The American City

In the summer of 1978, I arrived in New York City saddled with all the aspirations, apprehensions, and naivete available to a 16-year-old immigrant kid with no idea who he is or where he is going. But the great advantage of New York is that it normalizes baseless ambition and impossible dreams. Ridiculous, amazing things can happen to a person

there, and the miracle of those individual experiences is a central American idea.

It would be another 10 years before I read Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, but when I did, there was a flash of recognition that put my own story in historical context. At the time, I was a young newspaper reporter in Philadelphia trying to find larger truths in the day-to-day lives of ordinary Philadelphians. Ragtime, with its innovative tableau of real and fictional events in the early 20th century, legitimized the idea that the personal, self-interested act and grand political action can have the same genesis and impact. And it was a reminder that none of our heated political arguments are all that new and that all our experiences have some historical parallel.

Even the mundane: In 1978, I moved into an apartment in the Bronx where we were forced to temporarily suspend conversation every few minutes when subway trains went by on the elevated Pelham Bay line just outside the bedroom windows. In Ragtime, Doctorow describes turn-of-the century tenements full of immigrants with exactly the same noise problem.

By 1978, Ragtime had been in print for three years, and the "Progressive Era" of invention, growth, and activist government that the novel so warmly embraces seemed decidedly over. But the city Doctorow describes as an epic juxtaposition of squalor and grandeur was still very much in evidence. Penn Station, designed by Stanford White, a central character in Ragtime, had been demolished, but Grand Central Station had been saved, and I remember standing at one end of the concourse marveling at the giant Kodak billboard advertisement at the other. Like the city itself, it was larger than life. But times were grim -- not as grim as 1908, when corpses were exploding in the streets, but grim enough. Three years earlier, in 1975, the city fathers had gone on bended knee to the federal government, begging for a bailout to avoid bankruptcy. When President Gerald Ford promised to veto any bailout legislation, the New York Daily News, in one of the great tabloid headlines of the age, declared, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

Still, for me the city still shimmered with what Doctorow called "a raucous energy."

Ragtime has been described as a tapestry and as a mosaic. It is full of historical fact and fantasy, but what it does best is connect the singular individual to the collective politics of the time. Evelyn Nesbit was the showgirl who rose above her origins and made a similar observation of why she preferred the company of her lover, Stanford White, over that of her husband Harry K. Thaw (later to murder White): "He would leave her alone to go out and build something, whereas Harry would never leave her because he had nothing else to do." She may have well been talking about America at the time, when we were always building something, changing something, or growing into something else.

Preposterous in its plot, the novel moves an absurdly large cast of characters on and off stage -- everybody from Henry Ford and black Arctic explorer Matthew Henson to the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa -- with a dazzling and affecting grace. Doctorow's broad historical survey touches on topics as varied as the architecture of New York City to the formation of the League of Nations to the class structure of professional baseball.

Early in Ragtime, Sigmund Freud makes a cameo and is distressed by the uncivilized noise and general human ruckus he encounters in New York City. He retreats, almost in despair, to the comforts of his quieter life in Vienna:

He had seen in our careless commingling of great wealth and great poverty the chaos of an entropic European civilization. He sat in his quiet cozy study in Vienna, glad to be back. He said to Ernest Jones, America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.

It is the good doctor who was mistaken.

Outside the birdhouse at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., sits a 5-foot eagle sculpted out of a limestone known as Knoxville marble. The statue is about the same distance from my bedroom windows today as the elevated tracks were back in the Bronx. The eagle is one of 22 that once sat atop Stanford White's Penn Station in New York. Penn Station is gone, demolished in 1963. But the eagle, like the American idea itself, endures. I see it all the time.