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Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 801-824



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Compositions of Reality: Photography, History, and Ragtime

Laura Barrett


The older distinction between fiction and history, in which fiction is conceived as the representation of the imaginable and history as the representation of the actual, must give place to the recognition that we can only know the actual by contrasting it with or likening it to the imaginable.

--Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism

Ragtime music speaks of contrasts: the fusion of regular rhythm and syncopation, of structure and improvisation, and of European and West African influences. 1 Since it so effectively epitomizes the chaotic and inventive era in which it thrived, ragtime music is a fitting metaphor for E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. 2 During the brief time--1896 to 1917--in which ragtime flourished, America was reeling from the cumulative effects of a century of technological, political, and demographic change. The railroad, automobile, telegraph, telephone, and factory reconceived the way Americans traveled, communicated, and worked, while widespread immigration altered the face of the nation. Despite these apparently [End Page 801] endless transformations, however, little actual change seemed to occur. Like the two hands of a ragtime pianist, the contradictory impulses of a developing nation--simultaneously progressive and regressive, adventurous and timid--competed for sovereignty, ultimately negating each other. Indeed, as depicted in Doctorow's novel, history itself is ragtime music: "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" (270). This statement, offered near the novel's end, is evocative of the postmodern view of history as art, a construction rather than a reflection of the past; it makes ragtime music an even more pertinent metaphor in the novel.

Yet music is not the primary trope through which the novel challenges traditional views of history. Photography, as it is used in Ragtime, unravels concepts like objectivity, truth, and history, those very concepts with which photography's realism is often associated. Thus, the medium, which might seem anathematic to postmodernism, becomes one of its most effective instruments. Hitting its stride at the turn of the century, and therefore a particularly apt metaphor for Ragtime, photography at once suggests progress and nostalgia; a complicated, technological future and a simpler bygone era; life and death. While participating in and facilitating the rampant march westward through its use in government surveys and private railroad exploration, photography effectively memorialized the demise of an agrarian nation. Born of novelty and ingenuity, the medium turned political figures into icons and mythologized the wilderness that it helped to tame, transforming the West into a picturesque landscape. 3 The novel's statement about the world's volatility and changelessness is also captured in the photograph, a simultaneously conservative and radical expression, technically limited by its attachment to scientific processes even as it is creatively freed by its association with art. The twentieth century's replacement of unity with multiplicity, of originality with replication, is manifested in the reproducible positives of a photographic negative. But perhaps most important is photography's seemingly contradictory message about objectivity. Even at their most veracious and factual, photographs are subject to their context--reader, caption, presentation, social climate, and historical period--and thus perfectly reflect Doctorow's position that reality, truth, and finally history are determined by perspective. [End Page 802]

As described in one famous perspective, the social climate of the Ragtime era was frenzied. Arguing that the sense of sequence necessary to history had survived events as momentous as the Christianization of the Roman Empire, Henry Adams claimed that "in 1900, the continuity snapped" (423). Published in the midst of the Ragtime era (1906), The Autobiography of Henry Adams is a study of the terrifying rate of acceleration and disheartening loss of unity and order that attended the numerous scientific and technological developments of that moment. Speed and progress are clearly the concerns of the era as it is depicted in Ragtime. 4 The novel begins as it ends, with...

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