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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ragtime chronicles the lives of three families: a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) family (composed of the narrator when he is a young boy, Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, and Grandfather); a black family (Sarah, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and their illegitimate infant); and an immigrant family (Tateh, Mameh, and The Little Girl). At the beginning of the novel these families’ existences are entirely segregated from one another, but by the story’s end the three families have become one in a uniquely American type of ethnic heterogeneity.

It is significant that the story begins from an exclusively WASP perspective, told in retrospect by the Little Boy grown to manhood. This perspective, the reader is meant to understand, was America’s in the early years of the twentieth century, when Teddy Roosevelt was president and when “Everyone wore white in summer.” It is an ideal (and idealized) period, when there “was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.” In such an America, everyone was presumed to be patriotic, for “patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900’s.” Father is the model patriot as a maker of flags, buntings, and fireworks; his family is supposed to be a model American family. This, at least, is the status quo when Father, an amateur explorer, leaves with Robert Peary on his third (and ultimately successful) expedition to discover the North Pole. It is 1906, and Father will take part in the actual discovery in 1909. While Father is away, however, his WASP family undergoes a surprising change, only the first of several Americanizing changes he and his family will experience. Mother is the catalyst for this first change.

Mother, a stereotypically Victorian creature with whom Father has always had to make appointments to make love, finds an abandoned black infant half-buried but still alive in her flower garden, then takes the child and its young mother, Sarah (after she is found by the police), into her home as her responsibility. Not only does she take on this responsibility, but also she assumes all the executive responsibilities of Father’s business, so that upon his return he discovers that she can “speak crisply of such matters as unit cost, inventory and advertising,” and she has expanded the company’s sales into California and Oregon. Not the least of the changes that Mother has undergone concerns her reading: She now reads feminist and socialist literature, for example. Father, because he fornicated with Eskimo women while in the Arctic, assumes that the changes in his wife and home are God’s “punishments.” Another such punishment is that some of his employees have become union members.

Father’s home and business are also changed, through Mother’s Younger Brother, who lives in the home and works in the business. Having fallen obsessively in love with Evelyn Nesbit (the wife of Harry K. Thaw and lover of Stanford White until Thaw assassinates him), Mother’s Younger Brother succeeds in wooing Evelyn for a short time, and as he is doing so he meets and becomes a follower of Emma Goldman, the political radical and revolutionary unionizer. It is through Mother’s Younger Brother, in fact, that Father’s family is initially (albeit peripherally) connected to the immigrant family of Tateh, Mameh, and The Young Girl—and it is through both Mother and her brother that the WASP family is infiltrated by Emma Goldman: Mother is reading one of Goldman’s pamphlets when Father returns from his expedition, his employees are unionizing, and Mother’s Younger Brother has already become a political radical. (He will ultimately become a revolutionary who dies in Mexico while fighting for Emiliano Zapata.)

While the life of the WASP family is complicated by Mother’s discovery and harboring of the black infant and Sarah, the second story line of the novel is revealed. The third member of this black family is Sarah’s former lover, the...

(The entire section is 1,307 words.)