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By E.L. Doctorow
Ragtime is a novel set in America at the beginning of this century. Its characters reflect all that is most significant and dramatic in America's last hundred years. One character, Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black pianist love affair with young Sarah and abandoned her to later reunite. But who bore his child was resentful when he came to rectify his actions. The novel will take you through the tragedy of their lives.
The author E.L. Doctorow, an American writer, is famous for his other novels which include Welcome to Hard Times and The Book of Daniel, which was nominated for a National Book Award.
One afternoon, a Sunday, a new model T-Ford2 slowly came up the hill and went past the house. The boy, who happened to see it from the porch, ran down the steps and stood on the sidewalk. The driver was looking right and left as if trying to find a particular address; he turned the car around at the comer and came back. Pulling up before the boy, he idled his throttle and beckoned with a gloved hand. He was a Negro. His car shone. The brightwork gleamed... I am looking for a young woman of color whose name is Sarah, he said. Sheis said to reside in one of these houses.
The boy realized he meant the woman in the attic. Site's here. The man switched off the motor, set the brake and jumped down.
When Mother came to the door the colored man was respectful, but there was something disturbingly resolute and
self-important in the way he asked her if he could please speak with Sarah. Mother could not judge his age. He was a stocky man with a red-complected shining brown face, high cheekbones and large dark eyes so intense as to suggest they were about to cross. He had a neat moustache. He was dressed in the affection of wealth to which colored people lent themselves.
She told him to wait and closed the door. She climbed to the third floor. She found the girl Sarah not sitting at the window as she usually did but standing rigidly, hands folded in front of her, and facing the door. Sarah, Mother said, you have a caller. The girl said nothing. Will you come to the kitchen? The girl shook her head. You don't want to see him? No, ma'am, the girl finally said softly, while she looked at the floor. Send him away, please. This was the most she had said in all the months she had lived in the house. Mother went back downstairs and found the fellow not at the back door but in the kitchen where, in the warmth of the corner near the cookstove, Sarah's baby lay sleeping in his carriage. The black man was kneeling beside the carriage and staring at the child. Mother, not thinking clearly, was suddenly outraged that he had presumed to come in the door. Sarah is unable to see you, she said and she held the door open. The colored man took another glance at the child, rose, thanked her and departed.
Such was the coming of the colored man in the car to Broadview Avenue. His name was Cualhouse Walker Jr. Beginning with that Sunday he appeared every week, always knocking at the back door. Always turning away without complaint upon Sarah's refusal to see him. Father considered the visits a nuisance and wanted to discourage them. I'll call the police, he said. Mother laid her hand on his arm. One Sunday the colored man left a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums which in this season had to have cost him a pretty penny.
The black girl would say nothing about her visitor. They had no idea where she had met him, or how. As far as they knew she had no family nor any friends from the black community in the downtown section of the city. Apparently she had come by herself from New York to work as a servant. Mother was exhilarated by the situation. She began to regret Sarah's intransigence. She thought of the drive from Harlem, where Coalhouse Walker Jr. lived, and the drive back, and she decided the next time to
give him more of a visit. She would serve tea in the parlor. Father questioned the propriety of this. Mother said, he is well-spoken and conducts himself as a gentleman. I see nothing wrong with it. When Mr Roosevelt3 was in the White House he gave dinner to Booker T. Washington. Surely we can serve tea to Coalhouse Walker Jr.
And so it happened on the next Sunday that the Negro took tea. Father noted that he suffered no embarrassment by being in the parlor with a cup and saucer in his hand. On the contrary, he acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The surroundings did not awe him nor was his manner deferential. He was courteous and correct. He told them about himself. He was a professional pianist and was now more or less permanently located in New York, having secured a job with the Jim Europe Clef Club Orchestra, a well-known ensemble that gave regular concerts at the Manhattan4 Casino on 155th Street and Eighth Avenue. It was important, he said, for a musician to find a place that was permanent, a job that required no travelling... I am through travelling, he said. I am through going on the road. He spoke so fervently that Father realized the message was intended for the woman upstairs. This irritated him. What can you play? he said abruptly. Why don't you play something for us?
The black man placed tea, on the tray. He rose, patted his lips with the napkin, placed the napkin beside his cup and went to the piano. He sat on the piano stool and immediately rose and twirled it till the height was to his satisfaction. He sat down again, played a chord and turned to them. This piano is badly in need of a tuning, he said. Father's face reddened. Oh, yes, Mother said, we are terrible about that. The musician turned again to the keyboard. "Wall Street5 Rag," he said. Composed by the great Scott Joplin.6 He began to play. Ill-tuned or not the Aeolian had never made such sounds. Small clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by the music. When the piece was over Coalhouse Walker turned on the stool and found in his audience the entire family: Mother, Father, the boy, Grandfather and Mother's Younger Brother, who had come down from his room in shirt and suspenders to see who was playing. Of all of
them he was the only one who knew ragtime. He had heard it in his nightlife period in New York. He had never expected to hear it in his sister's home.
Coalhouse Walker Jr. turned back to the piano and said "The Maple Leaf". Composed by the great Scott Joplin. The most famous rag of all rang through the air. The pianist sat stiffly at the keyboard, his long dark hands with their pink nails seemingly with no effort producing the clusters of syncopating chords and the thumping octaves. This was a most robust composition, a vigorous music that roused the senses and never stood still a moment. The boy perceived it as light touching various places in space, accumulating in intricate patterns until the entire room was made to glow with its own being. The music filled the stairwell to the third floor where the mute and unforgiving Sarah sat with her hands folded and listened with the door open.
The piece was brought to a conclusion. Everyone applauded. Mother then introduced Mr Walker to Grandfather and to Younger Brother, who shook the black man's hand and said I am pleased to meet you. Coalhouse Walker was solemn. Everyone was standing. There was a silence. Father cleared his throat. Father was not knowledgeable in music. His taste ran to Carrie Jacobs Bond.7 He thought Negro music had to have smiling and cakewalking. Do you know any coon songs?8 he said. He did not intend to be rude — coon songs was what they were called. But the pianist responded with a tense shake of the head. Coon songs are made for minstrel shows,9 he said. White men sing them in black face. There was another silence. The black man looked at the ceiling. Well, he said, it appears as if Miss Sarah will not be able to receive me. He turned abruptly and walked through the hall to the kitchen. The family followed him. He had left his coat on a chair. He put it on and ignoring them all, he knelt and gazed at the baby asleep in its carriage. After several moments he stood up, said good day and walked out of the door.
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