Page 17 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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BAUMGARTEN / URBAN FAILURES
11
his study and saw the th ree children sitting on the lawn. Behind
them on the sidewalk was a tricycle. They were talking and
sunn ing themselves. His daugh ter , with dark hair, his tow­
headed stepson and his legal responsibility, the schwartze child.
He suddenly had an idea fo r a film. A bunch o f children who were
pals, white, black, fat, thin , rich, poor, all kinds, mischievous little
u rchins who would have funny adven tures in the ir own
neighborhood , a society o f ragamuffins, like all o f us, a gang,
getting into trouble and getting out again. Actually not one movie
bu t several were made o f this vision. And by tha t time the era o f
Ragtime had ru n out, with the heavy brea th o f the machine, as if
history were no more than a tune on a player piano .”Abandoning
the city in which he had hoped to make a new life, T a teh succeeds
in the suburban village o f Hollywood. Embracing the conditions
tha t had hu rled him ou t o f his u rban milieu and his traditional
experience, he tests himself against the new conditions o f Ameri­
can capitalism, helping to develop a new American industry, the
movies, which he endows with one o f its most famous genres, the
city film. It would make the American city famous for its
ingenious individuals. While the ir inventor could not make his
life there , its absence was the presence tha t informed his art.
T a teh ’s metamorphosis into the Baron Ashkenazy, (Jewish)
movie-mogul, is one manisfestation o f the u rban possibilities o f
modern America. In
Ragtime
this theme is reinforced by the expe­
rience o f o ther characters, including Younger Brother, Houdini,
and the boy-narrator.
Listening to G rand fa th e r’s stories from Ovid, the boy learned
about transformation . “G rand fa the r’s stories proposed to him
tha t the forms o f life were volatile and tha t everything in the
world could as easily be something else. T he old man’s narrative
would often d r ift from English to Latin without his being aware
o f it, as if he were read ing to one o f his classes o f forty years
before, so that it appeared nothing was immune to the principle
o f volatility, not even language.” The discovery o f this principle
p repares the boy for seeing his world in terms to be validated later
by the Baron’s magic motion-picture machine. “It was evident to
him tha t the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in
an endless process o f dissatisfaction.” T he decomposition and
recomposition o f his family will not surprise him, no r will the
bilingual experience o f Tateh , his stepfa ther, and his imm igrant
compatriots, amaze him. Even the trip to California will not over­