Study Guide

Ragtime Quotes

  • Mortality

    Children died of mild colds or slight rashes. Children died on beds made from two kitchen chairs pushed together. They died on floors. Many people believed that filth and starvation and disease were what the immigrant got for his moral degeneracy. (3.5)

    Now you see why the immigrants were terrified of losing their children all the time... it happened a lot. No wonder later in the novel Tateh keeps Little Girl on a leash. Bad things happened to kids back then.

    The Esquimos, who had no system but merely lived here, suffered the terrors of their universe. Sometimes the Esquimo women would unaccountably tear off their clothes and run into the black storms howling and rolling on the ice. Their husbands had forcibly to restrain them from killing themselves. (10.1)

    When we're left to our own devices and have to face the emptiness of life and the fact that one day we're all gonna die, look out... we might just lose it. But is it better, in fact, to live life in the stiff-upper-lip manner of turn of the century Americans, or is that just as insane as running out onto ice floes?

    The consumption of food was a sacrament of success. A man who carried a great stomach before him was thought to be in his prime. Women went into hospitals to die of burst bladders, collapsed lungs, overtaxed hearts and meningitis of the spine. (11.1)

    And you thought America had an obesity problem now? Even back then, obsesity led to many diseases, illness and death. They might have been starving to death in the tenements and slums, but in the wealthier parts of American society they were eating themselves to death.

    Working under the river they were subject to horrible destinies [...] One day there was a blowout so explosive that it sucked four workmen out of the tunnel and blew them through twenty feet of river silt and shot them up threw the river itself forty feet into the air on the crest of a geyser. Only one of the men survived. (13.1)

    Yeah, work was dangerous back then. Really dangerous. And it wasn't like you had life insurance either. You went to work and tried to put food on the table and some days you just didn't come home. And if you weren't willing to do that, there were plenty of people willing to take your place.

    [Morgan] thought he saw in Ford's use of men a reincarnation of pharaohism. Not only that: he had studied photographs of the automobile manufacturer and had seen an extraordinary resemblance to Seti I, the father of the great Ramses... (19.5)

    There's having a high opinion of yourself, and then there's thinking you're a person who's reincarnated over and over again to give mankind a helping hand. Faced with the fact he's getting on in years (and scared of mortality) Morgan cooks this idea up in order to explain his and Ford's greatness.

    Reincarnation is the only belief I hold, Mr. Morgan. I explain my genius this way—some of us have just lived more times than others. (20.15)

    That's Ford explaining why he's been able to do things he's done. Like Morgan, his explanation is the fact that he's been here before. A comforting thought when you know that someday, like everyone else, you're gonna die.

    He [Houdini] learned that she had called for him moments before her death. [...] He was tormented with guilt. He was obsessed with the idea that she had wanted to tell him something, that she had something to tell him that she could reveal only then, at the moment of her death. (27.9)

    Talk about a mama's boy, right? This is the beginning of Houdini's death wish, and his obsession with death and the afterlife. Can he find out what she wanted to tell him? Is there some way she can still communicate with him? For the rest of his days, Houdini would hold out hope that somehow his mother would tell him what she couldn't before she died. No kidding.

    Is the goddamn Ford your justice? said Younger Brother. Is your execution your justice? Coalhouse looked at him. As for my execution, he said, my death was determined the moment Sarah died. (38.17)

    Don't mess with a man who's already decided he's going to die—he's got nothing to lose. Getting justice for the vandalism of his car isn't what this is about, and not even Booker T. Washington can understand that. Life isn't worth living for Coalhouse now that Sarah is gone.

    Shortly after these adventures Pierpont Morgan suffered a sudden decline in health. [...] But he was far from unhappy, having concluded that his physical deterioration was exactly the sign for which he had been waiting. He was so urgently needed again on earth that he was exempt from the usual entombment rituals. (40.17)

    Hey, if you thought you were part of a special class of people reincarnated every few generations for the benefit of mankind, you might view your death the same way.

    Poor Father, I see his final exploration. He arrives at the new place, his hair risen in astonishment, his mouth and eyes dumb. His toe scuffs a soft storm of sand, he kneels and his arms spread in pantomimic celebration, the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self. (40.24)

    Even in death, Father remains an immigrant, an alien to his surroundings. I guess when you're born into the wrong time, you can die in the wrong time too.

  • Women and Femininity

    When the entire house was asleep he came to her room in the darkness. He was solemn and attentive as befitted the occasion. Mother shut her eyes and held her hands over her ears. Sweat from Father's chin fell on her breasts. She started. She thought: Yet I know these are the happy years. (2.1)

    There is a shame attached to sex at the beginning of the novel that both Mother and Father suffer through. These might be the happy years, but she is anything but happy, instead performing what she thinks is an unfortunate duty of every wife.

    She became accustomed to the hands of her employer. One day with two weeks' rent due she let the man have his way on a cutting table. He kissed her face and tasted the salt of her tears. (3.4)

    The powerlessness of a woman in Mameh's position is what Doctorow shows here. If she refuses, she'll be fired. And when she does sleep with her employer, she loses her family. For women like Mameh, there weren't many good options.

    Once he demanded proof of her devotion and it turned out nothing else would do but fellatio. [...] Afterwards he brushed the sawdust from the front of her skirt and gave her some bills from his money clip. (4.4)

    This is foreshadowing for the later conversation between Evelyn and Emma Goldman, where she compares marriage to prostitution. Evelyn might feel humiliated, but she dries her tears with the idea of getting $200,000 for testifying at her husband's trial.

    The truth is, Goldman went on quickly, women may not vote, they may not love whom they want, they may not develop their minds and their spirits, they may not commit their lives to the spiritual adventure of life, comrades, they may not. And why? Is our genius only in our wombs? (8.2)

    Doctorow has a talent for finding characters to state the truth of a situation, and Emma Goldman is perfect here for defining a woman's role at the beginning of the 20th century, when women were thought by many men to be good for raising babies and not much more.

    After all, Goldman went on, you're nothing but a clever prostitute. You accepted the conditions in which you found yourself and you triumphed. But what kind of victory has it been? [...] I have never taken a man to bed without loving him, without taking him in love as a free human being, his equal... (8.5)

    Goldman is talking about equality here, the fact that when marriage is an exchange of money for servitude it's no different than being a prostitute. It is more important to her to be free—and equal.

    Goldman stood and turned her around slowly for inspection, a frown on her face. Look at that, it's amazing you have any circulation at all. Marks of the stays ran vertically like welts around Nesbit's waist. the evidence of garters could be seen in the red lines running around the tops her thighs. Women kill themselves, Goldman said. (8.10)

    In a man's world, women dressed to please men and accentuate their figure. Goldman herself wears free flowing clothes, and in this scene berates Evelyn for the corset and other undergarments she wears. Funny how in some ways things haven't changed. Or have you ever walked a mile in high heels?

    Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is By being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich. (11.3)

    This is Goldman understanding the role of women like Evelyn Nesbit, and how she foretells the existence of women like Marilyn Monroe and supermodels and their use in advertising. Capitalism holds up women like this as trophies for men, so that men will work to become rich and attain them.

    He realized that every night since he'd returned home they had slept in the same bed. She was in some way not as vigorously modest as she'd been. She took his gaze. She came to bed with her hair unbraided. Her hand one night brushed down his chest and came to rest below his nightshirt. [...] With a groan he turned to her and found her ready. Her hands pulling his face to hers did not feel the tears. (14.1)

    This is the not the same woman who closes her eyes and covers her ears during sex at the beginning of the novel. This is a bolder woman, and Father doesn't know what to make of it.

    She thought about Father a good deal. The events since his return from the Arctic, his responses to them, had broken her faith in him. [...] During his absence when she had made certain decisions regarding the business, all its mysterious potency was dissipated and she saw if for the dreary unimaginative thing it was. (33.3)

    With the discovery of her own potential, Mother realizes Father is kind of... well, dull. She might still love him and honor her marriage, but she is no longer in love with him. She realizes she deserves better. Here Doctorow shows us how many women of that time probably lived in stagnant marriages, kept down by a lack of awareness caused by only having the role of wife and mother available to them.

    ... Mother's white dress and underclothes lay against her so that ellipses of flesh pressed through. She looked so young with her hair down on her shoulders and matted around her head. Her skirts stuck to her limbs and every few moments she would bend to pluck them away from her body and the wind would blow them back against her. (34.8)

    This is not the Mother we meet at the beginning of the book, a woman who is prim and proper and asexual. This is a woman walking in the rain who's increasingly in touch with her sensuality, and beautiful because of it. She's come full circle, and Doctorow will give her the happy ending of eventually marrying Tateh and living in California.

  • Repression

    Their first night in the Schloss he pulled off her robe, threw her across the bed and applied a dog whip to her buttocks and the backs of her thighs. [...] She cried and whimpered all night. In the morning Harry returned to her room, this time with a razor strop. (4.3)

    Harry's repression, and his frustration with Evelyn's affair with Stanford White, leads him to take out his frustration and repression on Evelyn, continuing even when it's obvious he's causing her great pain. He can't express himself to her, so he sexually abuses her.

    …to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever. (5.9)

    This is an interesting passage, because you get the feeling that the narrator is trying to tell us that a little bit of repression is maybe a good thing... that maybe in some ways we were better off when sex had a little more mystery to it.

    At this moment a hoarse unearthly cry issued from the walls, the closet door flew open and Mother's Younger Brother fell into the room, his face twisted in a paroxysm of saintly mortification. He was clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor... (8.9)

    Alright, this is one funny scene. But notice the words Doctorow uses: Younger Brother is mortified as if he was a saint, and he's trying to choke his own penis, which is ignoring him. If this guy isn't repressed, then nobody is.

    One day Father came upon a couple and was shocked to see the wife thrusting her hips upwards to the thrusts of her husband. An uncanny animal song came from her throat. [...] He thought of Mother's fastidiousness, her grooming and her intelligence, and found himself resenting this woman's claim to the gender. (10.2)

    Women shouldn't actually participate in sex, or enjoy it... at least this is how Father thinks. Though it might seem shocking that he's shocked by the woman's enjoyment, the point here is that Father's thinking wasn't so unusual at the turn of the century.

    He was shocked by the outlines of his body, the ribs and clavicle, white-skinned and vulnerable, the bony pelvis, the organ hanging there redder than anything else. (14.1)

    Poor Father. This is a simple sentence, but one which shows very clearly a Victorian male's shame at his body... even his "organ" is red with embarrassment.

    Waiting for Peary to return to the Roosevelt he had heard the wind howl at night and had clasped with love and gratitude the foul body, like a stinking fish, of an Esquimo woman. He had put his body into the stinking fish. (14.1)

    Remember when Father was so fascinated by the Esquimo women having sex? Though he acted disgusted by it, he has sex with one of the women himself, and is so ashamed he can't even think of her as a woman—but as a foul-smelling body. Where's your repression now, Father?

    At times he would grab himself as if to pull his sex out by the roots. [...] He wanted to pack his heart with gunpowder and blow it up. (14.5)

    Oops. There goes Mother's Younger Brother again, tortured with memories of Evelyn and his own shame. It's no coincidence that when he masturbates he wants to either strangle his penis or blow up his heart.

    He would take a woman to his hotel room and then sit in a chair with one shoe in his hand and completely forget about her. Or he would not attempt to make love but only inspect her intimate places. (22.2)

    Younger Brother's shame regarding sex has now reached a strange impasse, where he desires the company of women but, when he finally attains it, he does not have sex. Instead he seeks to shame them also by making the time with them clinical, inspecting them as if he were a doctor.

    Mother's bathing costume was modest but she required several days to feel comfortable in it. [...] She insisted that they separate themselves by several hundred yards from the nearest bathers. [...] Father wore a horizontal striped blue and white sleeveless one piece bathing suit that made cylinders of his thighs. Mother found it distasteful to see the outlines of his maleness in that costume when he emerged from the water. (33.3)

    Even though Mother is getting more in touch with her sexuality in the bedroom, this scene shows how much she is still fearful of being sexual or displaying her body (or her husband's body) in public. Bikinis were still a long ways off.

    He used wet sand and shaped it in exaggerated projections of her form. [...] Her knees grew round, her thighs were dunes and on her chest he constructed large nippled bosoms. As he worked, her dark eyes never left his face. (34.4)

    This is a beautiful scene where Doctorow shows the absence of shame and repression in two children simply burying each other with sand. Their bodies are not something to be ashamed of, which is why they can look each other in the face while they do it.

  • Injustice

    The tenements glowed like furnaces and the tenants had no water to drink. The sink at the bottom of the stairs was dry. Fathers raced through the streets looking for ice. [...] Horses exploded in the heat. Their exposed intestines heaved with rats. (3.7)

    In comparison to the beautiful palaces of the rich, Doctorow shows a version of living hell in the tenements, where the conditions are inhumane, and where the wealthy don't care to go.

    Thaw was not really fond of the jail fare so they brought in his meals from Delmonico's. He liked to feel clean so they passed along a change of clothes delivered each morning to the jail doors by his valet. He disliked Negroes so they made sure no Negro prisoner was lodged near his cell. (4.4)

    This is the prison experience of Harry K. Thaw. You can bet the experience for the black prisoners he doesn't like being near is far, far worse. This is a perfect demonstration of how much life differed between those with money and those without.

    One Hundred Negroes a year were lynched. One hundred miners were burned alive. One hundred children were mutilated. There seemed to be quotas for these things. There seemed to be quotas for death by starvation. (6.3)

    To be a worker or an African American—or a poor child—was horrible during these times. Life expectancies are short, and it's no wonder, given the fact that their lives are not valued by wealthy society and companies regularly mistreat their workers.

    At palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. [...] One hostess invited everyone to a stockyard ball. Guests were wrapped in long aprons and their heads covered with white caps. They dined and danced while hanging carcasses of bloody beef trailed around the walls on moving pulleys. Entrails spilled on the floor. The proceeds were for charity. (6.3)

    Talk about adding insult to injury! Here Doctorow really drives home the idea that the rich —and rich corporations—didn't just think poor people were a lesser form of human being, but they actually enjoyed mocking them.

    His own wife, to feed them, offered herself and he has now driven her from his home and mourns her as we mourn the dead. (7.3)

    Doesn't it seem an injustice that Mameh is thrown out of her house, never to see her daughter again, for simply trying to feed her family and pay the rent? Part of us might want Tateh to forgive her, but Doctorow is being realistic about the rigid morals of the time.

    There were many incidents. A woman worker was shot in the street. The only ones with guns were the police and the militia, but the two strike leaders, Ettor and Giovanetti, were arrested for complicity in the shooting. (16.4)

    This is an example of the injustices committed against laborers as they tried to form unions, which corporations said were against God.

    The volunteers waited until this was done and then advised him that he was traveling on a private toll road and that he could not drive on without payment of twenty-five dollars or by presenting a pass indicating that he was a resident of the city. (23.3)

    This is the moment when Coalhouse's life takes a serious turn for the worse. The volunteers, emboldened by their Chief, and angry with the black man passing by in his fancy car, have decided to make an example of him. Just imagine how much twenty-five bucks was back then.

    The big policeman came to a decision. He took Coalhouse aside. Listen, he said, we'll push your tin lizzie back on the road and you be on your way. There's no real damage. Scrape off the shit and forget the whole thing. (23.10)

    Because Coalhouse is black, the attitude of the policeman is that Coalhouse should just be thankful he's getting his car back. This is the attitude that Coalhouse so adamantly fights against, knowing that if the firemen had vandalized a white man's car, the policeman would have acted differently.

    Sarah broke through the line and ran toward him calling, in her confusion, President! President! Her arm was extended and her black hand reached toward him. [...] A militiaman stepped forward and, with the deadly officiousness of armed men who protect the famous, brought the butt of of his Springfield against Sarah's chest as hard as he could. (25.6)

    This is the straw that breaks the camel's back. In her innocence, Sarah tries to go to the Vice President on Coalhouse's behalf, and is assaulted, leading to her death. It's no surprise when this happens that Coalhouse commits to a plan that will ultimately lead to his death. The world that he thought was just now has no meaning for him.

    In the bright floodlit street the black man was said by the police to have made a dash for freedom. More probably he knew that all he must do in order to end his life was to turn his head abruptly or lower his hands or smile. (40.1)

    The final injustice to Coalhouse. A man who would never run from anything in his life is said to have run from the police, just so that they can rationalize their killing him. The only comfort is the understanding that Coalhouse knew the police would act this way.

  • Change

    Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. [...] Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. (1.1)

    This is the world as we enter it at the beginning of Ragtime, and yet, as you can tell by the language, things have already started to change. The trial of Harry K. Thaw will mark that change, as the scandalous testimony of Evelyn Nesbit leaves little to the imagination, creating in her America's first sex symbol.

    In fact Sigmund Freud had just arrived in America to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and so Houdini was destined to be, with Al Jolson, the last of the great shameless mother lovers, a nineteenth-century movement that included such men as Poe, John Brown, Lincoln and James McNeill Whistler. (5.9)

    Here Doctorow points out that the ideas of one individual—in this case Freud—can be responsible for an entire shift in thinking. Freud's ideas about a mother's effect on their sons, specifically ideas like the Oedipal complex, would give negative connotations to close mother/son relationships.

    America was a great farting country. All this began to change when Taft moved into the White House. His accession to the one mythic office in the American imagination weighed everyone down. [...] Thereafter fashion would the other way and only poor people would be stout. (11.1)

    Presidents can change society, just by how they look and dress. When Kennedy became President and didn't wear a hat, men stopped wearing hats. Doctorow points out a similar thing with Taft, who weighed 332 pounds. Once people saw all that girth, they started trying to be thinner.

    Some of these men saw the way Evelyn's face on the front page of the newspaper sold out the edition. They realized that there was a process of magnification by which news events established certain individuals in the public consciousness as larger than life. (11.3)

    Congratulations, you just witnessed the creation of the first celebrity. That's what happened when businessmen realized that a pretty face will sell newspapers, or soap, or whatever else they wanted. This represented a big change from featuring people who had actually done something to be in the news, rather than just being attractive. Now you know why TMZ exists!

    Father related it to the degrees of turn in the moral planet. He saw it everywhere, this new season, and it bewildered him. At his office he was told that the seamstresses in the flag department had joined a New York union. (14.1)

    This is Father's reaction after returning home from the Arctic. He's lost in a country that has definitely changed while he's been away, from the way his wife acts to the way the maid acts. When he left, people knew their place, and that is rapidly changing.

    It was evident to him that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction. (15. 6)

    This is Little Boy's idea of change, and it's pretty simple: something new comes along, people adapt to it and get sick of it, and then something else new comes along. That's change in a nutshell.

    Father noted the skin mottling on the back of his hand. He found himself occasionally asking people to repeat to him what they'd said. [...] Once accustomed to life together after his return from the Arctic, they had slipped into an undemanding companionship in which he felt by-passed by life, like a spectator at an event. (29.2)

    This is an important section because it shows not only the changes that happen in a marriage over time, but the feelings in Father as he realizes the world is changing without him. And, whether he realizes it or not, Mother is progressing with this new world while he is not.

    Father remembered the baseball at Harvard twenty years before, when the players addressed each other as Mister and played their game avidly, but as sportsmen, in sensible uniforms before audiences of collegians who rarely numbered more than a hundred. He was disturbed by his nostalgia. He'd always thought of himself as progressive. (30. 4)

    These are Father's feelings during a baseball game with his son, where the players curse and the game is not so innocent as it was when he was in college. It's at this moment, thinking he's progressive and changing with the time, that he realized instead he's an old man, nostalgic for a time that no longer exists.

    The signs of the coming conflagration were everywhere. [...] The painters in Paris were doing portraits with two eyes on one side of the head. A Jewish professor in Zurich had published a paper proving that the universe was curved. None of this escaped Pierpont Morgan. (40.10)

    This statement is a little facetious, though coming more from the point of view of J.P. Morgan we're not surprised he would be upset by the paintings of Picasso and the idea of Einstein. Their ideas will transform the 20th century, so it's understandable that Morgan might see them as a sign of not just turmoil, but a world war.

    In New York the papers carried the news as one of those acts of violence peculiar to the Balkan States. Few Americans could have had any particular feeling of sympathy for the slain heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. (40.19)

    Change isn't always apparent. Here we have the event that starts World War I, a major change if there ever was one, and the papers treat it as a ho-hum event. The lesson is that most of the time we don't see change coming... it has a way of starting out with something seemingly meaningless and then smacking us right in the face.

  • Time

    She had no joy. She looked into the mirror and saw the unmistakable lineaments of womanhood coming into her girlish face. Her long beautiful neck seemed to her like an ungainly stalk upon which was perched a sad-eyed ridiculous head of a whore past her prime. (11.6)

    Evelyn starts to see the effects of time on her looks, and is not too pleased with the result. It's one thing to be a teenaged beauty, and another to age and fade into obscurity. (And of course plastic surgery hadn't been invented yet.)

    It was apparent to them both that this time he'd stayed away too long. (14.1)

    Father and Mother usually benefit from the time away from each other, but the Arctic trip, both in terms of the length of time and its effect on Father, make it obvious that this was one trip he maybe shouldn't have taken.

    He found he preferred to sit in the parlor, his feet near a small electric heater. Everyone in the family treated him like a convalescent. His son brought him beef tea. The boy had grown taller. [...] Father felt childlike beside him. (14.2)

    Father has rapidly aged during his trip, becoming an old man, while his son has matured. It's almost as if Father didn't just go to the Pole but to another planet. Time has aged them in very different ways while he's been gone.

    But the boy's eyes saw only the tracks made by the skaters, traces quickly erased of moments past, journeys taken. (15.7)

    Little Boy is keenly aware of time, and the way we are constantly traveling forward through it. Every moment is a moment we're creating history, as well as leaving impressions of ourselves for those who come after us.

    After work he'd walk with her for an hour through the dark streets. She became thoughtful. She held her shoulders straight and walked like a woman. He was torturing himself anticipating her maturity. (16.1)

    Here Doctorow shows the passage of time and its effects on Little Girl, who is becoming a woman—much to the worry of Tateh. He is also concerned for the future, if her difficult life will make it hard for her to accept a husband when the time comes.

    Standing next to the proprietor he held the book at arm's length and expertly flipped the pages. The little girl skated forward and skated away, did a figure eight, came back, went into a pirouette and made a graceful bow. (17.7)

    What Tateh has created with his movie book is a way to trap time. Rather than losing a moment as soon as it's happened, the book lets us see that moment of time, that skater, over and over. It's magic, and it foresees the moviemaking business and why even today movies are magical to us. They trap a moment of time forever.

    In the clear blue light of the moon he heard from a native guide of the wisdom given to the great Osiris that there is a sacred tribe of heroes, a colony from the gods who are regularly born in every age to assist mankind. (19.6)

    Yup, that's reincarnation. Morgan is fascinated with it and the time of the Egyptians, since he thinks that's where he started, as part of this tribe. He becomes convinced Henry Ford is part of this tribe, too.

    The cortege moved slowly. Children ran behind it and people on the sidewalks stopped to stare. [...] The sun shone. Gulls rose from the water. They flew between the suspension cables and settled along the railing as the last of the cars went by. (26.1)

    This is Sarah's funeral procession, which moves into Brooklyn more like a parade than a funeral. The point being made here is that time moves on even in death... even when, to those who are grieving, it seems like the world has stopped.

    He was upside down 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. (40.21)

    Time and memory. Back in the beginning of the book, Houdini is told by the Little Boy to "warn the duke." He pays the comment no mind, and then spends half the book looking for evidence of the supernatural. With the image of the boy in his headlamp, it all comes together for Houdini, who we find out tries to visit the Little Boy after this but is unsuccessful.

    And by that time the era of Ragtime had run out, with the heavy breath of the machine, as if history were no more than a tune on a player piano. (40.24)

    Eras plod along like a song, and then suddenly they're done... history is as fickle, and time marches on emotionlessly.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    Father watched the prow of the scaly broad-beamed vessel splash in the sea. Her decks were packed with people. Thousands of male heads in derbies. Thousands of female heads covered with shawls. It was a rag ship with a million dark eyes staring at him. A weird despair seized him. [...] He watched the ship till he could see it no longer. Yet aboard her were only more customers, for the immigrant population set great store by the American flag. (2.2)

    Father, who is always upset by change, sees a boatload of it coming across the Atlantic. And even though it means more customers for him, because immigrants always want to prove themselves patriotic, he feels fear that the America he is leaving is not the one he'll come back to.

    They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. (3.1)

    Here Doctorow uses his technique to show the thoughts of common New Yorkers about immigrants, which is also a good way to show the prejudices immigrants were up against.

    But somehow piano lessons began to be heard. People stitched themselves to the flag. They carved paving stones for the streets. They sang. They told jokes. (3.2)

    After presenting the common misconceptions about immigrants, Doctorow transitions to this paragraph, where he begins to tear those misconceptions down and present the immigrant population as a hard-working people trying to fit in to their new home.

    He held up the flash pan and put his head under the hood and a picture exploded. After he left, the family, not daring to move, remained in the position in which they had been photographed. They waited for life to change. They waited for their transformation. (3.4)

    Immigrants lacked confidence as they acclimated to their new country. This section is interesting because it shows Jacob Riis, who took up the cause of immigrants and their living conditions, photographing the families who have clearly never seen a camera before.

    Please missus, the workingman said, married women, children, anyone they can get their hands on. They defile them and then in shame the female gives her life to vagrancy. Houses on this very street are used for this purpose. (7.2)

    This was one of the risks of being an immigrant woman or child in the tenements. You could be kidnapped and sold. Or, as in Mameh's case, made to shame yourself and end up losing your family.

    Haywood raised his hands for quiet. He spoke. His voice was magnificent. There is no foreigner here except the capitalists, he said. The place went wild. (16.4)

    Big Bill Haywood was union organizer, and here we see the attraction of unions for immigrants. They wanted to belong, but at the same time not be exploited. The unions promised both, though it was hard to keep those promises.

    So that was it, the strike would be won. But then what? He heard the clacking of the looms. A salary of six dollars and change. [...] Tateh shook his head. This country will not let me breathe. (17.4)

    The great American dream was pretty hard to make happen on the kind of wages factories paid. Immigrants worked from dawn until dusk, and were still unable to make ends meet. Tateh, with his artistic talents, was one of the lucky ones.

    The Jews, Ford said. They ain't like anyone else I know. There goes your theory up shits creek. He smiled. (20.6)

    Jewish immigrants faced anti-Semitism from all sides in America. Here Doctorow is showing that Ford is perfectly comfortable revealing his prejudice against the Jews: evidence of rampant Anti-Semitism in America.

    I made them for under five hundred dollars and each has brought ten thousand dollars in receipt. Yes, he said laughing, it is true! Father had coughed and turned red at the mention of specific sums. (33.10)

    Don't show me the money. That's what Doctorow is illustrating here. The blue bloods, or people like Father who'd been in America for generations, didn't talk about money. When immigrants and Jews did, they were thought to be crass.

    There were commonly in America at this time titled European immigrants, mostly impoverished, who had come here years before hoping to marry their titles to the daughters of the nouveaux riches. So he invented a baronry for himself. It got him around in a Christian world. (34.3)

    Tateh, having made it as a filmmaker, invents a title for himself so he won't be seen as a common Jewish immigrant.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Tracks! Tracks! It seemed to the visionaries who wrote for the popular magazines that the future lay at the end of parallel rails. (13.1)

    With subways and the expansion of railways, the future did indeed seem to be linked with the railroad, whether you were transporting people or materials. It's fitting that the couple that most freely embrace modernity (Tateh and Mother) end up in California… way at the end of the railway line.

    …an engineering miracle was taking place, the construction of a tunnel under the East River from Brooklyn to the Battery. [...] The work was dangerous. (13.1)

    Modernization, whether it was building skyscrapers, bridges or tunnels, was dangerous work that cost many men their lives. The process of modernization seems to help the affluent way before its beneficial effects reach the poor and the working-class.

    The machine lifted off the ground. He thought he was dreaming. He had to willfully restrain his emotions, commanding himself sternly to keep the wings level, to keep the throttle continuously in touch with the speed of the flight. He was flying! (13.5)

    The first powered flight occurred in 1903 with the Wright Brothers. This passage shows Houdini taking his first flight in a French plane only a few years later, when flying was still a novel idea. Here we see the thrill of new technology: Houdini is freaking flying!

    Exactly six minutes after the car had rolled down the ramp an identical car appeared at the top of the ramp, stood for a moment pointed at the cold early morning sun, then rolled down and crashed into the rear of the first one. (18.1)

    This is the moment that Henry Ford successfully creates a car made by assembly line, which is of course how we make cars today. At that moment, his Model T becomes inexpensive enough for the average Joe to own a car.

    Has it occurred to you that your assembly line is not merely a stroke of industrial genius but a projection of organic truth? (20.5)

    J.P. Morgan recognizes the fact that the assembly line will change the world as we know it. He also thinks that it makes cars as naturally as organisms reproduce. Ironically enough, Ford came up with the idea of the assembly line by examining slaughterhouses: it's not reproduction that inspires him; it's death.

    Physicists all over the world were discovering waves, the man told him. There was a tremendously important theory from abroad in which it was supposed matter and energy were but two aspects of the same primal force. (27.10)

    Houdini is still searching for a way to the afterlife. Despite advances in technology, there are no answers to how to contact the dead. But they're still using pretty science-y phrases to talk about their magic tricks.

    Grandfather's doctor, who had submitted him to the latest orthopedic procedure for broken hips, a metallic pin implanted like an internal splint, advised them that he should be on his crutches or in his chair as much as possible... (31.3)

    Who knew they were implanting pins in hips way back then? One of the obvious advantages of technology are medical advances, which would be especially necessary after the carnage of World War I… a carnage that was brought about by advances in weaponry. Vicious circle, eh?

    For a few pennies they sit and see their selves in movement, running, racing in motorcars, fighting, and, forgive me, embracing each other. This is most important today, in this country, where everybody is so new. (33.10)

    Technology isn't limited to planes, trains and automobiles. Here Tateh explains movies and why it's blossoming into a big business: because film technology allows humans to experience frozen time.

    Morgan's intention in Egypt was to journey down the Nile and choose a site for his pyramid. [...] He expected that with modern construction techniques, the use of precut stones, steam shovels cranes, and so forth, a serviceable pyramid could be put up in less than three years. (40.12)

    It's kind of hilarious that the richest man in the world wants to use all the modern technology at his disposal to build something that was made thousands of years ago.

    In the year and a half of his life before his emigration, Younger Brother invented seventeen ordnance devices, some of which were so advanced that they were not used by the United States until World War II. (40.19)

    Don't think it's a coincidence that Doctorow makes Younger Brother—an inventor of weapons—anti-social and a lost soul. When he's happier, he makes celebratory fireworks, but when he's miserable he makes explosives.