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Assignment 3 – Ragtime


The novel Ragtime takes place in America in the early 1900's. It illustrates several life stories and destinies all woven together in different ways. Most of the characters in the novel are pure fictitious but some historical men and women from the era are featured. We get to met Houdini, the biggest illusionists of his time, JP Morgan, one of the wealthiest men in America, Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company and Emma Goldman, an anarchist and political activist. One of the main characters, and the main focus of this analysis is the Latvian, Jewish immigrant referred to as Tateh. We follow Tateh and his daughter Sha's progression through the different stages of becoming assimilated in the American melting pot that is the American culture.

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Tateh and his family arrived to America in the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was a time in history when immigrants, mostly europeans were flowing into New York. Between 1901 and 1910 as many as 8.8 million people arrived from overseas (Duncan and Goddard, 2009:66) all stepping of the boat filled with dreams and hopes of a better life in “the land of opportunity”.
The reality in New York was different. The streets were dirty, crime was increasing along with the growing population and assimilation was not easy.

“The officials changed names they couldn't pronounce and tore people from their families... “They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate...”Every season of the year wagons came through the streets and picked up bodies of derelicts” (Ragtime, 1975: 19)

Tateh works on the street as silhouette artist and mama pedal the sewing machine. Life is tough but they manage until a letter arrives from the states calling the little girl to school. Their economy goes bad and in pure desperation mama lets her boss have his way with her for money. When Tateh finds out he sends her away leaving him all alone with his young daughter. Tateh is a proud man, he is talented and also the president of the Socialist Artist’s Alliance. One day he encounters a woman named Evelyn Nesbit, a well-known socialite. Evelyn finds herself fascinated by this mysterious jewish man. Tateh is somewhat reluctant towards the american woman but she continuously returns to the tenements asking for silhouettes and shows a motherly behavior towards the girl which with time evolves into a strange relationship.
Their unexpected friendship comes to an abrupt end when Evelyn is exposed at a socialist meeting by the women's rights activist and anarchist Emma Goodman proclaiming Evelyn Nesbit to take advantage of her sexuality to gain socio-economic status (Doctorow 1975: 47).
Tateh is appalled by the thought of his daughter being influenced by such ideas and way of living and decides to leave New York in pursue of a better life for him and his child.
Tateh and Sha end up in Lawrence, Massachusetts where Tateh has heard there are jobs in the milling industry. When a strike breaks out Tateh tries to send his daughter to Philadelphia, making sure she is safe, but gets brutally assaulted by the police supervising the strike and manages to flee on to the same train as his daughter. Tateh, persistent to make a better life for Sha takes a chance by stepping in to a book shop in Philadelphia where he comes in contact with the Franklin Novelty Company, a company that will show to have great influence in Tateh’s future. The company sign an agreement with Tateh to design “movie books”. Through these movie books he becomes interested in film and enters the movie business which turns out to be a very lucrative industry. Tateh later on begins to call himself Baron Ashkenazy as an act of assimilation to the Christian world and a way for him to avoid being associated with other European immigrants. Eventually, as a final step to his transformation to an American, Tateh marries a widowed American lady and when admitting not to be a real Baron but a Jewish socialist from Latvia he is still loved and accepted as a true American (Ragtime 1975: 235).


Tateh is an excellent example of a Melting Pot American. He arrives to the country with nothing but dreams of a better life and through struggle, talent and sheer luck transforms to a prosperous american. Tateh maintains his heritage and some of the values of his cultural background but is at the same time perfectly assimilated into the american society. This confirms Washinton Post's idea of America not being a “melting pot” but more a country filled with different ingredients of culture and ideas all perfectly blended in to a colorful salad-bowl (Branigin 1988).

Duncan, Russell and Goddard, Joseph, 2009. Contemporary America. 3rd edition. Hampshire, England: Palgrave MacMillan.
Doctorow, E.L., 1975. Ragtime. 1985, Picador.
Booth, William and Branigin, William, 1998. The Myth of the Melting Pot. Washington Post.

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