Written almost thirty years ago, describing an age far removed from its own, E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime nevertheless explores issues of identity and ethnicity that still face America in spite of its lofty ideals of individualism and diversity. It displays for the reader a rich and hypnotic portrayal of the soul of immigrant America, yet still fails to avoid ethnic bias in certain subtle ways. Whether the lapses into feelings of cultural superiority originate from the purposeful portrayal of the characters Doctorow created or without the author's conscious prior awareness, a careful reading of the text will reveal them. In this way, these same assumptions and prejudices test our own. As Ragtime delineates between ethnic identities that are understood to be like children or animals and noble races that are simply misunderstood, it holds a clear mirror up to the reader's own assumptions of identity and ethnicity.
Within the first five pages of the novel, Ragtime sets the ethnic tone that saturates its narrative: that of two tragically misunderstood cultures in American life, the Negro and the "immigrant" (a term used to specifically describe immigrants of a European or Eastern European ethnic identity). The only time Asians or indigenous communities like the Inuit are mentioned in the novel is with a sternly derogatory tone, and as a fringe element or prop supporting the larger discourse, that of select minorities in their struggle for livelihood and equality in America. Neither ethnic groups are allowed even human connotation. Still there is a limited awareness and conscience on the author's behalf to bring to light a dangerou...
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...side, and thus marginalized from the greater voices in the novel.
This parallels a destructive and subtle tendency by Western cultures to build up a false representation of other cultures and let that representational model have the final say on the sentiments and judgments involved. They remain largely voiceless because they lack the translators or noble heroes that writers such as Doctorow have graciously provided for Eastern European and African Americans. America has consistently continued in this voiceless discourse, described succinctly in a quote from Karl Marx's essay mentioning Asian culture: "They cannot represent themselves. They must be represented" (Said 1).
Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Ballantine Books, 1974.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.
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