Reviewer Tom Pope: Tom is a writing teacher and fiction coach who strives to spark the imagination. As a teacher, he works with tutoring services to help students organize essays and understand literary elements like the point of view. As a fiction coach, he aids authors to develop characters, brainstorm conflict pacing and design worldbuilding.
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Author: Eric Bronson
ISBN: -13 978-0-9888290-0-8
Author: Eric Bronson
ISBN: -13 978-0-9888290-0-8
When Scott Joplin played from Gilbert & Sullivan for some children at the Hull House in Eric Bronson’s novel, King of Rags, the musician must have pounded the piano from a deep angst that tore him apart.
While he arrived at the scene, telling a child that, “no one can change into something else,” he grappled with a new sense of social awareness.
So Joplin’s seeming traditional music actually blended ordinary themes with the idea of a possible magical change.
Bronson shows through his book how Joplin struggled with reaching some magic.
Bronson’s striking tone has Joplin fitting into the quote from Schopenhauer that, "the profound and serious significance of our existence hangs over the farce. . . and never leaves it for a moment."
Bronson hits the reader with the quest for the profound on one level, and the reaction to society’s farce on the other.
Readers can find Joplin obsessed with Wagner and classical music. They can discover the craving to make the perfect opera and ballet. But the readers might become amazed at the farce of developing a musical talent in brothels where the vibrating Cakewalk strummed to uplift the dancers from the lynchings and police beatings in the street.
Yet Joplin’s work led the emotional Blues into the improv of American Jazz and the sheepish smile of Robert Redford’s portrayal in “The Sting.”
How did Joplin’s music become lasting while he seemed to disappear? Once noticed, Joplin was quickly made invisible. He was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City and until the 1970s he quite literally disappeared, according to Bronson.
“In some ways he was initially accepted because he was palatable,” Bronson said in an interview. “Perhaps because of early training from his mother, a freed slave before emancipation and he had European training from a childhood German piano teacher.”
Bronson brings the reader right into the farce Joplin faced. The World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 was called the World's Columbian Exposition yet part of the new world was ignored. “Africans like the Dahomeyan musicians were allowed to perform but not African Americans like Joplin,” Bronson said. “So ragtime musicians were relegated to the red-light district.”
Adding to the farce, Joplin’s Chicago visit was interrupted by an arrest as he tried to assist a victim in a street crime. The police failed to believe an African American could be innocent in a confrontation.
“There's an interesting and dangerous thing at work when we talk about race.” Bronson said. “The one-drop policy made any non-white person immediately visible in early 20th Century America. It was better to be an invisible white than a noticeable color. On the other hand, once you were noticed, you were quickly made invisible.”
The quest to become noticed as a great entertainer meant that Joplin would have to become visible. The tension and play between "high" and "low" culture, serious and popular music, has always struck me as somewhat misguided,” Bronson said. “I think a lot of artists like Joplin bought into these distinctions and tried to distance themselves from bawdier vaudeville acts that were playing their music.”
The Dahomeyan musicians at the World’s Fair had a largely unnoticed impact on African Americans. “The joyous rhythms along with the deep pain at the loss of one's heritage really resonated with artists before blues and jazz music became entwined with the American story,” Bronson said.
Yet despite Joplin’s cross-over appeal, he still struggled with desires to reach musical heights — heights others caved in for the sake of the music industry or the racial climate. Bronson shows readers the impressions from Bert Williams, Lester Walton and Irving Berlin. Readers can be shocked at the difference in how success is defined, according to those people. Are they looking down on Joplin?
“We're left only with the perspectives of those who capitulated to the system,” Bronson said. “That's how history works — when you rock the boat too much, you run the risk of having your perspective go overboard.”
For Bronson, fiction allows writers to play with the narrator. “In a more traditional historical biography, you bring a character to life by detailing his key events, his writings, and even some of his thoughts in conversation,” he said.
Switching narrators places the reader into, “feeling some of the frustration at missing out on so many great artists,” he said. “There's a real tragedy at play when you delve into America's history on race.”
Bronson shows us a musician caught between the desire for perfection in his craft and yet trying to deal with the outside societal forces. “He could play the game, if he couldn't quite pass as white,” Bronson said. “In many ways he resembles Jackie Robinson who comes fifty years later. Besides the obvious skills and talents, he could keep appearances better than most.”
Still until the movie, “The Sting,” many people had not heard of the man responsible for some music that influenced their lives. “I'd like the reader to end with a deeper understanding of a quote from Schopenhauer,” Bronson said. “‘The profound and serious significance of our existence hangs over the farce. . . and never leaves it for a moment.’"