William Howard Taft
I’m reading Ragtime. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it likable, but I would call it rollicking, especially if I were in the business of writing book-cover copy. The only named characters are also historical figures—Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Thaw, Harry Houdini, Robert Peary; the rest are known by their relationships to each other, “Mother’s Younger Brother” chief among them. There are few if any characters to sympathize with. (And why should there be? Sympathy is a convention of reading just as worthy of subversion as another.) But the novel, all short sentences and long paragraphs, catalogs and sex acts, has a catchy lilt, not unlike the melody to a summer pop song. It also has bravado, which I’m a sucker for. When the novel’s first, long paragraph declared both
There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.
and, not 300 words later,
Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants.
I was committed.
Here’s another taste—I quote it because I like the way it describes fashion as a counterforce to a symbol—the pendulum narrative of American life, we’ll call it. About a third of the way into the novel, William Howard Taft is elected President. His election signals a shift in the American psyche:
A momentous change was coming over the United States. There was a new President, William Howard Taft, and he took office weighing three hundred and thirty-two pounds.1 All over the country men began to look at themselves. They were used to drinking great quantities of beer. They customarily devoured loaves of bread and ate prodigiously of the sausage meats of poured offal that lay on the lunch counters of the saloons. The august Pierpont Morgan would routinely consume seven- and eight-course dinners. He ate breakfasts of steaks and chops, eggs, pancakes, broiled fish, rolls and butter, fresh fruit and cream. The consumption of food was a sacrament of success. A man who carried a great stomach before him was thought to be in his prime. Women went into hospitals to die of burst bladders, collapsed lungs, overtaxed hearts, and meningitis of the spine. There was a heavy traffic to the spas and sulphur springs, where the purgative was valued as an inducement to the appetite. America was a great farting country. All this began to change when Taft moved into the White House. His accession to the one mythic office in the American imagination weighed everyone down. His great figure immediately expressed the apotheosis of that style of man. Thereafter fashion would go the other way and only poor people would be stout.
1 Has any other President had the ill fortune to have become known by a single defining feature, as Taft has become known simply for his weight? Is it better to be remembered, even if only for an inconsequence such as this, or is it better to be forgotten altogether?