How the Other Half Lives


               E.L. Doctorow

The movie Ragtime was directed in 1981 by Czech-born Milos Forman from E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name. In Doctorow’s original, we first meet a fictional immigrant named Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) when he’s visited by Jacob Riis (1849-1914), a figure whom Doctorow borrows from real life and describes as “a tireless newspaper reporter and reformer [who] wrote about the need of housing for the poor” (see Figure R4.1). Tateh supplements the family’s meager income by creating delicate silhouette figures for sale on the street.

Doctorow’s depiction of tenement life in New York City in 1902 is detached but passionate:

The immigrants . . . went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers [see Figure R4.2]. 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. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. . . .

They lived too many to a room. There was no sanitation. . . . Children died of mild colds or 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 moral degeneracy. But Riis believed in air shafts. Air shafts, light and air, would bring health.[1]


         Ragtime: Harry K. Thaw Commits

               “The Crime of the Century”

Doctorow tells us that Riis photographed Tateh and his wife and little daughter, who “remained in the position in which they had been photographed. They waited for life to change. They waited for their transformation.” Riis, meanwhile, goes to visit the eminent architect Stanford White to inquire “if he’d ever designed housing for the poor.“ White is one of the titular characters in Sigmund Lubin’s The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy. Ragtime—both the book and the film—depicts White’s real-life murder at the hands of Harry K. Thaw and Thaw’s subsequent trial; the well-publicized shooting is hyperbolized by the media as the “Crime of the Century” despite the fact that the century still has 96 years to go. Also featured in Ragtime is Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), Thaw’s young wife, White’s former teenage lover, and the catalyst for the “crime of the century.” In Ragtime, she takes a maternal interest in the fate of Tateh’s little daughter.

Silhouettes and Simulated Lives

Later in the film, we see Tateh after he has left New York in an effort to change “the brutal luck of his life.” (He has also cast off his wife because she submitted to the advances of her employer, albeit to pay the rent.) Having made his way to Lawrence, Massachusetts, Tateh invents a toy for his little girl out of his silhouette figures:

He created a streetcar scene, the people getting on and off. She loved it. . . . This gave him an inspiration. He did several studies of the streetcar and when he held them together and flipped the pages it appeared as if the streetcar came down the tracks from a distance and stopped so that the people could get on and off. His own delight matched the girl’s. . . .

He imagined her on ice skates. In two nights he made a hundred and twenty silhouettes on pages not bigger than his hand. He bound them with string. She held the little book and governed the pages with her thumb and watched herself skating away and skating back, gliding into a figure eight, returning, pirouetting and making a lovely bow to her audience.[2]

In Philadelphia, Tateh finds a merchandiser who will pay him $25 for each of his novelty books, which are marketed as “movie books. . . . Thus did the artist,” observes Doctorow, “point his life along the lines of flow of American energy.”[3]


              Ragtime: Tateh Discovers

            the Value of Moving Images

Apparent Motion and Upward Mobility  

What Tateh has invented (or, more probably, discovered independently, long after its actual invention) is the “riffle book,” which, like the animated cartoon, simulates movement from carefully sequententialized still images when the viewer thumbs through the pages. The term “movie book” is in fact appropriate because the movement that results from flipping through the riffle book is much the same as that achieved by the movie editing machine: the images can be projected, whether at proper or slower speed, for closer analysis of—or simple delight in—the component images that constitute the “moving picture” (see Figure R4.3)

In the film, we next meet Tateh in the resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he has graduated from making paper-bound cartoons to making movies (mostly melodramas starring Evelyn Nesbit): “He had,” reports Doctorow,

produced dozens of movie books for the Franklin Novelty Company. Then he had designed a magic lantern apparatus on which paper strips printed with silhouettes turned on a wheel. . . . In the meantime he had discovered that others were doing animated drawings like his except for projection on celluloid film. From this he became interested in film itself. The images did not have to be drawn. He . . . went into the movie business. Anyone with enough self-assurance could get backing. The film exchanges in New York were desperate for footage. Film companies were forming overnight, re-forming, merging, going to court, attempting to monopolize distribution, taking out patents on technical processes and in all ways exemplifying the anarchic flash and fireworks of a new industry.[4]

“A Thirst for Affluence and Respectability”

In the story of Tateh, a self-described “Jewish socialist from Latvia,” Doctorow has condensed a chronicle of the rise of the immigrant in the American film industry at the turn of the century. Doctorow stresses, for example, the irony inherent in the fact that, in becoming “Baron Ashkenazy,” proprietor of “the Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Incorporated” (see Figure R4.4), Tateh has striven for assimilation in class and religious terms:

[H]e invented a barony for himself. It got him around in a Christian world. Instead of having to erase his thick Yiddish accent he need only roll it off his tongue with a flourish. He dyed his hair and beard to their original black. He was a new man. He pointed a camera. His child was dressed as beautifully as a princess. He wanted to drive from her memory every tenement stench and filthy immigrant street. He would buy her light and sun and clean wind of the ocean for the rest of her life.[5]

See excerpts from the moving picture


             Ragtime: “Baron Ashkenazy”

                    Directs Evelyn Nesbit

Historian Steven J. Ross points out that in the years leading up to World War I, operating nickelodeon theaters was attractive to many immigrants—Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Norwegians, and Germans as well as Jews—because it was a business that generated healthy cash flow while requiring less startup funding than ambition and initiative. Among the Jewish entrepreneurs who switched to the nickelodeon business and then went on to become the industry’s founding moguls, Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew were furriers, William Fox and Harry Warner were clothiers, and Lewis Selznick was a jeweler.[6] It’s doubly ironic, then, that virtually from the outset, the exhibition branch of the moving-picture industry should have struggled to attract the same middle-class audience from which so many operators were themselves excluded by ethnicity, religion, and social class. “The five-cent theater,” reports Russell Merritt,

may have been widely regarded as the workingman’s pastime, but the less frequently reported fact was that the theater catered to him through necessity, not through choice. The blue-collar worker and his family may have supported the nickelodeon. The scandal was that no one connected with the movies much wanted his support—least of all the immigrant film exhibitors who were working their way out of the slums with their theaters. The exhibitors’ abiding complaint against nickelodeon audiences . . . was that moviegoers as a group lacked “class”. . . .

The thirst for affluence and respectability helps explain the curious locations of the original nickelodeons. Even when they were working-class entertainment, the most important nickelodeons were seldom built in the worker’s community or in his shopping area. Instead, they customarily opened in business districts on the outer edge of the slums, fringing white-collar shopping centers, accessible to blue-collar audiences but even closer to middle-class trade.[7]

“Pathos and Palatable Entertainment”  

Likewise, the melodramas that proved popular with American audiences in the years 1907 to 1913 advocated a view of socioeconomic hardship that was consistent with middle-class belief.[8] Many melodramas, for example, featured characters from the underclasses—those whom Riis called “the submerged”—because the economic and social distress of their lives lent an aura of extraordinary struggle to the realm of ordinary existence. Often, however, the resolution to the protagonist’s tribulations hinged on his or her fateful communion with members of more fortunate classes and consequent acceptance into their ranks; typically, such rewards were the result of endurance and sacrifice, not of any active (much less militant) struggle for reform. Thus melodramas tended to promote theories of “change” that were acceptable to middle-class audiences. They sought a comfortable balance between what American film historian Kay Sloan identifies as “pathos and palatable entertainment.” More importantly, in so doing, they helped to establish the enduring equation of “mass entertainment” with entertainment for middle-class consumers.[9]

Taming Eruptions of Public Anxiety

Even in the first decade of the century, observes Sloan, contemporary critics could detect the transformation of journalistic investigations like those of Riis into middle-class parables. The public, they acknowledged,

“want themselves” as the heroes and heroines of their entertainment. The clichés and archetypes of what critics called the “pathetic melodrama” became such because they originally touched a psychological nerve in the public. They represented a need to control—indeed, to travel beyond—the limits of everyday life. The scenarios confirmed the experiences of working-class audiences . . . but also lifted those moviegoers out of daily life, allowing them visions of America that still promised endless opportunity, of a world in which fate could intervene to ensure that justice might be won for those living in the nation’s ghettoes.[10]

Melodrama and Reconciliation  

In the “pathetic melodrama,” suffering was commonly alleviated by romance because “heart interest” was, narratively speaking, one of the most reliable means of “taming” or “privatizing” eruptions of public resentment and anxiety. Doctorow places the films that Tateh makes at the Buffalo Nickel Photoplay squarely within the generic parameters of the “pathetic melodrama”: “In the movie films,” Tateh explains,

we only look at what is there already. Life shines on the shadow screen, as from the darkness of one’s mind. It is a big business. People want to know what is happening to them. For a few pennies they sit and see their selves in movement, running, racing in motorcars, fighting and, forgive me, embracing one another. This is most important today, in this country, where everybody is so


               Our Gang, ca. 1925

Although Doctorow depicts his tribulations with a great deal of sympathy, there is a certain degree of irony in Tateh’s uncritical recourse to reconciliation as the central theme of his moving pictures—a recourse that goes hand in hand with his efforts to assimilate himself and his daughter. In Hollywood, where there are “palm trees along the sidewalk and beds of bright red flowers in the front yard,” that vision effloresces into a vision of ecumenical sentimentalism that we recognize as the germ of the Our Gang comedies:

He suddenly had an idea for a film. A bunch of children who were pals, white-black, fat-thin, rich-poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures in their own neighborhood, a society of ragamuffins, like all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again. Actually not one movie but several were made of this vision.[12]

The crucible to which Doctorow subjects this vision is actually the story of another protagonist in the novel: when a black man who plays piano in a Harlem nickelodeon strives for assimilation by means of justice, his sacrifice is violent and his story ends on an explicitly tragic note.[13]

[1] E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1975; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1976), pp. 17-18, 20.

[2] Ragtime, pp. 140-41.

[3] Ragtime, pp. 151, 153.

[4] Ragtime, p. 300.

[5] Ragtime, pp. 300-01.

[6] Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 17-18. See also Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Doubleday, 1988).

[7] “Nickelodeon Theaters 1905 1914: Building an Audience for the Movies,” in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976) pp. 65, 67.

[8] This section is based on Kay Sloan, The Loud Silents: Origins of the Social Problem Film (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 36-52. See also Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2001); Janet Staiger, Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1995), esp. pp. 79-85.

[9] The Loud Silents, pp. 39, 43.

[10] The Loud Silents, p. 48.

[11] Ragtime, p. 297.

[12] Ragtime, p. 369.

[13] For discussions of the movie version of Ragtime, see J.E. Smith, “Against the Beat: Ragtime, Black History, and Postmodernism,” Film Quarterly 67:1 (Fall 2013), pp. 7-13; David Thomson, “Redtime,” Film Comment (January-February 1982), pp. 11-16; Leonard Quart and Barbara Quart, “Ragtime without a Melody,” Literature/Film Quarterly 10 (1982), pp. 71-74; Harlan Kennedy, “Ragtime—Milos Forman: Obstructing the Road,” American Cinema Papers (1981), at (accessed June 14, 2016). On the process of adapting the novel, see Paul Levine, “Revising Ragtime,” in E.L. Doctorow, Three Screenplays, ed. Levine (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 131-40; David Sterritt, “Milos Forman and the Tricky Business of Filming ‘Ragtime,’” The Christian Science Monitor (December 10, 1981), at (accessed June 14, 2016). For a critical view of the adaptation, see Kevin Courrier, “Lost in Translation (Part One): E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime,” Critics at Large (November 14, 2012), at (accessed June 14, 2016).

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