 'connections' or
interaction between characters, then, occurs not only in the past but across
apparently mutually exclusive spaces; characters who, although from different
social and political worlds, and from both the real and 'unreal' worlds of history
and fiction, are brought into each other's spheres, often in quite unlikely ways.
While these encounters can be seen as moments of random communion that
have only a localised significance, within the dramatic structure of the novel
they are better described as illuminating collisions between members of socially
distinct communities. In this way Mother, sequestered in middle class comfort,
has her world disrupted by the arrival of the Negro girl and her baby, who
'carried into the house a sense of misfortune, of chaos' (p.60).

The interlopers are vectors of a larger truth about the national history that the
WASP family, to this point sequestered in their bourgeois world, has been able
to ignore. Similarly, Emma Goldman encounters Evelyn Nesbit, the embodiment
of what she sees as the corrupt system that is capitalism. The anarchist explains
the unlikely encounter in fatalistic terms: 'You came because in such ways as
the universe works, your life was destined to interact with my own . . . there are
correspondences, you see, our lives correspond, our spirits touch each other
like notes in harmony, and in the total human fate we are sisters' (pp.49, 52). In
fact, Goldman touches on the metaphysics of the theme when she asks, 'Which
of us causes, and lives in others to cause, and which of us is meant thereby to
live'. Here, the emphasis is placed on the broader dimensions that encompass
and yet impinge on an individual life; within the novel, we can think of this in
terms of the ways in which characters are thoroughly formed within the
conditioning realm of history. As I will demonstrate, the question is politically
critical: to what extent is the action of self, of one's very being (as it were),
causally bound up or interanimated with others?

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52 AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

On one level, these are common, even mundane, in


fatalistic connections that suggest not only a shared
frame of ontological reference. And yet, these cor
significance when we notice that certain individuals
to the conception of history as something of a the
certain individuals perform apparently heroic acti
images that can be drawn from this novel to illustrate
figure of Father, his drowned corpse abandoned in
self-discovery at the bottom of the ocean, that is o
offering an ironic epitaph, the unnamed narrator c
'Poor Father, I see his final exploration. He arrives
risen in astonishment, his mouth and eyes dumb. Hi
sand, he kneels and his arms spread in pantomimic c
as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on t
Secretly shipping explosives to London, Father is ar
voyage on the historic Lusitnia, his death occurring
crisis. The word 'self is capitalised, suggesting that
ecstatic completion - an endless moment of arrival
the individual's longed-for apotheosis. Captured in
attainment, the image of the dead patriarch reflec
immigrant manqu reaching the landless destination
Father is an explorer compounds the irony: his mute
marks his own solitary, unhistorical demise - the
consummation with oblivion.

His death, occurring as it does on the route between the New and Old Worlds,
associates this scene with the promise of 'America', with the prospect of the
ultimate achievement of Selfhood in the New World. Other characters within
the novel, such as Henry Ford and particularly Pierpont Morgan, live to personify
this summit of self-realisation. This, in turn, directs us to a broader view of
Doctorow's critique of the American concept of self, for the American ideal of
the individual reaching the apogee of self-realisation in America has a direct
impact on the American understanding and experience of history. As Doctorow's
ironic pairing of these modern day 'great men' of history illustrates, not only do
such powerful individuals reduce history to a process simply confirming their
own notions of superiority, but more dangerously, these 'otherworldly', if not
transcendent models of selfhood become the false representations of historical
agency and causality, of change and destiny. As representative figures, they
encourage a distorted view of the interrelation between the individual and the
historical and social world. And as putatively heroic figures - champions of the
capitalist contest - they skew the understanding of history towards self-serving
myth through representing a depoliticised and hence deceiving model of
individual 'success'.

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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 53

In reading Ragtime, then, we must - very much like th


and conserves Tateh's silhouette collection - be alert 'to
coincidences' (p. 96). And as argued, these connections s
shared history. It would be far too facile to attribute
notion of an essential human community, and perhaps t
to see it solely in terms of plot mechanics. Rather, what t
us to do is to discern patterns promising order, and, as an
meaningful consonance between the lives of the powe
those of the quotidian realms. To take one example, at the
a connection is made between the Little Boy, Houdi
Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

The little boy had followed the magician to the street and now
stood at the front of the Pope-Toledo gazing at the distorted
macrocephalic image of himself in the shiny brass fitting of the
headlight. Houdini. . . leaned over the side door. Goodbye, Sonny,
he said holding out his hand. Warn the Duke, the little boy said.
Then he ran off. (p. 9)

Close to the end of the novel, Houdini, inverted, hangs over Broadway, 'the
year was 1914, and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was reported to have been
assassinated. It was at this moment that an image composed itself in Houdini 's
mind. The image was of a small boy looking at himself in the shiny brass
headlamp of an automobile' (p. 267). Not incidentally, this correspondence hinges
on an image - firstly, the boy's apprehension of his own image, inverted in
reflection, and later, with the magician's memory of the boy gazing at that
same reflected self. This interlinking then acts as a type of narrative frame. The
entire 'connection' is of course fiction; and yet, despite this arrant implausibility,
it appears to be proposing some link between different levels of experience -
between the historical world and that vast world of unhistorical people and
events.

The closer one looks at Ragtime, the more elaborate the network of connections
and parallels. To no more than allude to this, a considerable study could be
made of the associative links between references to photography, theatrical
imagery and the incidence of reflection in the novel. More pertinently for the
purposes of my argument, Houdini, the talented immigrant, personifies the
individualistic self-made man; indeed, he is described as embodying an American
ideal (p. 27). Famed for escapology, he actually yearns to escape his own
elaborate theatre of illusion: his is a struggle to enter the real world of historical
achievements in the belief that he will attain a greater measure of selfhood. As
he observes of Peary's exploits,

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54 AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

there was a kind of act that used the real world


couldn 't touch it. For all his achievements he w
illusionist, a mere magician. What was the sense of
walked out of the theatre and forgot him? The
newsstand said Peary had reached the Pole. Th
was what got into the history books '. (p. 82)

We note the ironist's artful contortions here, for w


'history book', Houdini seeks to realise his true self in t
Houdini's ambitions are paralleled in Father's unrea
the 'great man' Peary into history. As we learn, 'exp
passion [as] he wanted to avoid what the great Dr. Ja
inferiority to the full self (p. 182), although in Fa
individual will is construed in the most narcissistic t

Of course, in a sense Houdini is also wishing to escap


progress', for what the master showman must con
redundancy, a condition being imposed by the
technology. Yet he experiences intense feelings of fr
he feels in some sense that he is failing as an Ame
unable to make the necessary 'transformation', he is
world of artifice, however ingenious, and thus to
delimiting self-centredness. Rightly or wrongly, wh
authenticity. The distinction is his, or rather the na
Doctorow's. The author's point is that, as an inspirat
ideal of the 'entrepreneurial individual' actually dep
enriching sense of self in social time and place. His
marks the limits of his individualistic self for, as th
never developed what we think of as a political
image referred to earlier of Father, frozen in a ge
underscores this quite graphically, as does Doctorow
Morgan.

Before the character Morgan, what we cannot overlook here is the process of
'transformation" undertaken by the Little Boy, one which contrasts with that of
the great magician. To be brief, the boy discovers the mirror as a means of 'self-
duplication' (p. 98). By the most preliminary of expositions, what the boy
apprehends is the dispersal of self through the multiplication of images; 'he
was,' he notes, 'no longer anything exact as a person' (p. 98). While in the
simple dramatic sense the boy could not be said to be a prominent figure in the
narrative, the fact that we are led, by inference, to believe that the Little Boy is
the narrator's younger self, allows us to place the act of perception at the very
heart of the novel. From this experience the boy concludes that 'the world

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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 55

composed and recomposed itself constantly in


dissatisfaction' (p. 99); that is, if there is, as he conjec
of 'transformation', it is at the same time disappoin
promise meaning as representations corresponding w
are never mimetically 'true'.

In isolation, this indicates a preoccupation with the m


selfhood; however, if we follow the connections Doc
novel, we must see this image of disintegration alongs
duplication perfected en masse by Henry Ford. Ultimatel
of being is linked to the politically significant effects of
"mass-reproductive" technology. As the immigrant slu
being 'framed' as sociological subjects, it is easy to be
gaze of the new technology, seductive in its vague offer
and so be distracted, however momentarily, from realisin
will to implement fundamental social changes; 'Jacob
went around climbing dark stairs and knocking on doors
of indigent families in their dwellings. He held up the fl
under the hood and a picture exploded. After he left,
move, remained in the position in which they had b
waited for life to change. They waited for their trans

To anticipate my final point, the boy's perception of h


with what is described in the novel as a 'process
dissemination of the individual in the form of the r
immediate sense, what we have then is the potential
centred on a 'de-centring', and so seeming to challeng
It also presents the question of identity or individuality
problem, and, of course, appears to contradict my o
counterbalance to this, we must remember that both the
Boy - to observe the established separation - each exe
consciousness. The narrator, we see, creates his own h
composed from the documentary remnants available
sources. This continues the practice established as a
'treasured anything discarded', perceiving 'the meaning o
its neglect ... He was alert not only to discarded mat
events and coincidences' (p. 96). The narrator, as both
a process of self-understanding through the reflective ac
is to make history personal, not as an absolute fact to
narrow egotistical sense wherein history simply reflects
that the act of narration is, as Doctorow insists, an act o
the fact that 'our experience is an on-going narrative
should add, between us (1993, p. 70). To narrate, then, is,

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56 AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

As creators of historical narratives, the Little Boy and


with history in a way quite different from that of
must work within and very much against the wh
history. In what provides the dramatic climax of
relationship with history is made manifest in the c
affinity, Walker feels that he has with Pierpont Morg
being 'the most important individual of his time'
American hero' who personifies 'unlimited success'
both Morgan and Walker 'correspond' with, and thu
terms, are inseparable from, that of Henry Ford.
capitalistic brother - a fellow individualist who p
story of personal success. But more importantly, it
the pivotal narrative coordinate. While the car is W
is also an object cast in Ford's own image, so to speak.1
artifact, it is in the novel both Walker's rightful prop
that 'magnifies' the image and identity of its creator
future and innovation, independence and auto
democratising modern transport, makes technology
novel makes clear, it is a product of a pioneering syst
that achieves its spectacular efficiency of producti
human individuality - through making huma
'interchangeable'. We are struck here by a profoun
innovations completely subordinate humans to the
production line, radically compromising what we t
individuality.15

The destruction of Walker's property sparks the co


and Morgan - which is to say between black and
culminates in Walker breaking into Morgan's mus
of historical artifacts - an act that in the minds of the
a violation. To draw the most obvious point from t
renegade offends against the rules of private pro
common property of history that has been taken in
powerful human being. Significantly, a New York n
the confrontation in terms of one sort of individual -
violent opposition to another - the powerful embod

That the two men are brought together, in a mann


is away at sea at the time), serves to highlight the
difference between them does not simply mark th
polarities of privilege and exclusion. Rather, as
contrasting ways of acting within history, of bein
how in turn the social and political circumstances c
actions.

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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 57

If Morgan is obliged to act certain roles so as 'maintai


men'16, this does little to temper his sultan-like extr
discover, in an absurd act of self-reflection, he looks d
of Egyptian mythology for self- validating images of
Essentially, what Morgan does is to 'style' himself on
history much as the populace decorate their houses wit
the case of Morgan, his inordinate urge to purchase wh
instance of an individual's ego subduing history to the
seeking self-confirmation through the literal possession of
of history. Ironically, Morgan's drive to own the mater
automatically devalues them, for it reduces the literal matt
possession and ultimately mere commodity. Moreover
refer to the 'careless commingling' of European art and
of period or country' (p. 33), we think not only of an a
amounts to demeaning pastiche, but also of a politically
Doctorow is counterpointing the extravagant indul
aesthetic theatrics of wealthy Americans with the po
suffered by immigrants in urban slums of the New Wo

Whereas Morgan is free to create a mythologised idea


Walker acts from an existential ground or even 'essenc
defence of his fundamental dignity as a human being.
racially motivated attacks upon his individual rights, h
his very existence against the racist forces of the estab
of individual agency: as observed of Walker, he is a 'm
intentions ' . That is, he acts with the only resource he ha
indicates, it is through the process of resisting injustice th
above the mentality of his antagonistic rivals through
and so rises in a way Morgan never can.

Of course, to define Walker in these terms is to begin


Brother's Romantic idea of the black musician as the
and some have suggested that Walker is in some sense
man (mirrored by Younger Brother's becoming 'bl
Moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that, much like hi
Kohlhaas, Walker appears to approach a condition of in
monomania, through his insistent claim to sovereignty
right, for Walker's motivating principles are always p
justice; and yet, by the same token, Walker's racial
accredits his subversive activities with a representativ
and significance beyond the merely personal. As well,
'insanity' as more a reflection on the hypocritical reas
condemns the self-defence of an individual whilst im

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58 AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

that violate that same individual's rights. We can se


parody of white gentility more as an empowering act o
Walker inverts the enforced rituals of a racist societ
own self, and thus mock the arrogance of the domin

That Walker conducts his campaign of resistance in a m


only serves to heighten the crime of dispossession co
in the immediate sense concerning his automobile a
regards his rights as an American citizen. Walker,
(however inadvertently), is relegated to the status o
his individuality and humanity within society. However
his acts as a radicalised protestor, his actions ar
character, highlighting the formative bond and respon
and society. In his acting as he does, the inconsisten
society are highlighted - the discrepancy between
fraternity, and equality and the graphic expression

Ironically, as we have seen, the example of Henry F


for Ford's innovations completely impersonalise
enterprise of labour. His process of mass duplication
is described in the novel as the 'process of magnif
individuals . . . [representing] one desirable human char
of all others', are 'established ... in the public consci
(p. 71). This connection marks the culminating poi
While we can talk of reification, such magnification
than one sense, induces distortion: it not only exagg
magnification, but also misrepresents relations bet
reality - in effect a destructive abstraction. Writing
as the 'first sex goddess in American history', Emm
same point in these terms: 'How can the masses permit
by the few. The answer is By being persuaded to ide
his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home
workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, a
but of being rich' (pp. 70-1). These figures stand as
American people are encouraged to model them
Americans forsake a political consciousness for idola

This, I feel, is the crucial point, for what the myth


and what the manipulative technology of image enh
misrepresentation of certain individuals. The publi
figures marks a mass assent to deception; a willingne
of hypnotism induced through the visual propagand
produces a distorted view of history, a mythologise

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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 59

individuals' that glosses over, and even denies an awar


between the multitude of individuals and the shapin
here history is not the irrecoverable past but a reflection
realities of our lives, which is to say that contemp
susceptible to such myths now as they were at the turn of

In conclusion, what Coalhouse Walker's experienc


individualism, to considerable ironic effect, operat
exclusionary programmatic system (an '-ism'), underw
the iniquitous apportioning of political and social pri
contradiction arises: as an informing myth that pro
freedom to attain complete self-realisation, individu
guarantee genuine independence - that is, individuality
but also, given impinging social and political factors,
right of individuality to a specific group in society. In
in a novel of public matters on private life' (Docto
Ragtime endeavours to dramatise is some understandin
operates in society. For in understanding the insinua
this power, individuals can, ideally, commence an und
situation in relation to the forces impinging on their
make claims, where possible, upon the human institu
lives. In this way we can fully appreciate Doctor
disengagement, for it is a tactic employed to provok
compel a sense of inclusion and engagement, of cont
aligns with Doctorow's call for a 'democracy of perce
safeguard against a mythologised history: while there
of view and thus no truly objective and fully com
collective bearing of witness provides some assurance
potential for history to be used in the most abusive w

ENDNOTES

1 Susan Sontag, In America, Jonathan Cape, London, 2000, pp. 174, 61 .


2 Sontag frames her novel, and thus the idea of the past itself, in the conceit of theatr
classical notion of theatrum mundi); this gives the novel an added level of for
complexity, and also suggests further connections with Ragtime.
3 All quotations used in the text are from E.L.Doctorow, Ragtime, Book Club Ass
London, 1976.
4 E.L.Doctorow, Poets and Presidents: Selected Essays, 1997-1992, Random House
York, 1993, pp. 107-108, 110-111.
5 Frank Lentcchia, Modernist Quartet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridg
p.94.
6 The example Doctorow points to - that of Hemingway 's romanticised hero Robert Jordan
in For Whom The Bell Tolls - is apt as Jordan's self-sacrificial 'last stand' amounts to a

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60 AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES

(paradoxical) self-defining renunciation: 'Withdrawal from


of it, have been preponderant in our fiction ever since Rober
and love and looked out over the barrel of his rifle on the
Tolls. . .We may have rejected Hemingway's romance - the
humorous, and, finally, shattered and fragmentary - but, an
Doctorow, Poets and Presidents, pp. 107, 110-111.
7 The example to which Doctorow points is that of Hem
Whom The Bell Tolls, Ibid., pp. 110-1 11.
8 Robert Bellah, R. Madson, William M. Sullivan, and M
Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life,
Berkeley, 1985. Samuel B. Girgus, The Law of the Heart: I
Self in American Literature, University of Texas, Austin,
discussion of individualism, see Thomas C. Heller, Morton
(eds.), Recontructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individual
Thought, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1986. On Drei
pp. 1 0- 1 1 ; for Tom Wolfe see The Bonfire of the Vanities,
23; Karl Weintraub argues this point in The Value of the In
in Autobiography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago
see Girgus, Individualism, pp. 22; Richard Rorty, Achieving
in Twentieth-Century America, Harvard University Press
Wojciehowski, Old Masters, New Subjects: Early Modern a
of Will, Stanford University Press, California, 1995.
9 For example, see Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmoder
Routledge, New York, 1988, and more conceitedly, Chr
Misrepresentation: On the Fiction of E.L.Doctorow, Uni
Jackson, 1991. John Williams provides a comprehensive
Doctorow's work in Fiction as False Document: The Rece
Postmodern Age, Camden House, Columbia, 1996.
10 See Samuel B. Girgus, The New Covenant: Jewish Writ
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1984
Methuen, London, 1985, and John G. Parks, E.L.Doctorow,
1 1 Described as an experimental historical novel, Ragtime has
and congratulated for what might be called Doctorow's 'ab
Frederic Jameson sees the novel as perfecting a represen
stunning monument to the aesthetic situation engendered
historical referent' Frederic Jameson,'Postmodernism,
Capitalism', New Left Review, 146, 1984, pp. 53-94, 70 (
12 Consider Doctorow's comments: 'I think history is m
objective event, but until it is construed, until it is evaluat
quoted in H. Friedel and Dieter Schultz (eds.), E.L.Doctorow
Verlag Die Blaue Eule, Essen, 1988, p. 1 84. See this volume
view of history especially pp. 183-184.
13 Father, although failing in his last expedition to the No
with the egocentric 'great men' of history, of whom Peary i
we must be sceptical. Doctorow underscores the point in a
reached the pole, Peary assembles his crew for a photograp
evidence of what he insists is his achievement; yet, as we lea
personal greatness for their faces are obscured, and so the
14 I am here taking J. Ditsky's argument one step further
A Note' in R. Trenner (ed.) E.L.Doctorow: Essays and Co
Press, Princeton, 1983).
15 Doctorow returns to the relationship between mechanis
assertions of human individuality in Loon Lake (1985).

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AUSTRALASIAN JOURNAL OF AMERICAN STUDIES 61

16 ' . . .for his wife and grown children he would continue to


stolidity', and 'for the sake of the country he would live in
summon . . .'(p. 117).
1 7 Coalhouse denies his supporters a sense of shared victory by insisting they be exempted
from the final confrontation. As the outraged Younger Brother sees it, he 'betrays' his
subjects in refusing them participation in the revolutionist's apotheosis - the ritual of
self-sacrifice - and thus achieves a form of ultimate self-aggrandisement. There are
numerous parallels between Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas and Doctorow's Ragtime, which
might be summarised in terms of a single and distinctly American theme: the "natural"
rights of the individual in dramatic conflict with the formalised laws of society, by which
the story confirms the power of the individual in the face of monolithic and impersonal
systems of social 'justice'. Ditsky discusses the similarities between these two narratives
at length in Trenner, E.LDoctorow
1 8 See M. Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory, Temple
University Press, Philadelphia, 1996, for a recent analysis of the Horatio Algerian 'great
man' myth in American history.

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