Up until the late 1900?s, the American populace on the whole had assumed a very optimistic view of American history. Glossing over disgraceful events, emphasizing the brighter points in our history, our culture has attempted to ignore the obvious fact that we have had, and still have, our fair share of problems. In Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow unabashedly exposes some of the worst aspects of American life in our more recent history. Doctorow doesn?t hold back anything, providing detailed examples of human cruelty and sacrifice, and the evolution of American society. While critiquing American society was not the sole purpose of his novel, Doctorow does expose and examine many issues that people tended to ignore like the impoverished immigrant working class, racism, and feminism. The emphasis Doctorow places on these issues makes it clear that he thought, ??America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.'; (33).
The period in American history at the turn of the 20th century is commonly referred as the Gilded Age. This is in reference to the increased size of the lower classes and the emergence of the elite capitalist as a new hegemonic class that possessed riches and power that were practically undreamt of. This era saw a dramatic increase in the size of the lower classes as immigrants filled the country and jobs became scarce, and a decrease in the size of the middle class. However, despite the less than ideal conditions that existed for many people in the country, middle and upper class citizens had the impression that they were in an era of prosperity. They turned a blind eye towards all the suffering and hardships of the lower class, in their perfect, ignorant world ?There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants'; (3). Doctorow recognized the dominant attitude of the times for what it was, pure ignorance, and set out in Ragtime to educate the middle and upper class about the real world and the hardships that many people have to endure.
In the beginning of the novel, the nameless family that the story revolves around has an air of purity to it. At this point in time everyone seems to be as it should be, they are well off financially, they have a normal family residing in a normal house in a normal neighborhood. The only member of the family who has any inkling of the darker times ahead is the mother who thinks to hersel...
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...cepted him without hesitation.'; (269). Once again, Doctorow shows his distaste for the traditional values of American society by allowing Mother?s strong character to flourish and be happy in a society that was designed for men.
Perhaps Doctorow did not think of America as a gigantic mistake. The fact that the book ended on a hopeful note, with Mother and Tateh being married, gives the impression that Doctorow still has hope for America. But it is only with the help of people like Mother and Tateh, who incidentally are two of the few main characters still alive at the end of the book, that American society can hope to better itself. The ignorance of people to the poverty of the working class, the racism in an ethnically diverse culture, and the conservative stance of men towards women, are all problems that can be corrected with time and effort. It is to be expected that in a unique society like America problems will arise. Doctorow?s novel is more than a simple criticism of the United States, it is a statement of his belief that America can improve itself but there is much that needs to be improved.
Doctorow, E.L., Ragtime. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.
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