05 October 2009

Representation in Doctorow's Ragtime

When the walls have come crashing down, and there is little that remains of the structure that once stood there are two courses of action available: Either one stays in place terrified of the destruction caused thus far, or the individual celebrates because of the newfound freedom that the catastrophe has provided. The idea of the former is seen as an anxiety that freezes one in place. Part of what fuels this anxiety is the question of how one represents themselves to the general public. The anxiety of representation is undeniably clear in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. The character of Younger Brother wrestles with this as he searches for a cause to rally behind and believe in. He attempts to align himself with the wronged Coalhouse Walker and his crusade against Willie Conklin, the racist town fire chief. Younger Brother shaves his head, and attempts to dress in blackface. Later on, Younger Brother has surfaced in Mexico and has joined Emilio Zapata's fight. However, it is the character of Tateh that most accurately grapples with representation. Tateh is not so much concerned with how he is seen, but rather he is motivated by his daughter and he works in effort to provide for her. In Doctorow's Ragtime, Tateh tweaks his representation of himself only for his daughter so that he can improve the quality of her life, and the consequences of his actions show that only the outward physical self needs to be represented because that is only what the majority care to see.
The American indie rock band Sebadoh has a song entitled "The Freed Pig", and the song seems to describe the same problem that was tormenting Tateh. If the song can be understood in the sense that the speaker is talking to himself, and that the speaker is attempting to explain why he has been unable to portray himself outwardly as he feels on the inside like this other self that he is talking to. "You were right/I was battling you, trying to prove myself". Tateh first appears as a Jewish immigrant socialist, and it's these convictions that keep him and his daughter confined to the slums of the streets. It is not until he reappears in Chapter 33 that the audience sees his transformation. Tateh has now become the Baron Ashkenazy and his new reincarnation is described as "ebullient" and "excited". (255). No longer is he the thirty-two year old white-haired peasant artist. While living in the slums, Tateh creates portraits for Evelyn Nesbit: "He was a proud man...Over a period of two weeks the old man executed a hundred and forty silhouette portraits of Evelyn. After each one she would hand him fifteen cents." (44). This is Evelyn Nesbit, who could certainly rescue Tateh and his daughter from the life they are living. But by accepting her help, this would mean that someone else other than Tateh would be constructing their experience. As Lou Barlow muses on "The Freed Pig": "I tried to bury you with guilt; I wanted to prove you wrong." These lines from the Sebadoh song represent the internal divide that is going on within Tateh. Tateh is too proud to accept handouts from Evelyn or anyone else for that matter. He wants to work for what is his because when he succeeds he wants to enjoy the victory for himself. He wanted it to be a personal victory. He was a socialist who believed that hard work would be recognized eventually, and that was the best way for him and his daughter in America. But this is not to say that he was not rational. Surely, Tateh knew that Evelyn could rescue him and his daughter. He just refused her help. He tried to prove everyone wrong by showing that a Jewish immigrant could thrive in America. He ends up thriving in America, but it is not until after his transformation. This is when he has finally captured what he had been seeking: "He felt he deserved his happiness. He'd constructed it without help." (258). Tateh had beaten the system. He had endured the lows for as long as he could, but he had finally come to a point where he was conceding that his daughter deserved more, and he felt obligated to provide it for her. The reader learns that Evelyn Nesbit is willing to steal the young girl away from her father, and this knowledge makes Tateh's transformation seem all the more necessary. 

(Writer's Note: I wrote this a long time ago, and I think it shows. I put it on here because I'm under the misguided impression that it displays a different side of my writing, and focuses more on my analytical capabilities. I'm probably wrong. Open thought: Should more writing be presented like this? Is this effective? Is this readable? Is this worth reading?)

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