Hey! Grandpa Was Right-Doctorow Stole Ragtime

My grandmother’s third or fifth husband, depending on whether he or she gave you the count, was a brilliant underachiever in the immigrant Jewish tradition. Frederick Bridge graduated at or near the top of his class at Columbia and then the College of Physicians and Surgeons, but in life he always chose duty over distinction. He served as a doctor for the Fire Department, he read German literature. For the three years leading up to his death in 1986, I shared his Lower East Side apartment. I remember him bending over my word processor in the living room and pronouncing drolly, “That’s the worst sentence I’ve ever read.” It was the opening line of a novel, since shelved.

I thought about Fred the other day when I heard E.L. Doctorow’s talk to a full house at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y on the making of Ragtime , which is now a hit on Broadway. The author began by describing how the novel came to him when he was staring at a wall thinking about the time his house was built, 1906. An older man in the audience asked about the tremendous amount of research he’d done on the book, and Mr. Doctorow demurred. “When you’re working well, you generate a kind of force field around you so whatever you need comes to hand.” He told of wandering through library stacks and bumping into an oversized orange book-a history of the American trolley system, which proved indispensable to the book’s progress.

“First you invent something, then you find a corroborating source or lie.” And everything the storyteller used had equal weight: “reportage, confession, myth, legend, dream, hallucination and the mutterings of poor mad people in the street.”

E.L. Doctorow has always spoken up for the mystical and intuitive creative process, and as a worshiper at the same temple, I’ve valued his descriptions. (That first sentence, I should have told Fred, was my first step in a cross-country car trip undertaken at night with just 100 feet of illumination from the headlights-Mr. Doctorow’s analogy).

Still, there comes a time when mysticism merely mystifies, and now I must recall that when E.L. Doctorow’s name came up in our Lower East Side household, my step-grandfather used to cry out in bemusement that Mr. Doctorow had taken the central plot of Ragtime from the novella Michael Kohlhaas , by Heinrich von Kleist. Yes, Mr. Doctorow had acknowledged the debt in the naming of the character of the black pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. But in Fred’s view, that did not suffice.

Most of all, Fred could not understand how professors reviewing the book in places like The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review had failed to see what he had seen. That was Fred’s problem: He had too much humility. And so the day after I heard Mr. Doctorow holding forth on force fields, I went to the library to bump into some books in honor of my ancestor.

Ragtime , the publishing event of summer 1975, is a collage that only gains narrative momentum with Coalhouse’s entrance on page 129. As critics pointed out, the pianist’s melodrama dominates the rest of the novel.

Maybe you remember that plot. Firemen stop Walker in his gleaming Model T outside a suburban fire station, demanding a toll. He protests that he has passed many times without paying and goes off to get police help, returning to find the car vandalized. Coalhouse demands the repair of his car. His search for justice leads to the creation of a private army, great destruction and many deaths, including his own. Though, yes, he gets what he wants in the end, the car returned in perfect shape.

Heinrich von Kleist’s Kohlhaas is about a horse-dealer named Kohlhaas who is stopped at a castle outside Dresden by men who demand a toll. He has passed many times without paying and leaves two horses while the matter is in dispute. Returning to find them damaged-used in the fields, unfed-he commences his own incendiary pursuit of justice, down to the building of an army and many deaths, including his own. Though yes, the horses are at last returned, in fine shape.

Not only the lineaments of the Kohlhaas story were useful to E.L. Doctorow, but many of its particulars.

Kohlhaas is introduced as “the most upright and most terrible of human beings.” In Ragtime , Father recognizes “certain dangers” about Coalhouse-“something reckless about him.”

Both rebels seek out lawyers. In each case, a lawyer informs the hero that the fire chief Will Conklin/castle-owner Wenzel von Tronka is related to men in high authority.

Kohlhaas’ wife Lisbeth decides to petition the king. Coalhouse’s fiancée Sarah decides to petition the President.

Kleist: “It appeared that she had made too bold an approach to the person of the king, and, through no fault of the latter, had received a blow on the chest from the butt of a lance, a blow that was the result of the rash devotion to duty of the body guard surrounding the ruler.” Soon, blood “pouring from her mouth,” she dies.

Mr. Doctorow: “Sarah broke through the line and ran toward him … A militiaman stepped forward and, with the deadly officiousness of armed men who protect the famous, brought the butt of his Springfield against Sarah’s chest as hard as he could. She fell.” A “bubble of blood on the corner of her mouth” precedes her death.

And on it goes. Fancy coffins, lavish funerals, spectacular arsons, published demands, armed encampments- Michael Kohlhaas was a wonderful story. Martin Luther comes to reason with Kohlhaas, warning him of damnation. Booker T. Washington comes to reason with Coalhouse and speaks of damnation.

“It cost me my wife,” Kohlhaas says. “Kohlhaas wishes to show the world that she did not die in an unjust cause.”

“Coalhouse had militarized his mourning. His grief for Sarah and the life they might have had was hardened into a ceremony of vengeance …”

At last the horses/Model T are brought forward, restored, and the heroes are killed.

I can just imagine how Coalhouse came to E.L. Doctorow. An early reader, maybe the author himself, looked over the first half of his book and said, Well, this is very entertaining and lyrical, but you need something to drive the story. More the stylist than the plot meister, Mr. Doctorow turned to the dark writer who is often described as Germany’s greatest dramatist, whose view of the alienated individual was ahead of its time. Mr. Doctorow did what authors have done down through time, taken predecessors’ stories and reworked them for their contemporaries. In doing so, he followed T.S. Eliot’s dictum, Steal well.

In a phone interview, Mr. Doctorow said that his debt to Kleist is one that he has discussed in interviews and that Kleist scholars have batted around in academic forums and papers. Scholars have even thanked him for giving Kleist new life, he said.

“There’s enough evidence and enough publicity for this adaptation or usage that I obviously decided at the time that no more was necessary than what I have done,” he said. “There have been many, many papers written on the subject. None of them has taken this moralist position. I’ve never been asked about this in these terms. I find it surprising that this is being brought up 22 years after the event.”

Mr. Doctorow referred me to his comments on Kleist in the playbill for the Broadway show, where he characterized Michael Kohlhaas as “another source” for his book. “I realized this was my moment to do homage to Kleist, to lift that situation and apply it to the life of a black American musician.” It seems to me that calling Kohlhaas “another source” is an understatement. Mr. Doctorow’s comments on the matter in interviews back in 1975 also strike me as sly. He brought up Kleist himself, but the reporters then characterized Coalhouse as a “tribute” or a reflection of Mr. Doctorow’s “admiration” for Kleist. When Mr. Doctorow used the word “adaptation” in our conversation, that was more to the point.

Must the stealer honor the stealee? Robert Stone was hung on this point a few years back when he used material from an adventure book for his novel Outerbridge Reach and sought to scant the debt. In the wake of controversy, Robert Stone was made, fairly, I think, to acknowledge his source. During the panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y on March 9, Broadway producer Garth Drabinsky made a related point. In adapting E.L. Doctorow’s novel to the stage, “I felt this huge fiduciary responsibility to the work, and it’s even worse when the author is alive …”

That’s more than poor plundered Kleist can say. The troubled Kunstler died in 1811, at 34, in characteristically dramatic fashion when he and his adulterous lover Henriette went to a picnic spot outside Berlin and shot themselves. Kleist was a great and troubled writer-and apart from a few academics, nobody knows the extent of the gift he made to E.L. Doctorow. He has been lost in a shuffle of sources, along with oversized orange trolley books.

In my interview, Mr. Doctorow said, “It seems to me that in literature, books have always been answers to other books. Writers have always responded as much to books around them [as to life].” He cited Jane Smiley revisiting King Lear in A Thousand Acres . “I have a sense of a readership that is sophisticated and understands how literature works. There are others who may be naïve about that. And that naïveté is taught by example.”

That was aimed at me.

But I agree. I, too, want a sophisticated reading public. Authors can help this process; now and then they can deconstruct themselves. A year after “The Raven” made his name, Edgar Allan Poe (whom E.L. Doctorow’s parents named him after) tried to demystify the creative process in a piece telling how he wrote the poem. “Most writers-poets in especial-prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy-an ecstatic intuition-and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes … at the cautious selections and rejections,” Poe said.

Mr. Doctorow’s highfalutin talk about mystical invention masks a more prosaic feat. The lift is what bugged Fred. What bugs me is the vanity.