The American Pageant in Ragtime
[The following sidebar was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric, under the title, "The American Pageant in Ragtime."]
Ragtime is filled with colorful historical personalities whose fame echoes into the present. It's always a trick trying to retrieve the essence of notable figures without caricaturizing them. According to Lansberry, "We're not trying to do impersonations, but there are physical characteristics that I do try and match up, if at all possible."
Here's a scorecard to help you discover why Doctorow chose these folks to represent key elements in his historical fiction.
Evelyn Nesbit—Model (she was the prototypical "Gibson Girl"), chorus girl, and actress. Her enchanting beauty led to a short affair with Stanford White (see below), when she was 16. Four years later, she married Harry K. Thaw (see below), who was maniacally possessive of her.
Harry Houdini—Most famous magician and escape artist of all time. His daring tricks and illusions captured the imagination of the world.
Henry Ford—Successful industrialist, developer of mass production and the ubiquitous Model T, and principal founder of the Ford Motor Company.
J.P. Morgan—Financier, industrialist, art collector, and philanthropist. His company was involved in the financing in some of the most famous mergers of all time, including General Electric and the United States Steel Corporation; however, J.P. Morgan & Co. was mostly owned by European banking interests, due to failed investment strategies on Morgan's part.
Booker T. Washington—Most prominent African-American leader from 1890 to 1915. He was an educator, orator, author, and political leader who emphasized incremental progress in dealing with racism and bigotry. His large organization was supported by black business, educational, and religious organizations, as well as powerful white interests.
Emma Goldman—Radical political orator and writer who supported anarchist causes. She resisted the often violent disciplinary methods common in her day, espoused feminist principles, and was involved in an assassination attempt on a manager of the Carnegie Steel Corporation, in retaliation for his efforts to break the union.
Stanford White—Architect, along with his partners, of many public, institutional, and religious buildings-including Penn Station, the Washington Square Arch, the second Madison Square Gardens, the Cable Building, the New York Herald Building-as well as many estates for the very wealthy.
Harry K. Thaw—Eccentric, obsessive, and drug-addled profligate from a wealthy family, who pressured Evelyn Nesbit for years for her hand in marriage, finally persuading Evelyn's mother to press his case. His jealously regarding Evelyn resulted in "The Trial of the Century."
Robert Peary—Explorer and U.S. Navy Admiral who claimed to be the first person to reach the geographic North Pole.
Matthew Henson—African-American seaman and navigator who accompanied Peary to the North Pole. By his own account, Henson was the first to reach geographical North.