‘Ragtime’ is a novel that concerns itself with life in America from the start of the 20th century to the outbreak of World War I. As such, the novel necessarily deals with themes of social identity, class struggle and personal decision, as well as the hopelessness of certain characters in the face of the social environment that they find themselves a part of. One of the key themes of the novel is how people understand the nature of the world in which they live and how this affects the way in which they behave. In particular, how the world around them is understood according to the remits of capitalism. This paper will argue that the novel can be seen to present competing discourses on the idea of nature and time and that this can be shown to fundamentally affect the ways in the reader understands different characters and events.
In Chapter 20 of the novel, Morgan asks the historical Henry Ford how he would respond if he was able to prove ‘that here are universal patterns of order and repetition that give meaning to the activity of this planet’ (1975 111). This pattern of universal order is them claimed, by Morgan, to be evidenced in Ford’s production line technique which, at the time that the novel is set, was revolutionising industrial production and would effectively serve to fuel the major economic boom that America would experience in the first third of the 20th century. Morgan expands on this idea and offer a description that shows that Ford’s techniques are not simply modern technology but that they are able to express something that is inherently present in the world and in nature. He states he ‘has never considered the possibility that the employment of labour is in itself a harmonically unifying process apart from the enterprise in which it is engaged’ but then goes to comment that Ford’s techniques of production cause him to reflect on the fact that his ‘assembly line is not merely a stroke of industrial genius but a projection of organic truth’ (ibid).
This organic truth refers to a process of a rationalisation and repetition that Morgan sees in nature as it operates in its ideal forms. The reader of the novel is no doubt intended to respond to this statement with suspicion and with potential derision. The Fordist production line may well have represented a certain mode of rationality, however this was a rationality that was enforced on people and workers by the demands of industrial capitalism. A points the novel deals with the effects of this view of time and nature and those who are most affected by it, i.e. industrial workers. Through the situation of the character of Tateh, Doctorow shows the lived reality of workers in America. When speaking of living quarters he writes in sparse sentences that; ‘Tateh stood in front of a loom for fifty-six hours a week. His pay was just under six dollars. The family lived in a wooden tenement on a hill. They had no heat’ (93). These sentences mirror the cold rationality of Fordist production, however they make it clear that his rationality is responsible for a huge amount of misery. Ultimately this is summed up a sentence that completely denies the humanity of the workers and shows that capitalist rationality is one in which ‘not only the finished product must be interchangeable but who themselves build the products must be interchangeable parts’ (104).
Although initially socialist, Tateh undergoes a change of heart and beings to fashion himself after the model of an independent, singular person. His project involves inventing new modes of film development, something at which he will ultimately be highly successful. Just as Morgan’s thoughts about the Fordist production line position themselves within a discourse of the true nature of time, also Doctorow’s descriptions of Tateh’s own work places itself within a similar discourse. Once he comes to accept capitalist time and to work within it as an entrepreneur then he is able to see how wonderfully productive it can be. We read that Tateh’s ‘whole existence had turned outwards and he had become a voluble and energetic man full of the future…He produced dozens of movie books for the Franklin Novelty Company. Then he designed a magic lantern apparatus on which paper strips printed with his silhouettes turned on a wheel’ (192). This enthusiasm is then directly related to the ‘anarchic flash and fireworks of a new industry’ (193). Tateh is allowed to grow and develop in intense exciting ways but only once he has abandoned his hopes for a communal existence.
This existence is foregrounded in a passage that is very close in terms of narrative to the one describing Tateh’s most exciting period of activity. The descriptions concerns two children who, while Tateh is working hard on his new inventions and is entirely engaged in the demands and temporality of booming capitalism, are themselves engaged in games with an over sexual context. Doctorow writes that these two ‘met very morning and went to the deserted stretches of beach where the dunes and grasses block the hotel from their sight’ (ibid).
Throughout the games that they are engaged in the two are shown to patience and careful with each other and as existing in a fundamentally different kind of temporality to the one that dominates Tateh’s life and the lives of the other people who populate the novel. Doctorow sums this up with one statement that shows the two figures as immersed in nature and also as part of its temporality. He writes that; ‘The sun rose over their bent backs as they scooped the wet sand’ (ibid). In this passage, the two young people exists in an ebb and flow that could not be further away from the rationalised, dirempted, time of capitalist production. Their existence in these moments belies Morgan’s claims about the rationality of Fordism, as well Tateh’s own excitement over the growth of his inventions. In this way they serve as an idea of the communal relational to nature, and a feeling of being absorbed in an environment, that is lost when one works within the time of factory production.
In conclusion, this paper has argued that ‘Ragtime’ can be seen to be concerned with a particular discourse on time and nature. In particular is juxtaposes a falsely naturalised capitalist time with an actual experience of nature and a rhythmic temporality. It is this experience that serves as a precondition for some of the novel’s most profounds moments and for a crucial part of its social critique.