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E. L. Doctorow

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


It often seems that there is a competition between popular literature and artistic literature, with each one claiming the right to call itself the greater benefit to society. Ragtime is one of the few novels that transcends this competition completely, having proven itself with undeniable success in both areas. Some critics have picked out miscellaneous faults, but the novel was received with widespread praise when it was published in 1975. Most reviewers agreed that Doctorow took the combination of historical and imaginary characters, a technique used often in historical novels but with only weak results, and manipulated it into a rich blend that is entertaining, challenging, and true to the spirit of the times. The reading public agreed: unlike many experimental works of art whose freshness makes them too difficult for widespread audiences, Ragtime became a best-seller in its initial hardcover edition. For a period of time in the mid-seventies, it seemed there was a copy in every home. E. L. Doctorow became a household name, and each new book he releases to this day is still considered a significant literary event, although it would be unreal to think that an event like Ragtime could occur more than once in one writer's lifetime. The novel's influence on popular culture continues today; it was adapted into a major Broadway musical in the late 1990s.

Author Biography

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the Bronx, in New York City, in 1931. Both of his par-ents were children of Russian Jewish immigrants, and the Jewish faith has been a powerful influence on his life and writing. He attended Brand High School of Science and then went on to Kenyon College in Ohio, which had a reputation as a good school for writers: while there, he studied under the poet John Crowe Ransom and met other writers who either were or would be famous. After receiving an A.B. in philosophy in 1952, he attended Columbia University in New York for a year, but then was drafted, and he spent the next two years in the army. Returning to civilian life, he married and worked a series of odd jobs, including reading novels for CBS Television and Columbia Pictures: "I was reading a book a day, seven days a week, and writing synopses of them," he told an interviewer years later. "I suppose each synopsis was no less than 1,200 words. I was getting an average of ten or twelve dollars a book, so I was making pretty good money—anywhere between seventy and one hundred dollars a week." In 1959 he started at New American Library, where in the next five years, he worked his way up to senior editor; his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, was published in 1960. He left New American in 1964 to become editor-in-chief at Dial Press, and when he left Dial in 1969, he was a vice president. After that followed a series of teaching jobs intertwined with a series of awards for fiction. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972; the National Book Critics' Circle Award for Ragtime in 1976, and again for Billy Bathgate in 1990; the National Book Award for World's Fair in 1986; and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Billy Bathgate. Like Ragtime,most of his books are based on historical facts: The Book of Daniel, for instance, is based on the true story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies; and Billy Bathgate is a character associated with Prohibition-era gangster Dutch Schultz. Doctorow considers his 1966 science-fiction novel, Big as Life, to be a failure, and it is the only one of his books that is not in print today. Doctorow lives in New Rochelle, New York, in the house that was the model for the one described in the first pages of Ragtime.

Plot Summary

Section I

Ragtime is a novel about three families living in the early years of the twentieth century and how their members' separate lives intertwine within a wide, colorful quilt of personalities, some real and some fictional. The book contains many different plotlines that begin and end in a jumble. It starts at the home of one family in New Rochelle, a New York suburb. The father of the house owns a company that manufactures fireworks and parade decorations, things used mostly on patriotic occasions. Father, as he is called, lives in the house with Mother and the Little Boy; also living there are Mother's Younger Brother and Grandfather. Introduced in the first chapter is the true historical story of Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband, millionaire Harry K. Thaw, shot her former lover, famed architect Stanford White, in a crowded restaurant one night in 1906. Younger Brother has pictures of Nesbit taped to his walls. One afternoon a car crashes into a telephone pole in front of the family's house. Driving the car is Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist; the car is all right, and Houdini is invited into the house until the radiator cools. As he leaves, the Little Boy tells him, for no obvious reason, "Warn the Duke." The next day, Father leaves to go on an expedition with Admiral Robert Peary to the North Pole. The narration shifts briefly to introduce an immigrant family, Mameh, Tateh, and the Little Girl, who are living in a tenement. In order to get more money, Mameh has sex with her employer, then disappears from the story when Tateh takes the Little Girl and leaves her. The main narrative follows Evelyn Nesbit, who testifies on her husband's behalf at his trial. One day she sees Tateh on a street corner, selling scissor-cut silhouettes, with the Little Girl tied to a rope to keep her from being stolen. She identifies with the girl, and forces herself on the family against Tateh's wishes, bringing them food. Tateh, a Socialist, takes Nesbit to a political meeting, where she meets Emma Goldman, another historical figure. Back at her apartment, Goldman explains her ideas about health and massages Evelyn, and Mother's Younger Brother, who has followed them, bursts in on them in a fury of sexual excitement. Evelyn Nesbit and Younger Brother become lovers. In the garden at the house in New Rochelle, Mother finds a newborn baby buried in the dirt. A police investigation quickly turns up the baby's mother, Sarah, a young black woman. To avoid breaking up the family, Mother takes Sarah and the baby to live with her family. Tateh and the Little Girl leave New York City, travelling on a series of streetcars from one city to another, until they end up in Massachusetts. At the end of this section, Houdini is introduced to Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary, whose assassination triggered World War I.

Section II

This section is mainly devoted to the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the father of Sarah's baby. Father returns from his Arctic exploration, and Younger Brother returns home after his affair with Evelyn Nesbit ends. Tateh works at a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he becomes involved in a strike and is battered by the police; escaping, he and the Little Girl end up in Philadelphia, where he sells a book of his artwork to the Franklin Novelty Company. Coalhouse Walker Jr. shows up at the house in New Rochelle, explaining that he heard that Sarah lived there. He is well-dressed and well-mannered and arrives in a clean new Model T. Sarah refuses to see him, and he returns again and again, once playing the piano for the family—he is a professional ragtime player in a nightclub. In the mean time, Younger Brother talks to Emma Goldman, and she teaches him the importance of revolutionary politics, and J. P. Morgan meets with Henry Ford to discuss his ideas, based in Egyptian religion, that certain individuals are meant to be leaders. Eventually, Sarah begins meeting with Coalhouse Walker, and she finally agrees to marry him.

The central event of the novel occurs one Sunday afternoon when Walker, driving home from visiting Sarah, is stopped in front of a volunteer fire department. He refuses to pay a "road toll" to the firemen who stand around threateningly and make racial slurs, and instead goes for a policeman. They return to find Walker's car vandalized, and when he argues, Walker is arrested. Over the next few weeks he tries to sue for damages, but he is treated badly by the courts because he is a black man. Sarah goes to see James Sherman, the vice-presidential candidate, because she thinks he is the President and can help the situation, but his bodyguards think she has a gun and they beat her. She later dies from her wounds. Walker then decides to take the law into his own hands: he and a band of men burn down the fire station and kill its inhabitants, but Willie Conklin, the fire chief who stopped him, is not there. They burn a few more fire stations, demanding that Walker's car be restored and Conklin be turned over to them. Because of the notoriety of the case, the family, with Sarah's baby, leaves town and stays at a hotel in Atlantic City. There they make the acquaintance of Baron Ashkenazy, a wealthy film maker, and his daughter, who turn out to be the characters previously known as Tateh and the Little Girl. When Walker and his gang, including Younger Brother, take control of the J. P. Morgan library, the police ask Father to come to New York to negotiate with him, fearful that he will destroy the library's priceless collection. After meeting with Booker T. Washington, Walker drops his demand for Conklin's life, and instead the fire chief and the damaged car are brought to the street in front of the library, where the chief has to work in the glare of public humiliation on restoring the car. Walker's men escape in the restored car.

Section III

Coalhouse Walker steps from the library and is shot down by the police. Younger Brother escapes to the southwest and eventually joins the band of revolutionary Mexican-rights leader Emiliano Zapata. J. P. Morgan dies of a cold caught from spending the night in a pyramid. Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, and Houdini, remembering the boy who years earlier had told him to "warn the Duke," realizes that in a life of make-believe magic tricks the boy's prediction had been his one true mystical experience. Father helps make munitions for the war, even though the U.S. is not involved in it yet, using plans for bombs that were developed by Younger Brother. After Father is killed in the sinking of the S.S. Lusitania, Mother marries Baron Ashkenazy, and they, their two children, and the child of Coalhouse and Sarah move to California together, the three families united.


Baron Ashkenazy

See Tateh

Willie Conklin

The fire chief of the Emerald Isle Company, and the instigator of the actions against Coalhouse Walker. When Coalhouse threatens to kill him, he goes into hiding in the Irish slums of New York, and Irish political leaders are called upon to bring him out and make him stand up to the humiliation of restoring Coalhouse's car in the street in front of the Morgan Library.


Father owns a company that makes fireworks, flags, and other patriotic decorations. His own father had been irresponsible, cheerfully losing a fortune to bad investments, and as a result Father is presented as being cautious and conservative. He does, however, have a wild side that is attracted to danger. He is an explorer with a good reputation, invited to go along with Admiral Perry on an Arctic exploration. He returns from his adventure with a guilty conscience because he slept with an Eskimo woman. Father allows an unknown African-American girl, Sarah, to move into his house and to allow her boyfriend to come to the house to court her, but he is not good-hearted enough to have thought of these ideas himself. When Coalhouse Walker is assaulted at the fire station, Father hesitantly tries to get a lawyer he knows to help, and he offers to pay for the lawyer's services (the offer is refused). When Coalhouse and his confederates take over the Morgan Library, Father is called by the authorities to negotiate with the rebels. Father later finds a drawer full of blueprints for bombs and weapons in Younger Brother's desk at the fireworks plant. He becomes a consultant to the government, helping develop these weapons for use by American troops during World War I. He dies when a German submarine torpedoes the S. S. Lusitania, two years before America's entry into the war.

Sigmund Freud

A real-life character recognized as the Father of Psychoanalysis, he visits the United States early in the book, experiences popular culture, and declares, "America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake."

Harry Houdini

A real-life character who became famous as an escape artist, Houdini was a show-business phenomenon in his day, escaping from increasingly more difficult situations and tighter chains. The real-life Houdini, just like the character in the book, actually did buy one of the first airplanes available, and devoted the latter part of his life to unmasking fraudulent psychics, as described in the novel. Houdini plays a key role in the structure of the book: in the first chapter he arrives at the family's house, and the Little Boy tells him, ominously, "Warn the Duke." By the books' end, World War I has broken out over the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whom Houdini meets at the end of Section 1. In the final pages of the novel Houdini remembers his encounter with the Little Boy as "the one genuine mystical experience of his life."

The Little Boy

Although the book's narrative travels all over, giving readers the thoughts and experiences of characters that most boys would never have met, the Little Boy turns out, when all is added together, to be the center of this story. It is his consciousness that grows throughout this story: when the first paragraph says "There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants," it is clearly not an objective fact but the impression of someone young and naive, an impression that will change throughout the story. It is the boy's life that is affected by all of the events in the story, since the Coalhouse Walker plot line and the Tateh plot line cross his life at different points and end up permanently affecting his future. The Little Boy is given some of the most mystical, intimate moments in the novel. Chapter 15 tells about his personal, peculiar outlook on the world, explaining that he "was alert not only to discarded materials but to unexpected events and coincidences," which indicates that his way of looking at the world is identical to the novel's unique structure. Throughout the book, the Little Boy is not a participant in the events around him, but an observer. The novel's most lyrical writing involves the boy's delight in befriending the Little Girl at the beach in Atlantic City over the course of the summer: "What bound them to each other was a fulfilled recognition which they lived and thought within so that their apprehension of each other could not be so distinct and separated as to include admiration for the other's fairness."

J. Pierpont Morgan

An actual historical figure who made millions of dollars in steel and finance, Morgan is presented in this novel as a mystic who believes in the occult. In his urgency to share his enthusiasm for Egyptology with a peer, Morgan arranges a meeting with Henry Ford, the automobile magnate, but Ford is a practical, simple man who does not understand Morgan's complex theory. When reached at sea about Coalhouse Walker's demands while barricaded in the Morgan library, Morgan tells the police to "Give him his car, then hang him." Morgan spends a night alone in the great pyramid of Giza, hoping to absorb its mystical energy, and later dies of a cold contracted there.


Mother's sensibilities grow throughout this novel. At first, she is a dutiful suburban housewife, submitting to sex with her husband but avoiding it when she can, remembering the carefree days of her childhood. Mother's life changes when one day, walking through her garden, she finds a newborn baby buried in the dirt. She washes it off and takes it into her home and cares for it, and when the police locate Sarah, the baby's mother, Mother takes her into the household too. When Father returns home from his Polar expedition, expecting to find Mother angry and aloof, he is surprised: "He found instead a woman curious and alerted to his new being." A deep chasm opens between Mother and Father in the wake of Coalhouse Walker's first bombing attack, when she sympathizes with Coalhouse and Father curses him with angry racial epithets. When the family moves to Atlantic City to avoid the publicity associated with Coalhouse, Mother finds herself attracted to a fellow hotel patron, Baron Ashkenazy. After Father's death she marries Ashkenazy, and they and the three children move to California.

Mother's Younger Brother

He is a passionate and talented young man who cannot seem to find direction in life. At first, he works for his brother-in-law at the fireworks plant and dreams of Evelyn Nesbit, whose picture is in the newspapers frequently. When a meeting of the Socialist labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, is disrupted by the police, he follows Nesbit and Emma Goldman, spying from a closet as Goldman massages the girl of his dreams until, overcome with excitement, he bursts into the room ejaculating. For a short time he and Nesbit date. When Coalhouse Walker begins his violent attacks, Younger Brother joins his band as a munitions expert and token white person. After that he travels to Mexico, fighting with legendary revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution. The narrator explains throughout the book that many of the facts related here are known because they were recorded in Younger Brother's diary.

Evelyn Nesbit

Based on a historical person who was actually involved in the murder case described in the book, she was the wife of millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who walked into the restaurant atop Madison Square Garden one night in 1906 and shot her lover, famed architect Stanford White. The trial has remained one of the most famous of the century. In the novel, Nesbit becomes fascinated with the Little Girl, daughter of Tateh, who is suspicious of her attentions. She becomes romantically involved with Emma Goldman, who later, in a Socialist newspaper, describes her as a tool of the Capitalist system. She has a brief affair with Mother's Younger Brother. At her husband's murder trial she dutifully testifies to help him avoid execution with an insanity plea, but his lawyers refuse to give her the million-dollar divorce settlement they had promised.


The young black woman who buried her newborn child, presumably to hide the fact that she gave birth to him out of wedlock. She agrees to live with the family that finds the child, living in their attic and hardly talking. When the baby's father, Coalhouse Walker, comes to court her, Sarah rejects him, presumably because he abandoned her when she was pregnant. It takes several months for her to become trusting enough to accept his marriage proposal. She tries to talk to the visiting vice-presidential candidate, but his bodyguards think she is an assassin when they see her approaching, and they beat her. She dies a few days later from the injuries received during the beating.


The word "Tateh" is Yiddish for "father." When this character first appears in the novel, he is a "thirty-two-year-old geriatric artist" who sells silhouette portraits on the street corner. Evelyn Nesbit takes a liking to his daughter, although she just thinks of Tateh as a crazy old man; she visits their apartment frequently with food and gifts. Tateh is also a Socialist, and he takes Nesbit to a meeting where she becomes acquainted with Emma Goldman. He later packs all of his and his daughter's belongings and, taking one streetcar after another, travels to a succession of cities across the Northeast until they end up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Tateh takes a job at the wool mill that is the site of the famous Textile Mill Strike of 1912. He barely escapes the violence of the police during the strike and ends up destitute in Philadelphia, where he sells a book of pictures that he has made to the Franklin Novelty Company for twenty-five dollars. When he next appears in the novel, he is a rich movie maker going by the name of Baron Ashkenazy. Romantic feelings bloom between himself and Mother one rainy afternoon in Atlantic City, and at the end of the book, after Father's death, he marries her.

Media Adaptations

  • An audio cassette version of Ragtime read by William Levine was released by Blackstone Audio.
  • The 1981 film version of Ragtime, directed by Milos Foreman and with a screenplay by Michael Weller, was released on videocassette in 1991 by Paramount Home Video.

Coalhouse Walker

A black musician from St. Louis, Coalhouse is a piano player with the Jim Europe Clef Club Orchestra, which plays regularly at the Manhattan Casino. He enters the story after Sarah and her baby are living with the family. The baby is his, and Coalhouse persists in coming to the house to court Sarah, eventually winning over her initial reluctance. He is a sharp dresser and drives a well-kept Model T convertible with a custom-made roof. Soon after Sarah agrees to marry him, Coalhouse is stopped on the road in front of the Emerald Isle volunteer fire station, where the firemen, led by their chief Willie Conklin, harass him by demanding he pay a toll. Coalhouse goes for a policeman and comes back to find his car vandalized, and the policeman arrests him for starting trouble. Lawyers will not help him sue for damages and the courts "lose" paperwork that he files himself. Sarah dies trying to talk to the vice-presidential candidate about the case, and Coalhouse Walker leads a band of rebels in action against the government, demanding that his car be restored and Willie Conklin be given over to him for punishment. His demands are signed with his name and the words "President, Provisional American Government." His and bombs a few firehouses in the New Rochelle area, and then tries to take millionaire J. P. Morgan hostage, but ends up taking over the Morgan Library, which is adjacent to the Morgan house. Coalhouse negotiates the release of his supporters in exchange for dropping his demand for Conklin's life, and they drive away in his restored car. When Coalhouse surrenders, he is shot down in a hail of bullets.

Booker T. Washington

Washington, the founder of the first U.S. college for blacks, the Tuskegee Institute, spent his life supporting cooperation between the races, encouraging blacks to behave in ways that were socially proper in order to gain acceptance. In the novel, he enters the Morgan Library to talk to Coalhouse Walker and ask him, on behalf of his people, to surrender. "What will your recklessness cost me!" he asks Coalhouse in anger. "What will it cost my students laboring to learn a trade by which they can earn their livelihood and still white criticism! A thousand honest industrious black men cannot undo the harm of one like you." Out of respect for Washington, Coalhouse drops his demand for the fire chief's life, but he is not moved enough to give up in any other way.


Victims and Victimization

One of the central events in a novel that is packed with background incidents concerns the abuse and humiliation that Coalhouse Walker Jr. receives from the members of the Emerald Isle fire-house. Their actions against him are clearly based on classic bully mentality: he is different than them; they are jealous because he has a nicer car than most of them could afford; and they outnumber him. The novel is quite clear about the fact that early-1900s society allows the continued victimization of Coalhouse because he is black. Not only do the police refuse to help him when he wants justice for the damage to his car, but they actually arrest him, and the legal system is effective in tying up his civil litigation. At each step in the process, well-intentioned people advise him to drop his complaint and be thankful that the damage against him was not worse, even when his fiancée is killed for trying to talk to a white man on his behalf. Coalhouse is given the choice to accept victimization or to go to dangerous extremes to fight it, and in this context his violent rampage seems reasonable, if tragic.

Other characters in the book are presented as victims of society. Tateh's involvement in the textile mill strike at Lawrence is presented as a textbook example of how working people were abused by the people they worked for. The living conditions are deplorable: "Tateh stood in front of a loom for fifty-six hours a week. The family lived in a wooden tenement on a hill. They had no heat. They occupied one room overlooking an alley in which residents certainly dumped their garbage." When he tries to change his circumstance, though, the mill owners command the police to stage a violent attack against the strikers.

Even Evelyn Nesbit, who lives a life of financial luxury, is presented as a victim, a tool of powerful interests. Powerful men use her tragic story to sell newspapers and tickets to the motion pictures. Socialists and anarchists use her in their speeches as an example of how women are exploited by powerful men. None of these groups does anything to help her situation, leaving her in the position of having to aid her dangerously unstable husband, on trial for killing her lover, if she is to survive.

Culture Clash

Ragtime examines a time in American history when the old, established culture found itself especially vulnerable to new ideas. The move toward change came mostly from outside of the old culture's borders, but it also rose up from within, from those previously locked out of the mainstream. The attitude of mainstream culture is expressed on the book's first page: "There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants." That same paragraph goes on to mention some of the mysterious occurrences that did not make sense within this way of thought, and then to suggest that incomplete information was the reason. "Stories were hushed up and reporters were paid off by rich families," the novel explains. It then goes on to give a brief summary of the Evelyn Nesbit-Stanford White-Harry K. Thaw affair as an example of something that was clearly more complex than the dominant culture was willing to admit. "Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants," the paragraph concludes. No specific Negroes or immigrants had been mentioned, just suspicion of the mainstream culture's position.

The strongest symbol of the mainstream culture in the book is the Morgan library, packed with expensive historical artifacts, the cultural residue of Western civilization, tracing backwards through Europe to ancient Egypt. The greatest threat to these artifacts is, of course, the dynamite of the Coalhouse gang, ready to destroy centuries worth of culture in order to secure justice for a black man who has been excluded from the cultural system. Because he is intelligent, Coalhouse Walker is able to force the system to agree to his demands; because he is a cultural outsider, he is shot down in the street at the first chance. A worse fate befalls the immigrant workers of the wool mill in Lawrence, who go on strike to gain justice and are violently attacked by the police: after this episode the character known by the immigrant name of Tateh reappears later, having conquered American society by latching on to the newly-developing entertainment industry. Both Harry Houdini and the members of the Emerald Isle fire company are on the border between the old culture and the new. Houdini, like Tateh/Baron Ashke-nazy, becomes wealthy in entertainment, and his wealth earns him acceptance into the mainstream culture, but he does not seem satisfied with social acceptance, pushing his performances to new levels of danger with "suspicions that his life was unimportant and his achievements laughable." The firemen are a part of the social order, but their relative newness to American culture is shown in the way that their firehouse name links them to Ireland. The fact that they pick on a black man, who is lower in social status than they are, indicates that they are not comfortable with their own social position.


In this novel there is no clear or easily-understood symbolic value for the function of sex. In the case of Mother, sex is an indicator of expanding thought, as she goes from prudishness to participation. Early in the second chapter, when the visit from Houdini interrupts sex between Mother and Father (referred to by the clinical term "coitus"), the novel explains that, "There was no sign from Mother that it was now to be resumed. She fled to her garden." Later, though, after finding a baby buried in that same garden revives her interest in life, Father returns from his Polar expedition to find her "in some way not as vigorously modest." Just when, ashamed of the sex he had with an Eskimo woman, he feels that she would have the right to reject him, she starts sleeping in his room and reaching out to him in bed. Evelyn Nesbit is presented as sexually promiscuous, sleeping with Stanford White, her husband Harry Thaw, Mother's Younger Brother, and a professional ragtime dancer, but the book considers her someone who is seeking fulfillment, an unhappy woman who is never as happy pleasing men as she seems to hope she will be. "She loved (Younger Brother) but she wanted someone who would treat her badly and whom she could treat badly," the book explains. Emma Goldman ascribes very little importance to her sexual liaisons, past and present: "In the room tonight," she tells Younger Brother, "you saw my present lover but also my former lovers. We are all good friends. Friendship is what endures." Despite what any of the characters tries to make of sex, it is mocked as nonsense in the book's most odd and memorable scene, when Goldman's long, slow, erotic massage of Nesbit is interrupted by Younger Brother, who cannot control his sexual urges, bursting out of the closet.

Topics for Further Study

  • Study the music of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, or another famous ragtime musician. Describe the characteristics of the music, and explain how it applies to the story the book tells.
  • At the end of the book the family goes to live in California, which was just starting its long reign as the movie capital of the world. Research the early movie studios, before 1920, and report on who was making movies and what kind of movies they were making.
  • Assemble as many pictures as you can from the years 1900–1915 and make a collage. Try to focus on one particular theme—clothes, sports, entertainment, or politics, for example.
  • Explore the debate represented by the "isolationist" theories of W. E. B. Du Bois and the "assimilationist" theories of Booker T. Washington. Explain which of these men would be supported by famous black leaders in today's world, and why you think so.


Point of View

The point of view of this novel is uncertain. The prevailing consciousness is certainly that of the Little Boy—his personality is explained in detail, and much of the information that is given could have reached him, either from direct experience or through secondary sources, such as his uncle's diaries or newspaper clippings. When the narrative places itself in time as speaking "nearly fifty years after Houdini's death," it leaves open the possibility that the grown-up boy is telling the story (Houdini died in 1926, nearly fifty years before the book was published). On the other hand, there are many details here that the Little Boy really could not know, such as the intimate thoughts of prominent figures like J. Pierpont Morgan and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Throughout the book the narrator speaks as an unidentified "we," presumably representing America. The narrator is given a distinct persona in the last chapter, when it speaks in the first person: "Poor Father, I see his final exploration." Contradictions abound, but most of the evidence indicates that, if the narrator is a particular person (as opposed to the omniscient narrator, who tells the story but is not part of it), it is probably the Little Boy.

Zeitgeist ("Spirit of the Time")

More important to the success of this novel than any particular characters or plotlines is the way that it creates a convincing sense of what life was like in America in the first years of the twentieth century. Although no novel or historical work could ever give readers the experience of exactly what it was like then, Ragtime struggles to make clear what the issues of social concern were and who the celebrities were, in order to give the flavor of the time. The structure of the book, with quick scenes and short chapters covering a wide variety of people and situations, helps readers to feel the new century's spirit of motion and confusion. One of the most irrelevant, yet symbolic events in the book involves novelist Theodore Dreiser, who appears in one paragraph at the end of Chapter 4 and then never again: "One day he decides his chair was facing the wrong direction. He gets up to move it, then moves it again, then again. Throughout the night Dreiser turned his chair in circles seeking the proper alignment." The uneven motion of the book and its characters has been compared to this exasperated circling. Each of the real-life people chosen to represent this time period—Harry Houdini, Harry K. Thaw, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, and the rest—adds a slightly different, unique color to the overall picture, with no single story being more important than the overall effect.


This novel has a strong flair for irony, setting readers up to expect one thing but then leading to developments that, while logical, are quite different than expected. Usually, these reversals seem to deflate pomposity. Houdini, with the best intentions toward all humanity, offers money to subway workers who escaped a catastrophe, introducing himself as an "escapologist," and he is lifted off his feet and thrown out of the hospital. Morgan assembles America's wealthiest men to trade wisdom, and he finds them concerned with digestion, dozing off and muttering inanities: "Without exception the dozen most powerful men in America looked like horse's asses," he concludes. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death triggered the global catastrophe of World War I, is so befuddled by his formal, ceremonious meeting with Houdini that he thinks the airplane Houdini brings with him is his own invention. After a lifetime of actions against the government, the event that leads to Emma Goldman's deportation is her commenting about the Coalhouse Walker affair. J. P. Morgan, seeking eternal knowledge in the pyramid, instead finds bedbugs and catches the cold that kills him. Any good novel will have a number of surprises, in order to avoid being predictable, but Ragtime consistently uses reversal of expectation to point out the weakness of the old ruling order, although the book's ironic tone continually pretends to be upholding the old notions.

Historical Context


The early part of the twentieth century, as Ragtime explains, saw a shift in public sentiment away from the values of the wealthy, the established fraternity of men who had run business and government with increasing disregard since the end of the Civil War. At the end of the nineteenth century, the wealth of the country was absorbed by a small number of financiers who owned interests in key industries and bought out or forced out competitors in order to establish monopolies. Among the most prominent of these men were John D. Rockefeller, who built a petroleum empire; Andrew Carnegie, who dominated the market in steel; Andrew Mellon, who controlled banking; and the most powerful of them all, John Pierpont Morgan, who appears as a character in the book. In 1882, Rockefeller established the first trust, and many other industries followed soon after. A "trust" is a legal agreement that allows one owner or corporation to control the stock of several companies within the same industry, thereby giving it control over the prices charged to consumers and the wages paid employees.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1909: An interpreter for a French film company,attending the inauguration of President William Howard Taft, conceived the idea of presenting news events on film, which led to the practice of newsreels being shown in theaters across the world.

    1975: The integrity of the news divisions was a source of competition for the three major television networks.

    Today: There are specialized cable television channels for all sorts of special interests, including sports, weather, and local and national news.
  • 1907: At the height of one of the strongest waves of immigration in American history, 1.2 million people came into the country, mostly from Europe. The years between 1900 and 1914 saw an average of a million people per year. The percent of the U.S. population that was foreign-born hit an all-time high of fifteen percent.

    1975: Immigration, declining steadily since World War I, bottomed out at around five percent of the U.S. population.

    Today: The rise of multinational corporations and communication has created a smaller world and awareness of what is available: U.S. immigration is up, led by immigrants from Asian and Latin-American countries.
  • 1908: The Summer Olympics in 1908 had athletes from twenty-two nations competing.

    Today: Athletes from over 175 nations compete in the Olympics.
  • 1901: Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery, described conditions in the South after the Civil War. The existence of laws meant to keep blacks and whites separated, known as Jim Crow laws, created circumstances of intolerance and abuse toward blacks. Although the laws of the North were not as clearly against blacks, abuses were often tolerated.

    1975: After the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and the confrontational race riots of the 1960s, the country began to slowly create a new, inclusive social order in the 1970s.

    Today: Although civil rights laws are generally enforced and bigotry is socially unacceptable, blacks and whites still have sharply contrasting views of the world, as indicated by the vast differences of opinion over the 1995 acquittal of accused murderer OJ. Simpson.
  • 1910s: The North American Woman's Suffrage Association struggled for a Constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote. The amendment passed in 1919.

    1975: The Women's Liberation movement, then at the height of its influence, struggled to raise the consciousness of men and women alike regarding guarantees of political, economic, and social equality. Congress ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, but it failed to gain passage in enough states in the next ten years to make it a law.

    Today: Women enjoy many of the civil liberties that the Women's Movement has fought for, whether they identify themselves as feminists or not.

The mood of the country changed early in the twentieth century, favoring workers and those without political or social power. Across the world, Socialism had been gaining support since the 1870s, which led to the formation of groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (the socialist trade union mentioned in the book in the Textile Mill Strike episode). The I.W.W. reached its peak in America between 1912 and 1917, when it had 60,000 to 100,000 members. A less radical, more mainstream form of support for workers was known as Progressivism. Progressivism was the movement to establish fair living wages for workers, and to loosen the control that the trusts had on the economy. The figure most associated with Progressivism is Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909. He was known as a "trustbuster" for using the provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which Congress had passed in 1890 but never enforced, to break up the business monopolies. In 1912, Having been out of office for a term, Roosevelt ran for office again with a new political party that he called the Progressive Party. Progressivism was such a popular idea that the three U.S. presidents who held office between 1901 and 1921—Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson—identified themselves as Progressives.

While Progressivism opposed big business, it did so in order to promote the rights of the poor. Progressivism supported suffrage (the right to vote) for women, minimum wage laws, and child welfare regulations. Unlike Socialists like Tateh in the novel, who wanted sweeping changes in the structure of the government, and anarchists like Emma Goldman, who supported violence as a justifiable way to destroy the existing system, Progressives generally came from the middle class, like the nameless family from New Rochelle.

After Vietnam and Watergate

In 1975, the year Ragtime was published, the Unites States was dealing with losses suffered by two of its most powerful establishments, the military and the presidency. The year 1975 marked the fall of Saigon, the capitol of South Vietnam, which American forces had fought to defend against the Communist government in North Vietnam from 1961 to 1973. The Vietnam War was one of the central issues that had U.S. citizens protesting against the government during the tumultuous 1960s. Opposition to the war started on college campuses, where students who had grown up following the civil rights protests of the 1950s and early '60s applied the same methods to organize protests against the war. The protestors felt that the government's goal to "stop the spread of Communism in the world" was not a good enough reason for fighting. As the years wore on, with American soldiers dying by the thousands and no clear objective to be gained, more and more Americans agreed that the fighting should end. Military officials, many of whom began their careers as young men participating in the great American victories in World War II in the 1940s, could not accept the idea that America could lose in combat against a tiny country like North Vietnam. They did not want to leave without winning, and they expanded the war, spending more money and more lives and spreading the violence into the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, which served to intensify the protests at home. President Richard Nixon, hoping to please both sides, promised that a settlement would be negotiated, but that America would not accept "peace without honor." In 1973 the U.S. troops were withdrawn. In 1975 the U.S. government stopped sending money and weapons to South Vietnam, and almost immediately the capitol city of Saigon was taken over by the Communists of the North. On television, U.S. citizens watched American diplomats in Saigon fleeing in terror, as army helicopters tried to carry them away—a strong visual image that the war had not been settled, giving the impression of America running away.

At the same time President Nixon was arranging the withdrawal of troops, he was concerned with the collapse of his own presidency. It started on June 17, 1972, when five men were arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Party in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. Investigators soon found connections between the burglars and Nixon's re-election committee. As the 1972 presidential elections approached, stories associating the burglars with the Nixon White House trickled out, but citizens paid little attention, and in November Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate, George McGovern. Throughout 1973 and 1974, however, investigations continued to turn up incriminating evidence that connected the men who planned the break-in to higher government officials, including Cabinet officials and Nixon's Chief of Staff. These investigations also uncovered other crimes associated with Nixon, including tax problems and using government agencies to harass his political enemies. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned. The man who followed him as president, Gerald Ford, granted Nixon an unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. Disappointed that he had let Nixon go without making him stand trial for his crimes, the country voted Ford out of office in the 1976 elections. In 1975, while Ragtime was a huge success on the bestseller lists, the country was recovering from watching its social institutions unravel.

Critical Overview

It would be very difficult to find a piece of criticism that does not take Ragtime as a serious work of art. In his book-length survey of Doctorow's career, John G. Parks briefly mentions a few negative reviews of the book, including one by Roger Dale, who, in The New York Times Book Review, called it "all surface," and a piece by respected reviewer Hilton Kramer, who objected in Commentary to the novel's leftist political sensibilities. Parks identifies these critics as "second wave," who, having seen the glowing newspaper reviews and high sales figures after the novel was published, set out to go against popular opinion. Parks himself pays close attention to the themes of the book and finds it to be worthy of study and respect, in addition to being a "carnivalesque novel" that explores serious literary issues, such as the instability of history and the transitory nature of personality. Many other literary critics identified and applauded the book's ability to provoke thought without being too dense for general audiences, while still others looked at the same virtues from another direction, lauding it for being a popular book that is not afraid to touch on thought-provoking subjects. For example, Bernard F. Rogers, Jr., reviewing the book for Chicago Review, expressed his admiration for both the form and the content of Ragtime: he felt that the form appealed to critics and literati by experimenting with narrative, and to general audiences by striking a chord of familiarity; and that the content also played well to both audiences, struggling with serious themes while keeping readers entertained. Doctorow's novels are "simultaneously artistically venturesome and socially conscious," Arthur Seltzman wrote in a review called "The Stylistic Energy of E. L. Doctorow." "Like the Postmodernists," Seltzman asserted, "Doctorow extends the strategic possibilities of language; like the Naturalists, he employs language in the study of social ills."

Since most critics agree that Ragtime is an artistic as well as commercial success, most reviews throughout the years have tended to steer away from the question of whether the book succeeds and toward the study of how that success is brought about. David Emblidge, in a 1977 review, noted that Doctorow's very style made myths out of the incidents presented, even in cases where it seemed that myth-making was not his goal. Emblidge goes on to say that this is not necessarily bad for the author's works. David S. Gross thought that this mythological tone was actually a low-key satire of the kind of history lessons that are learned from schoolbooks, "wanting to destroy their easy and mystifying generalizations which prevent any accurate historical understanding." Paul Levine, in his book about Doctorow's career, takes note of the fact that much of what is done in Ragtime was done in a different form in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy. Other critics, including Barbara Foley and John Seelye, examine the same connection, concluding that Ragtime surpasses the three-novel sequence by using contrasts to make its cynical point more quickly and efficiently. One of the sharpest critics of Doctorow's treatment of history is Greil Marcus, who wrote a review in the Village Voice pointing out the similarities between Ragtime and Nashville, a popular movie released at the same time that also used a large cast of characters to show the American dream faltering. The problem, as Marcus put it, was that both of these works were spun from their creators' theories of life, rather than from the writers' experiences. Most critics would agree, although most would say that this is not a bad thing if it is used well, as it is by Doctorow.


David J. Kelly

David J. Kelly is a literature and creative writing instructor at several colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he examines the relatively minor role that death plays in Ragtime and finds it to be a function of Doctorow's ability to create characters.

Steeped as it is in the past, slowed by the lazy, dreamy tone of things half-remembered, or half-forgotten, or only once implied, Ragtime doesn't impress one as a book about lives hanging in the balance. Oh, life is in it, and one comes away from reading the last pages with the feeling of having wandered through not just a few lives. But maybe as a result of the dreamy tone or maybe as the cause of it, life does not seem to be counterbalanced with its opposite. It isn't that characters in the book live forever, or that they can only be gotten rid of by going away and not coming back. At least six prominent characters die throughout the course of the story, starting with the early killing of Stanford White, gunned down in the stately restaurant he designed, and extending through to the news that Father sank with the Lusitania. But death does not carry much weight in this novel: it means little, surrounded as it is by the grandeur of life. In the end, the whole big complex world is just explained as being a neighborhood, and all the people, "white black, fat thin, rich poor, all kinds" are presented as "a society of ragamuffins, like all of us, getting into trouble and getting out again." Death is put forth here as just one more large patch of trouble to be gotten through.

There is nothing at all disturbing about the death of Stanford White. When it is first mentioned, on the second page of the book, it is quickly skipped across in a flow of esoterica about that long-ago time, sandwiched between Winslow Homer's seascapes and Charles Dana Gibson's newspaper drawing of Evelyn Nesbit resplendent in her fame and beauty. At his shooting, the narration never really settles on the murdered man, but swings past him: he's in the middle of the action, but not really central to it. We are told quite clearly that Harry Thaw wore a straw hat and a heavy black coat, and that Evelyn's underwear was white (presumably a visual to imply just how sudden and spastic her faint had been, that it could knock an ankle-length dress up that high). We are not told anything about how the victim looked.

If there is any possible sense of sorrow at this loss of life, it is over almost immediately. The story shifts to Evelyn, mentioning her underclothes and then the fact that she had been a famous beauty by age fifteen, and then it juxtaposes that youth and beauty and innocent-colored underwear with the revelation that the murdering millionaire "habitually whipped her." If White's life were not dismissed cleanly enough with that, he is brought back into the book later, to contrast the soft, indulgent lifestyle he led with the human misery that he was oblivious to right up to the day of his death. Newsman Jacob Riis goes to interview White about the possibility of designing buildings that would not breed disease, and finds the architect supervising a ship's unloading, anxious about the pricey cargo of art objects while shouting at immigrant workers and whacking them with his umbrella. While he dines at the roof garden at Madison Square and catches the opening of Mamzelle Champagne, the poor are suffering through a heat wave without any water in their buildings: "The sink at the bottom of the stairs was dry. Fathers raced through the streets looking for ice." His ignorance of their misery makes his murder seem a perfectly just reward.

The other famous characters from the pages of history who die in Ragtime are Archduke Franz Ferdinand and J. P. Morgan. The Archduke is an obscure and comical figure. He is weighed down with the silly outdated uniform of the future leader of the outdated Austro-Hungarian empire, which was to fall apart after his assassination in 1914. Modern readers are amused by his plumed helmet and flat-top crewcut and big waxy moustache. Having been brought out to an airfield to watch Houdini fly an airplane, and never having seen a plane before, and having not, presumably, been a follower of the vaudeville circuit, he reasonably assumed that Houdini invented the contraption he was flying. In the real world, the Archduke's death triggered the horrors of modern warfare and was directly responsible for shifts in power that brought the world the Third Reich, Vietnam and Sarajevo, but within the context of the book the loss of this poor befuddled man, whose first reaction to his own assassination was "The day is ruined," is just another interesting detail. J. P. Morgan comes off as being a little more worth our sympathy, if only because the story spends quite a bit of space tracking his thoughts. He dies old and content—"he was far from unhappy, having concluded that his physical deterioration was exactly the sign for which he had been waiting." Morgan, a staunch believer in reincarnation, could not wait to die, so that he could be back on Earth again that much sooner.

What Do I Rread Next?

  • The character of Coalhouse Walker Jr. is based upon the character Michael Kohlhaas from an 1808 novella written by German author Hein-rich von Kleist. "Michael Kohlhaas" is included in Tales, which is a collection of von Kleist's novellas, and also in Twelve German Novellas, edited and translated by Harry Steinhauer, published by the University of California Press in 1977.
  • All of Doctorow's novels use Ragtime's technique of intertwining history with fiction, to varying degrees. Especially noteworthy among them are The Book of Daniel, published in 1971, which resembles Ragtime in that it gives a rare look at dissident politics in America (it is loosely based on the 1951 execution of accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg), and The Waterworks, published in 1994, which gives an eerily convincing sense of Now York society in the 1870s.
  • The novels that John Dos Passos wrote in the 1920s and 1930s were similar to Ragtime in that they presented real-life characters and news events along with fiction. Dos Passos's most ambitious and experimental work was his trilogy of novels, The Forty-second Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, published together as The U.S.A. Trilogy.
  • The labor movement that Doctorow includes in the book is central to Upton Sinclair's 1906 masterpiece The Jungle. This book is a novel, but Sinclair researched the details the way a news reporter would, and it gives a good view of life in 1906. Most readers remember this book for its graphic scenes of disgusting conditions in Chicago's meatpacking facilities, but its real focus is on the struggle for workers' rights and the system used at that time to keep workers powerless.
  • Doctorow's thoughts are expressed more directly in his essays than in his fiction, and readers interested in Ragtime might find it hard to put down his highly-regarded collection Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and the Constitution: Selected Essays, 1977–1992. Subjects covered, in addition to those referred to in the title, include writing in general, Henry David Thoreau, and Ronald Reagan.

One of the reasons that death is so undisturbing in this book is the recurring imagery of either life after death or an afterlife. It is not much of a book for symbolism, but there is mythology in the air, and among mankind's strongest myths are those that involve people who went to the other side and then came back. Here Doctorow presents his readers with the Myth of the Baby Who Grew in the Garden. It would be too simplistic to call this Christ-imagery, because we are not told what the baby grew up to be like, but we do know that he came out of his grave, and that he was in the garden, where good things like vegetables and flowers come up out of the dirt.

Father is not resurrected, but he does go on forever, "arriving eternally on the shore of his Self." He is discontent throughout the story, a fact symbolized by his going off on Polar explorations, literally searching the remotest corners of the globe to fulfill some need. The author could squeeze him out of the family with divorce, but he is sent to his reward in the end. As in the case of Morgan, death is presented as a type of fulfillment for those who have outlived their worldly purpose and deserve to go someplace better.

The deaths of Sarah and Coalhouse are not comical or gentle. In some sense, Coalhouse Walker's death could possibly be considered self-willed: not because he created the circumstances surrounding it, which he was only partly responsible for, but because he knows full well that he will be shot. His will is written, and "probably he knew that all he must do in order to end his life was to turn his head abruptly or lower his hands or smile." True to the novel's style, Walker's death is not presented directly, but is relayed from the point of view of non-witnesses: first, apparently, from news accounts, since we are told he "was said by police to have made a dash for freedom," and then from Father, who does not look outside until the shooting is all over. There is a fog of mystery around the specifics of Walker's death, just as there is around the death of Younger Brother. Both of them rise above any horror they go through to become mythical figures.

Sarah's is the only death presented as being truly tragic, painful, and unnecessary. She is not prepared, and is mystified about what happens to her: her death is a result of a misunderstanding touched off by bigotry. The murder of Sarah should have a more chilling impact on the reader, but it doesn't, because Sarah is the most poorly-realized character in the book. In theory, the details about her make for a good and reasonable story: the unwed mother who gives birth in secret and then tries to kill the baby, the jilted woman who resists her returning suitor's courtship, the naive girl who turns to the President to solve her problems. Too many factors have to be ignored, though, to believe what we are told about Sarah. Readers have to not wonder where she comes from. They have to accept the fact that she could live in the house and raise her child without speaking, or that the narrative, which can get into a private meeting between Morgan and Henry Ford, would not know what she says. In the end, her death seems too fantastic, too convenient for the novelist's requirements, yet three shades more brutal than anything else in the world of the book, including the strike-breaking police. "Perhaps in the dark windy evening of the impending storm it seemed to Sherman's guards that Sarah's black hand was a weapon"—even though its first word tries to cloud reality, the statement rings false except on a symbolic level. The horror of her beating and death is weakened by the faint reminder that this is all fiction.

The fact that the deaths in Ragtime are presented in ways that do not shock is, in this case, a good thing: these characters are, for the most part, fulfilled by their deaths. In other cases this could be taken to indicate a world view on the part of the author that is serene, finding everything, even death, to have its place in the grand scheme of things. Doctorow uses a sarcastic tone, though, that implies anything but serenity. The reason the deaths in this book are not shocking is that they seem appropriate, which is a tribute to how well-drawn these characters are. Things here happen when it is their time—even the death of Coalhouse Walker, and even the death of Sarah. Doctorow brings these characters full circle, explaining their lives in ways that make their deaths the logical results. While another book might shy away from death or give death a dark, menacing presence, Ragtime presents it, but in this presentation it does not seem so bad.

Source: David J. Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Derek Wrigh

In the excerpt below, Wright investigates Doctorow's use of "pseudo-history" to create his story about marginalized men and women in American society.

Perhaps the crucial difference between E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime (1975) and other, more thoroughgoing fictional reinventions of history such as Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966) or Rushdie's Shame (1983) is that the latter use history to say something about fiction—they display the endlessly fertile capacity of the novelistic imagination to compensate for the stubborn limitations, or paucity, of facts—while Doctorow uses fiction to say something about history. Specifically, Doctorow calls into question the whole business of historicity and the origination of historical "fact" from possibly doubtful sources. Doctorow's metaphor for history in the novel is a "player piano" that plays its own tune, regardless of the style—classical, romantic, ragtime—which the pianist chooses to interpret it in. History, as the music of what happened, the events that actually took place, is not the same as history as it is received in the present from what historians have written down. Events are not scientifically mappable by "history" any more than, in Doctorow's novel, the North Pole is precisely locatable by the explorers of the Peary expedition or the correct alignment of the chair with the room by Theodore Dreiser. We put our flag or chair down anywhere: we make our own centers. As Doctorow, following Roland Barthes, has said in interview statements, there is no fiction or non-fiction, only narrative: the telling of a story.

Indeed, history, insofar as it is always narrowly partial and selective, is one of the least trustworthy and potentially one of the most fictional of narrative forms. As the opening pages of Ragtime demonstrate, whole racial groups have been written out of American history simply by not being mentioned, and the task of the novelist, as conceived by Doctorow, is to write them back in. The novelist's own pseudo-history parodies and then rewrites the falsely sentimental, nostalgic picture of the American past, as composed from the patriotic viewpoint of the dominant white middle-class culture which prevailed at the turn of the century. Not only are Doctorow's characters historically syncopated, fractionally offbeat on the historical chronometer like the base key which is marginally behind the melody in Scott Joplin's music (his Emma Goldman and Walker gang belong, in fact, to the 1960s), but his entire quasi-history is itself systematically unsynchronized or "in ragged time" with the school textbook, its facts always slightly askew from the received version. Against the known facts, Doctorow syncopates what he regards as "truthful fictions," which are poetically if not historically true: Freud and Jung mischievously shut up together in the Tunnel of Love on Coney Island and, on a more serious note, the Poverty Balls where guests dress in rags and the Stockyard Ball that is set in a mock-slaughterhouse. Concerning the latter two instances, which were certainly in the spirit of the times whether true or not, Doctorow's point is that in the early 1900s American reality was already becoming so incredible that it was most accurately located at the point where history fades into fiction, the factual into the fantastic.

History, Doctorow subsequently implies, is so patently fictional that there is no longer any felt need to preserve in separate categories fictional and historical plots and characters as, for example, Dos Passos had done in his trilogy U.S.A. (1937). Thus, all the canons of historical decorum are violated: personages from the newsreels and history books enter audaciously into the fictional life of the book either by performing fictional acts or meeting fictional characters.

And yet there are still a number of differences between the novel's fictional and historical material which assert themselves in its narrative form and serve to keep the two kinds of material in separate and clearly differentiated categories. Firstly, the historical vignettes of J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Harry Houdini have a tendency to immobilize the narrative by the sheer mass of detailed information, to clutter it with blocks of fact, most notably in long accounts of the objects and properties the characters own. This draws attention obtrusively to the amount of undiluted factuality that has not been fictionalized, i.e., artistically shaped into dramatically interesting narrative material.

Secondly and more importantly, the abrupt shifts in locale in the historical material give the impression of history as a sprawling chaotic mass of unconnected facts. Doctorow's point, of course, is that history is plotless, playing its own heedless, incomprehensible music and plotted quite arbitrarily by the historian. But in practice this means that the novel acquires a sense of direction and causality, and indeed any coherence at all, only from the momentum of the fictional plots (of Tateh and Coalhouse Walker). Only then do we sense the presence of a causally related train of events and of mounting crisis, leading to a climax. The novel's underlying postulate, argues Barbara Foley [in her essay "From U.S.A. to Ragtime," in E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, edited by Richard Trenner, 1983], is that "whatever coherence emerges from the represented historical world is attributable to the writer's power as teller of his story, with the result that the process of historical reconstruction itself, rather than what is being represented, comes to the fore." What is implied by Doctorow's choice of form is a rather egotistical and paranoid view of history: that the only coherence history has is to be traced to the writer's superior talents as a storyteller.

Thirdly, there is the matter of characterization. We read of Tateh: "He began to create more and more intricate silhouettes, full-figured with backgrounds… With his scissors he suggested not merely outlines but textures, moods, character, despair." Tateh's brief silhouette-sketches illumine character in the light of background; they reveal personality in terms of the determining, victimizing forces acting upon it, and in this they act as a metaphor for the novelist's own flat, silhouettish, two-dimensional creations—in this case, the types of the Poor Jew and of the entrepreneurial Self-Made Man Tateh turns himself into once he has forsaken his victim-status. Doctorow's figures are essentially passive units impinged upon by social and economic forces, conductors of "the flow of American energy" which Tateh, like other American artists, learns to "point his life along," and the novelist seems to be as much interested in this current of historical energy as in the characters it pulses through. The outcome is that the semifictional cast of Ragtime are at times presented as the puppet-victims of history, jerked around in both comic and tragic ways by overwhelming forces, whether of repressed sexuality or institutionalized racism—Younger Brother by the rampant penis that "whips him about the floor" at the lesbian encounter of Evelyn Nesbitt and Emma Goldman, Coalhouse Walker by the firing squad that jerks his body about the street "in a sequence of attitudes as if it were trying to mop up its own blood."

The aesthetic price paid by Doctorow's historical fiction is that the characters, real or invented, are like historical characters: they are thinly textured creations, seen from the outside, not as intricate, complex individuals. Thus we never know if Younger Brother, in joining the Walker gang, is motivated by a burning passion for justice or simply by thrills and excitement ("I can make bombs"), because we are not admitted to his psychological dilemmas and crises. If we are surprised at the end to find that Walker is really not a revolutionary but just wants his car back, it is because we too have seen him, externally, through the public responses of the media, cinema newsreels, and newspapers features.

It would therefore be fitting that Walker should end his life as a historical character. In fact he does not. His fate is not that of the historical nineteenth-century visionary Hans Kohlhaas, who saw himself as a millenial revolutionary and an avenging agent of the Archangel Michael come to form a new world government. It is, instead, that of the eponymous hero of Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas (1810) about the sixteenth-century horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas (who here becomes "Coalhouse") and his pursuit of justice against the corrupt Junker Wenzel Von Tronka (here, Willie Conklin) over the wrecking of his horses (here, a car). Kleist's Kohlhaas simply wants his horses back but he has to murder, rob, and loot in order to get the injustice redressed and the price, as in Coalhouse Walker's case, is his own execution: the shining new horses are paraded past him as he climbs the scaffold. Society finally pays its debt to him, and he to it, for his crimes. Coalhouse Walker, though he appears to be perceived in historical terms, is really a derived fiction, and he ends as one, paralleling the fiction in which he has his origin. He ends as a character in somebody else's book.

Source: Derek Wright, "Ragtime Revisited: History and Fiction in Doctorow's Novel," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1993, pp. 14-16.

Marshall Bruce Gentry

In the next essay, Gentry interprets Doctorow's symbolic use of the automobile as a way to express individuality, yet still stay within the bounds of societal conventions.

The Model T automobile at the center of E. L. Doctorow's popular novel Ragtime may seem essentially sinister, the product of Henry Ford's assembly-line mentality and of an oppressive myth of American success. Ragtime might then seem the perfect example of a novelistic attack on automobile culture in America. One of Carol Yeh's drawings for the illustrated Bantam edition of Ragtime could be seen as expressing this view: Harry Hou-dini is bound and chained inside automobile tires, from which he will presumably make one of his not-quite-satisfying escapes. The novel's statement that Houdini never damages or unlocks the enchaining materials from which he releases himself could be taken as confirmation that the societal forces embodied in an automobile are unchanged by our temporary escapes. That the society of the ragtime era appeared to value automobiles more highly than people may even make the auto a grotesque symbol of a culture's collective neurosis, especially since the automobiles have names like Pope-Toledo Runabout or Pierce Arrow Opera Coach while human beings are named simply: Mameh and Tateh, Mother and Father, Mother's Younger Brother, the Little Girl and Little Boy.

David Emblidge argues for what is perhaps the most pessimistic reading of Ragtime possible, saying that "Life in the present in Ragtime is a continuous recapitulation of the past." Emblidge sees the novel as presenting us with a fascinating set of illusory indications of change that fails to effect any genuine change in mankind's hopeless condition. In this reading, the automobile and Ford's system of mass production are part of a "double apotheo-sis" (along with J. P. Morgan's theories about order) of the duplicable event. Another critical view of the automobile in Ragtime could be expressed in the terms of one of Father's observations during the final negotiations with Coalhouse Walker Jr.: "The car has no real value." For some readers the multiple significances of the automobile effectively empty it of meaning; in other words, the automobile is merely part of a whirlpool of chaotic, noisy, violent images in which human meaning is lost. For Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Coalhouse Walker's "Model T on whose uniqueness he paradoxically insists is actually a case of duplication so utter that there cannot even be said to be an original"; it seems to follow that Ragtime is "a book with no meaning." In this view the novelist Theodore Dreiser might seem like a human being pushed down to the status of a defective automobile, turning hopelessly "in circles seeking the proper alignment."

In contrast to these views, I would like to suggest that the automobile in Ragtime is crucial to Doctorow's vision of how human individuality and artistic value are created. Even as Doctorow's characters desperately use their autos as "getaway cars" or drive toward the chaos symbolized by water, we discover various ways in which the automobile is more than a toy that capitalism uses to distract and manipulate the masses. In Coalhouse Walker's receipt of a restored Model T, and in the Little Boy's visions of the car as a reflection of himself and of his society, we have definitions of how the self can do more than dissolve into a mass of humanity that makes America seem, as it does to J. P. Morgan at one point, merely part of "an empty universe" full of "horse's asses." Ultimately I think Ragtime says that we, like the Little Boy or Coalhouse, are like automobiles, that we are at least potentially individuals while paradoxically being all alike, and that this novel is itself an automobile. Like Ragtime as novel, we should be at once part of the mass (it was and is a popular novel) and in some sense unduplicable (although many novels mix historical "fact" and fiction fancifully, they also aspire to be original achievements). And when we become aware of how like an automobile we are and how like an automobile a novel is, we can discover more of the individuality of ourselves and of Ragtime.

Another way of stating my point is to say that Ragtime emphasizes the social origin of human individuality and of art. Just as the Model T is a product of a mass of working-class laborers, all the characters in Ragtime, all the readers of the novel, and the novel itself, are presented as products of a mass of contributing forces. But this societal basis to reality does not destroy characters or readers or the novel; it simply shifts the rules by which we discover individualized significance. Even as we learn that Evelyn Nesbit's celebrity is an industrial construction, even as we realize that we readers have been trained to ignore many versions of American history, and even as we struggle with the multiple narrative points of view in the novel, we are given a new, more complex, more valid understanding of human personality, of the reader's role in the production of meaning, of authorship, and perhaps even of the American automobile. Martin Green has accused Doctorow of encouraging "nostalgia" for the early automobile, but I think Doctorow's treatment of the automobile demonstrates a fascinatingly complex understanding of the automobile's meaning.

Some historical background might make it easier to recognize the positive aspects of the automobile in Ragtime. In many ways, American culture has associated the automobile with freedom, and the Model T would be an especially good symbol of human freedom since it was, as Reynold M. Wik points out, "especially designed to travel over difficult terrain." Warren Belasco has even described the period from 1900 to 1920 (roughly the time period covered by Ragtime) as the era of anarchic "gypsying," of the use of automobiles to travel freely around the country without planning and to camp each night without expenses. Belasco concludes that "the automobile industry became the backbone of modern industrial capitalism, yet it was born in a spirit of rebellion against that system." If we recall that only 8,000 automobiles were registered in America in 1900 and that 8,000,000 were registered in 1920 [according to Mark S. Foster in his article "The Automobile and the City," in The Automobile and American Culture, edited by David L. Lewis and Laurence Goldstein, 1983], we might conclude reasonably that the automobile symbolizes an explosion of rebelliousness on the part of Americans….

The automobile in Ragtime often seems to be symbolically opposed to the sea, with the auto suggesting humanity's technological control and the sea suggesting chaos, irrationality, emotion. But in at least two significant instances, the symbols come together in ways that suggest positive qualities for the automobile—when Coalhouse Walker's car enters the Firehouse Pond, and when Mother drives herself, the Little Boy, and Coalhouse Walker III to Prout's Neck, Maine, home of Winslow Homer, who had once painted light associated with chaos:

Homer painted the light. It gave the sea a heavy dull menace and shone coldly on the rocks and shoals of the New England coast. There were unexplained shipwrecks and brave towline rescues. Odd things went on in lighthouses and in shacks nestled in the wild beach plum. Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable.

The early reference to Homer is significant because, during the Atlantic City storm that seems to bring Mother and Tateh together once and for all, she resembles "in her wet form the ample woman in the Winslow Homer painting who is being rescued from the sea by towline." I would suggest that the movement of the car towards water in both the Coalhouse Walker story and the story of the New Rochelle family symbolizes a complex interaction of forces in which the automobile, like the ocean to which it may seem to be opposed, is associated with some of the positive aspects of chaos.

As we turn to the issue of how the automobile provides a model for the achievement of human individuality, it may seem difficult to decide how seriously we are to take Coalhouse Walker Jr. as a heroic figure in what is sometimes considered the one traditional plot line in Ragtime. According to Martin Green, Doctorow's attitude toward Coalhouse Walker and toward Sarah is "uncritically romantic" and therefore flawed. While it may be true that Coalhouse Walker "defends his personal dignity fanatically, refusing to bend at all in the face of money-power and racial prejudice" [according to David S. Gross in his article "Tales of Obscene Power," in E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, edited by Richard Trenner, 1983], it is also true that he has accepted the dominant culture's belief that possessions like a Model T can add to his status and dignity, and when his car is desecrated and pushed into a pond by Willie Conklin and other volunteer firemen, who significantly have not yet made the switch from horses to motors, we may wonder how much Doctorow expects us to want Walker to regain the car. For Leonard and Barbara Quart, it is "a bit absurd" for Coalhouse Walker to be willing "to sacrifice and destroy lives with no larger political end than redeeming his car and gaining personal respect." Barbara L. Estrin makes this issue of Coalhouse Walker's heroism a major part of the novel's point. The story of Coalhouse Walker's occupation of the Morgan Museum "is undermined by the pervading feeling that its outcome was so predictable, its conclusion so forecast by the forces of a society bent on the preservation of the industrial system, that the action comes to nothing." Because of the "system of interchangeable parts" that allows the easy replacement of Coalhouse Walker's car, Walker's death is unnecessary, "his death, like his revolution, a meaningless sacrifice. Nothing was changed by it." All the characters of Ragtime are, according to Estrin, "cogs on the wheels of time," and thus the novel seems to say "that we are all expendable."

I would like to suggest that Coalhouse Walker grows into his individuality, that it is precisely when Mother's Younger Brother is astonished to see Walker equating a mere car with justice that Walker has achieved heroism. It is crucial to the novel that Coalhouse Walker Jr. receives a car that is indeed a duplicate of his original Model T with the Pantasote top and at the same time a different car. Surely the car is more significant in its replacement form because the whole of New York's political establishment is watching it. The remade car is also different from the original in the sense that it is not produced by assembly line: "Fire Chief Conklin … piece by piece dismantled the Ford and made a new Ford from the chassis up." One might wonder whether Doctorow is claiming that this car produced by an individual is in some sense morally superior, or whether Doctorow is arguing for a return to the individual craftsman, and my answer would be yes but also no—it is impossible (following a logic that the novel suggests) to have individual craftsmanship, because Willie Conklin becomes the mass of society, "so ordinary as to be like all men," and, at least while he is building the car, he "become[s] Pierpont Morgan, the most important individual of his time." Even as Coalhouse Walker's demand is met, another Model T comes out of mass production. At the same time, it is worth noting that if a Ford cannot be produced by only one individual, not even Henry Ford can make a Ford by himself. The view that presents the Model T as a product of the entire society frees the automobile from Ford's tyranny to some extent. And there is something of a victory for Coalhouse even as the police equate him with the replaced car, complete with what might be considered the symbolically crucial customizing Pantasote top. He exchanges his life for the car and for the lives of his band of revolutionaries, all in a sense duplicates of Walker who call themselves Coalhouse.

The issues of the establishment of selfhood in a world of mass production are spelled out even more complexly in the story of the narrator, the Little Boy. Ragtime claims, through the Little Boy as narrator, that it is essential that one perceive (and maintain) the differences within apparent duplicates, as well as the similarities in things that seem chaotically dissimilar. Chapter 15 is crucial to an understanding of the Little Boy's fondness both for change, as taught by his grandfather, and for pattern. Not enough has been said critically about the significance for the boy of minor changes within pattern, of the rare occasion when the hairbrush or window does not remain still, of the slight changes that prove "even statues did not remain the same." The Little Boy seems to understand that the slight difference within sameness is the metaphor for his own individuality. Much has been made of the Little Boy's fondness for baseball because, he says, "The same thing happens over and over." According to Barbara L. Estrin, among others, baseball is a prime example of the sameness that rather depressingly underlies the appearance of change. But even here we see some delight in novelty, for as soon as the Little Boy praises the pattern, he is excited by the unusual occurrence of a foul ball that ends up in his hands. The point surely is that the Little Boy can always see both sides, and therein lies his power. Much has been said about the boy's vision of a "macrocephalic image of himself in Houdini's headlight as a sign that the Little Boy is overly subjective, and some readers have been troubled by such a possibility. Barbara Foley criticizes Ragtime for implying that historical meaning as produced by this narrator is "chimerical and at best highly subjective," based on the notion "that whatever coherence emerges from the represented historical world is attributable to the writer's power as teller of his story." The Little Boy's amazing and initially obscure advice for Houdini, that he warn the Archduke Ferdinand of his coming assassination and of WWI, may even seem significant primarily for its pointlessness. In Estrin's interesting reading, the Little Boy's warning in the first chapter is a sort of failed authorial intrusion demonstrating the power of the machine over us all:

With the insight he gains from subsequent experience, the little boy, pre-figuring the storyteller he later becomes, informs the magician. We live our lives in the illusion that we can change things, in the hope that we amount to more than insignificant parts of a vast machine moving inexorably toward doom. The child anticipates, simultaneously as the narrator reconstructs, history…. "Warn the Duke," he says, sounding a command that might alter the course of the novel we are about to read.

Although I do not agree with Barbara Cooper's description of the narrative persona of Ragtime as "anonymous," I agree with her idea that the narrator "transcends the limitations of a single human perspective." I would like to emphasize the idea that the narrator's ability to combine points of view is more nearly the ground of his selfhood than a dilution of it. The narrator is at once a product of his time and an individual exercising some effect upon his time. His visions are not all of the sort that ends the first chapter and that Houdini somewhat pathetically reproduces near the novel's end. More should be made of the fact that the Little Boy's eyes are compared to a "school globe" and of the line in the description of Sarah's funeral that insists emphatically that the boy sees not just himself but the rest of this society: Sarah's hearse "was so highly polished the boy could see in its rear doors a reflection of the entire street." This line suggests that the Little Boy's visions are at once internal and external. Even in the episode in which the Little Boy stares at Houdini's headlight and sees himself, we can find more than an indication that the boy is at once able to predict world events and to be obsessed with his own head. Before he realizes that Houdini's car is approaching, the Little Boy equates the car visually with a fly. He fixes "his gaze on a bluebottle fly traversing the screen in a way that made it appear to be coming up the hill from North Avenue. The fly flew off. An automobile was coming up the hill from North Avenue." Perhaps the fascination with the fly is the result of the fly's possession of multiple eyes, in which case the boy's fascination with the car seems to be related to the automobile's multiplicities. The automobile in this passage suggests the value of multiple perspectives, not just the Little Boy's perspective. The narrator's possession of mystical powers seems far-fetched to some readers, but it does function to combine the options of reading Ragtime as mass-produced and of reading it as the production of an individual author. Although Geoffrey Galt Harpham says that the novel has "no consistent or even possible narrative persona," surely the key to understanding the narrative voice is in noticing, as Harpham himself points out, that the narrator "materializes miraculously at the very end as an older narrator." The point, I believe, is not so much that the Little Boy "will grow up to write the narrative" [as Paul Levine writes in his book E. L. Doctorow, 1985], as that he writes the narrative in order to grow up, that the construction of the novel is the construction of its creator as well, that the Little Boy achieves genuine individuality in duplicating—with a difference—the data produced by the assembly-line of ragtime America. Harpham claims that Mother and Tateh "most conspicuously" enjoy the "fate" of a "happy ending" as they "achieve individuation by mastering the processes of replication." While I accept the direction of Harpham's argument here, it also seems true that achievement and mastery are terms better applied to the Little Boy or Coalhouse than to Mother and Tateh, and Harpham does label the Little Boy the novel's "most successful character."

Angela Hague has argued that the duplicated event is "a way of overcoming—and, paradoxically, exemplifying—the fluidity of reality" and that the Little Boy's "attempt" at "self-duplication … accomplishes the negation of his own distinct personality." When he gazes into a mirror, the Little Boy feels that

there were two selves facing one another, neither of which could claim to be the real one. The sensation was of being disembodied. He was no longer anything exact as a person. He had the dizzying feeling of separating from himself endlessly.

We need not consider this vision of multiplicity any more valid than the opposing sense of selfhood, however. It may be true that for a youngster, a sense of a fluid self is closer to the truth than the understanding such a child might have about wholeness, but it still ought to be possible to believe that the Little Boy as an adult will be able to balance the fluid and static impressions of the self. I think that Hague is absolutely correct in pointing out that motion pictures "both contradict and reinforce" the Little Boy's beliefs about change, but I am inclined to consider Doctorow to be more pleased than displeased about such a state of affairs.

The socialization of authorship involved in seeing a novel as an auto operated by a narrative persona at once himself and everybody is not all that different from what Doctorow [in his essay "False Documents," in E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, 1983] describes as the traditional novelistic device of "gaining authority for the narrative" through the dissociation of the individual author from it. Just as we may have more faith in a car produced by collective effort, we may trust the novel that presents the views of everyone in society, at least by implication. Even Barbara L. Estrin admits that Ragtime presents mass production as nothing new, that "it emerges simply as a different form of what existed long ago." It would seem to follow that the automobile cannot represent a decline in civilization, even in Estrin's reading; that it represents the duplication with a modern wrinkle of the ways in which human beings have always achieved meaning. Ragtime uses the automobile to suggest how we can satisfy our desire for individuality in spite of the societal forces demanding uniformity.

Source: Marshall Bruce Gentry, "Ragtime as Auto Biography," in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 105-112.


David Emblidge, "Progress as Illusion in Doctorow's Novels," Southwest Review, Vol. LXI, Autumn, 1977, pp. 397-409.

Barbara Foley, "From U.S.A. to Ragtime: Notes on the Forms of Historical Consciousness in Modern Fiction," American Literature, no. 50, 1978, pp. 85-105.

David S. Gross, "Tales of Obscene Power, Money and Culture, Modernism and History, in the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow," Genre, no. 13, 1980, pp. 71-92.

Paul Levine, E. L. Doctorow, Methuen, 1985.

John G. Parks, "Compositions of Dissatisfaction: Ragtime," Continuum, 1991.

Bernard F. Rodgers Jr., "A Novelist's Revenge," Chicago Review, Vol. 27, 1976, p. 139.

John Seelye, "Doctorow's Dissertation," The New Republic, Vol. CLXXLI, April 10, 1976, p. 22.

Arthur Seltzman, "The Stylistic Energy of E. L. Doctorow," in E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, edited by Richard Trenner, Ontario Review Press, 1983.

For Further Study

Linda Donn, Freud and Jung: Years of Friendship, Years of Loss, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.

This comprehensive and readable biography gives a good look at two of Ragtime's minor characters, and how the world changed as the years passed.

Paul Levine, E. L Doctorow, Methuen, 1985.

This book, which covers Doctorow's works up to Lives of the Poets, is arranged thematically, with chapters such as "Politics and Imagination," "Fiction and Formulas," "Fiction and Radicalism," and "Fiction and History."

John G. Parks, E. L. Doctorow, Continuum, 1991.

Parks's chapter about Ragtime is good but standard literary criticism. His chapter at the end of the book, "A Multiplicity of Witnesses," offers some real insight into Doctorow's overall style.

Richard Trenner, editor, Essays and Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1983.

The interviews in this collection represent a variety of interests and purposes, while the essays about Doctorow's works that comprise the last half of the book offer insights and in-depth analysis.


views updated May 18 2018


by E. L. Doctorow


A novel set in the early 1900s in New York; published in 1974.


Several unique turns of events link the lives of a wealthy white family, a poor immigrant Jewish family, and an urban black family together with historical characters like Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, and J. P. Morgan.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Although E. L. Doctorow sets his novel in an era that preceded his own by some seventy-five years, many of the issues addressed in Ragtime remain similar to those faced by members of American society in the mid-1970s. The novel focuses on social change based primarily on two early twentieth century movements—progressivism and radicalism. Through historical and fictional characters alike, Doctorow examines America’s reaction to different forms of social evolution.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Progressive movement

The Progressive movement was a campaign for economic, political, and social reform that swept through the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. From its genesis during a nationwide depression in 1893, the Progressive movement’s leaders battled to bring change to American life up until the country’s entry into World War I in 1917. With the rise of industrialization in the late 1800s, the United States found itself susceptible to business monopolies, crowded city slums, poor working conditions, and dishonest politicians. The reformers of the late 1890s and early 1900s sought legislation that would right these wrongs. By 1905 they had termed themselves “Progressives.”

The majority of the reform leaders came from economically secure, well-educated, upper-middle-class backgrounds. A number of them bore famous family surnames such as du Pont, Spreckels (Claus, “the Sugar King,” a German immigrant who had a virtual monopoly on sugar manufacturing and sale on the Pacific Coast of the United States, established during the last half of the nineteenth century), and Dodge. Occupationally, most of the male Progressives were successful lawyers or newspaper executives. The motives of this seemingly successful group had taken root in a shared philosophy. Most Progressives held that the advance of mankind into a more enlightened age would not generate spontaneously from the masses, but that it instead would follow from the efforts of a few educated men. President Woodrow Wilson, one of the many Progressive political voices, maintained that government could only come from an educated elite.

However elitist their views, the Progressives did in fact act as a catalyst for reform. They achieved many improvements in the economic, political, and social arenas. In 1903, for example, Progressives in Los Angeles, California, passed the first recall act, allowing voters to literally fire politicians who were suspected of corruption. And the Progressives helped effect a change in the nation’s taxation by supporting the Sixteenth Amendment. Passed in Congress in 1909, the Amendment authorized Congress to impose a federal tax, changing the system from a property-based code to an income-based code. The hope was that under the new law it would no longer be so easy for wealthy landowners to hide their assets from the government. Throughout the early 1900s, writers such as Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) and Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives) exposed the nation’s social and political ills in books of the era. Doctorow refers to Riis in the opening chapter of Ragtime. Known as muckrakers, these writers took on the responsibility of making the public aware of the need for social reform.

Blacks in America at the turn of the century

The racism faced by the novel’s Coalhouse Walker, and the fight that he mounts against it, mirror the struggle of many black Americans in the early 1900s. At the turn of the century, African Americans numbered just over 8.8 million in a total population of 76 million. Only one generation away from the slavery of the past, these emancipated sons and daughters of the Civil War faced the problematic assimilation into a culture that was at best indifferent to them— or at worst openly hostile. Over 90 percent of the black American population lived in the Southern states, where they found themselves denied most of the rights they had expected to enjoy after slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. This marginalized population, however, did not accept its status without a fight.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the emergence of a variety of civil rights institutions and organizations. Toward the end of the novel, Coal-house meets with Booker T. Washington, “the most famous Negro in the country” (Doctorow, Ragtime, p. 291). Washington, in fact, was one of two prominent black voices for reform. He focused on economic and occupational progress for blacks, founding the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school that taught agricultural, domestic, and mechanical classes to young black pupils. Washington was willing to temporarily tolerate the political inequities visited upon blacks, which brought him criticism from a new black leader of the era—W. E. B. Du Bois.

Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk (also covered in Literature and Its Times) openly faulted Washington for his nonthreatening, conservative approach to racism. In 1905 Du Bois helped organize the black Niagara Movement, whose members insisted on total equality for blacks immediately. Contrary to Washington’s edicts, they would not tolerate, even for the time being, local segregation laws and other such practices. They took legal action to change these practices, supporting blacks who challenged segregation laws in court. In 1909 Du Bois and other Niagara members joined forces with white radicals of the era to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Washington and Du Bois belonged to a small minority of blacks who exercised some authority in society. Meanwhile, most blacks lived disheartening lives in the North as well as the South. Several thousand blacks lived in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Among them were a handful of middle-class blacks—actors, musicians, small businessmen, and clerks. More than 90 percent of the community worked as laborers or servants, filling positions such as porter, waiter, teamster, dressmaker, or janitor. The typical servant or laborer earned from $4 to $6 each back-breaking week, putting in more hours for less money than any other group of wage earners in the city, as reflected by a blues tune of the time: “Now I started at the bottom, and I stays right there, don’t seem like I’m gonna get nowhere” (Osofsky, p. 16). Adding to the dismal picture, the health profile of the city’s black population was terrible. More died than were born each year, mostly of pneumonia and consumption but also due to violence. There was even discussion among scholars that the black race would, in time, be extinguished—a revival of the idea of social Darwinism that had surfaced a few decades earlier, which held that only the fittest survive.

Meanwhile, blacks poured into New York from other areas of the nation. The population of Manhattan soared from 4,000 or fewer blacks in 1890 to include an additional 25,000 blacks by 1910. Most of them settled in what became the midtown area of Manhattan. They did not form an all-black community but rather lived in handfuls of small, thickly populated one- or two-block stretches that extended from Greenwich Village to Harlem and farther north. The population increase would in the next several years lead to Harlem’s becoming the center of black settlement in the city.

As the black population increased, so did racial violence and segregation in the North. Describing a riot that broke out during an August 1900 heat wave in New York, one journalist reported that its blacks “were set upon wherever they could be found and brutally beaten”; another observer reported in a Harper’s Weekly issue of the time hearing New Yorkers say that they would have felt glad if many of the city’s blacks had been killed during the riot (Osofsky, p. 48). The actual extent of the damage and loss of life remains unknown.

Emma Goldman and American radicalism

In this era of change and insistence on reform, it is little wonder that personalities such as Emma Goldman stepped into the American spotlight. Goldman became a prominent voice for reform, and Doctorow refers to her whenever the plot of his novel turns to rebellious movements of the era.

Born to Lithuanian Jewish parents in 1869, Goldman came to the United States in the spring of 1886. She was part of a huge wave of post-1880 immigrants who arrived in the United States from southern and eastern Europe. Their numbers increased as the turn of the twentieth century approached, and 8.8 million of them immigrated from 1900 to 1910, many landing first in New York. At the time, incidents of urban unrest were on the rise. New Yorkers, like residents of other cities in America, blamed the immigrants for the crime, prostitution, poverty, political corruption, and labor disputes that surfaced in the area.

In New York’s Lower East Side, where Goldman lived, immigrant communities sometimes held a distinctively European leftist or socialist view of politics. Based upon the teachings of the German philosopher Karl Marx, socialists saw the world as divided into two basic parts: the capitalists who owned the production facilities, and the proletariat, or workers, who earned wages by operating these facilities. Ideally the socialists sought a means of production and distribution of wealth that would prove more egalitarian than existing systems. Unlike the Progressive politicians, socialists felt that such change would arise from the masses. The more aggressive pursuers of socialism referred to themselves as anarchists—advocating the abolition of all government. In the novel, Mother’s Younger Brother represents this extreme.


The epigraph to the novel, a quote from the African American composer Scott Joplin reads, “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast” (Ragtime, epigraph). The “piece” referred to is Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, a popular piano tune released in 1899. For many African American homes, the piano represented the dichotomy of black society. As a central piece of furniture, the musical instrument denoted both the upward social mobility of the black family and the simultaneous reality of urban life. Many black piano owners, like Coal house Walker, rented out their talents and instruments for accompaniment at parties or get-togethers. The ragtime music itself also conveyed the tensions of black life, “tensions between industrial rhythms and spontaneous, unpredictable emotional response, captured respectively in the steady beat of the left hand and the syncopated melodies of the right” (Curtis, p. 104).

Originally Goldman’s efforts focused on labor problems. A novice at anarchist theory and public speaking, she nonetheless led rallies for workers’ demands such as an eight-hour workday. In 1892 a strike at the Carnegie Steel Company brought Goldman and her companion, Alexander Berkman, to the town of Homestead, Pennsylvania. There they unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate the plant president, Henry Frick. In the novel, Goldman tells Mother’s Younger Brother about this very incident. Eventually he joins forces with Goldman and her counterparts. In Ragtime, as in real life, Goldman became involved with the Mexican Revolution toward the end of her career. When Mother’s Younger Brother flees the United States, it is to join these rebels in Central America.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Doctorow’s novel combines three unique American families with a cast of historical figures ranging from J. P. Morgan to Harry Houdini to Emma Goldman. Although the novel sets up seemingly separate stories for all these people, its ending fuses all of these turn-of-the-century American lives into one grand finale.

Doctorow initially introduces his reader to an upper-middle-class white family from New Rochelle, New York. With such nondescript names as Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, and the Boy, the characters could well be derived from any middle-class American home. Father earns his considerable wealth through his patriotic fireworks and flag business. Although he and Mother’s Younger Brother participate together in the venture, clearly Father runs both the business and the family. In its sheltered way, the family maintains a tranquil lifestyle, but its members lack any sort of warmth or loving connection. Mother’s Younger Brother feels this emotional void. Through his unrequited love for Evelyn Nesbit, wife of the railway tycoon Harry K. Thaw, he pursues a life separated from the one he maintains with his sister’s family. Mother’s Younger Brother ventures out into the streets of the “real” New York, following Evelyn to the most unlikely stomping grounds for a young socialite. During a short-lived affair with Evelyn, he becomes entangled with the anarchist movement led by Emma Goldman. While he does not assume a leading role in her political efforts, Mother’s Younger Brother does become cognizant of the less fortunate members of American society.

Doctorow juxtaposes this family’s material wealth and emotional dearth with the situation in an immigrant family of the era. Two impoverished immigrant Jews, Tateh and his little Girl, lead lives vastly different from those of the upper-middle-class white family introduced before them. They have only each other in the foreign land, but their mutual attachment and affection gives them hope for survival amidst the squalor of New York’s tenements. One afternoon, disgusted with the filth to which he and his daughter are subjected, Tateh boards a train with the little Girl and heads north to Lawrence, Massachusetts. While the factory work he manages to get there does not improve his salary or standard of living, Tateh serendipitously discovers fortune. In an effort to entertain his young daughter on a tight budget, he had created a small book with pages that could be flipped rapidly to feature a twirling ice skater. He sells the book to a novelty company, and thus enters the entertainment industry.

Meanwhile, another set of characters is introduced into the wealthy New Rochelle family’s life. While gardening one day, Mother hears the muffled cries of a newborn baby. She realizes that the cries come from the earth at her feet. Digging frantically, she uncovers a tiny black child that had been buried alive. Since Father is out of town, she makes her own decision to keep the child. In a short while the police turn up with the mother of the baby. While they wish to prosecute the young black girl, Sarah, for attempted murder, Mother instead offers to act as guardian to the both of them. When Father returns, his initial shock and anger give way to a passive acceptance of the newcomers. Within weeks, the father of the child appears at the home. A well-dressed, articulate black man, Coalhouse Walker charms the entire family. An aspiring jazz pianist, he hopes to earn enough money to take responsibility for his girlfriend and the child. Soon the entire family becomes caught up in the happy fervor of wedding preparations for the couple. Unfortunately, the cheery atmosphere does not last.

While returning to Harlem one evening in his custom-built Model T, Coalhouse is stopped by a group of volunteer firefighters in New Rochelle. They vandalize and steal his car, and threaten him with racial taunts. Afterward, Coalhouse pursues legal avenues of retribution. Both the police and private lawyers laugh at the notion of a black man winning any kind of compensation from the group of white men. This only intensifies Coalhouse’s determination. In an effort to help her financé, Sarah approaches the Vice President of the United States during one of his campaign stops. Mistaking her for an assassin, the secret police fatally hit Sarah. Coalhouse’s pursuit of justice turns violent after her death. He leads a small gang of black youths on a bombing campaign, refusing to stop the violence unless his car is returned and restored to its original condition.

In order to escape the scandal and tension, the white family leaves for the summer, going to the New Jersey shores of Atlantic City. There they make the acquaintance of Tateh and the little Girl. Now a wealthy movie producer, Tateh has vastly improved life for himself and his daughter. The two families spend the summer together as the closest of friends, then return to their separate lives.

Back at home, Father learns that Coalhouse and his men have invaded the library of millionaire banker J. P. Morgan. In a more shocking revelation, he also learns that Mother’s Younger Brother has joined forces with Coal-house’s gang. Acting as an intermediary, Father orchestrates the return and repair of Coalhouse’s car. In exchange, Coalhouse surrenders his life to the authorities. His followers, including Mother’s Younger Brother, disappear.

The event changes the dynamics of the family. Father becomes more involved in his business, while Mother emotionally retreats from her husband. Eventually Father dies, and Mother accepts a marriage proposal from Tateh. It seems that only in the free spirited era of American ragtime could such unlikely friends find their way into each other’s lives.

The novelist as historian

A somewhat minor scene in the novel follows the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud throughout his first tour of New York City. Along with his protégé, Carl Jung, Freud visits such landmark sites as Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum, and New York’s Chinatown. Despite his whirlwind vacation, the doctor remains unimpressed with America. For the Austrian psychologist, “what oppressed him about the New World was its noise” (Ragtime, p. 39). In fact, “the entire population seemed to him over-powered, brash and rude” (Ragtime, p. 41). History books, in fact, record a satisfying visit to America made by Freud in 1909. While Doctorow focuses on the famous psychologist’s distaste for the United States, Freud actually entertained the notion of immigrating to America when anti-Semitic sentiment began rising in his homeland. Situations like the one described have given rise to great debate concerning the relationship between history and Doctorow’s work. While some critics laud the author’s ability to turn history into fiction, others contend that Ragtime “falsifies history. Freud, Jung, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Pierpont Morgan, Stanford White and Harry Houdini simply did not perpetrate the grotesqueries they are made to commit in its pages” (Levy in Harte and Riley, p. 111).

Doctorow answers his critics with an essay entitled “False Documents.” He begins with the assertion that “the regime of facts is not from God but man-made, and, as such, infinitely violable” (Doctorow in Trenner, p. 17). He refuses to distinguish between the novelist as a storyteller and the novelist as a historian. He points to other writers, such as Daniel Defoe with his novel Robinson Crusoe, who stretch the limits of fact into their own fictitious versions of historical truth. Ultimately Doctorow concludes, “I am thus led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative” (Doctorow in Trenner, p. 26).


For sources, Doctorow had to look no further than the pages of American history. As noted, the novel achieves its acclaim through its fusing of the fictional and the historical. Although the author does toy with history in the pages of Ragtime, his work is rife with historical allusion. Some, but certainly not all, of Doctorow’s references were in fact actual events:

  • Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidency (p. 3) 1901-1909
  • Popularity of Winslow Homer’s art (p. 4) 1880s-1890s
  • Career of Harry Houdini (p. 9) 1891-1920s
  • Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (p. 27) 1900
  • Sigmund Freud’s career (p. 38) 1890s-1939
  • Emma Goldman’s leftist campaign (p. 55) 1892-1939
  • Robert Edwin Peary’s discovery of North Pole April 6, 1909 (p. 85)
  • William Taft’s presidency (p. 86) 1909-1913
  • J. P. Morgan’s banking success (p. 86) 1871-1901
  • Wright Brothers fly first airplane (p. 107) Dec. 17, 1903
  • Industrial Workers of the World strike in Lawrence, Mass. (p. 125) 1912
  • Henry Ford opens automotive company (p. 144) 1903
  • Emiliano Zapata leads Mexican Revolution (p. 173) 1901-1917
  • Scott Joplin composes “Maple Leaf Rag” (p. 190) 1899
  • Baseball plays its first World Series (p. 234) 1901
  • Booker T. Washington becomes black educator (p. 290) 1881-1915
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand I is assassinated, instigating World War I (p. 327) June 28, 1914

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

From the turbulent 1960s to the 1970s

From its inception following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson’s presidency witnessed repeated social unrest. During his term as the thirty-sixth President of the United States (1963-69), Johnson oversaw a nation struggling with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. In an effort to stabilize the nation, Johnson led a domestic crusade termed the “Great Society” program. His administration fought for social change on three basic fronts—poverty, civil rights, and education. Because of its idealistic reform nature, the Great Society has invited comparison by some historians to the Progressive movement of the early 1900s.

The President’s most well-known successes came from his “War on Poverty.” Economically, the United States of the 1960s experienced a rise in prosperity. In keeping with this rise, both federal and local governments expanded their spending for social programs like aid to families with dependent children, welfare, and veterans’ payments. It was the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) that waged the most visible battles in Johnson’s War on Poverty. The OEO encompassed a variety of programs, ranging from community action to neighborhood service to legal services, each aiming to improve the quality of life for America’s urban and rural poor. During this era, many Americans did see improvement in education, poverty, and civil rights, but at great cost. The government spent billions of additional dollars without raising taxes, which helped create problems in the nation’s economy that translated on a personal level into people being unable to purchase as much with a dollar as in the past.

The 1960s also saw a return of the urban violence reminiscent of the early 1900s, with civil disturbances breaking out in several American cities over the two burning issues of the era, civil rights and the Vietnam War. Race riots erupted in New York City in 1964, and Columbia University students staged a demonstration in 1968 that turned violent, with the police pitted against the students. “The construction workers who roamed lower Manhattan,” claims one historian of the period, “beating up long-haired youths were expressing the feelings of innumerable fellow citizens” (Bailyn, p. 837). The target group was different now than it had been in New York’s 1900 riot. This time the target was the rebel student, not the average black, but the sentiment smacked of the general rage characteristic of the turn-of-the-century riots. Racial hostility resurfaced in the first half of the 1970s because of court rulings that enforced the busing of students from one part of the city to another to achieve integration. One of the most violent incidents occurred in Boston in 1974, the year Ragtime appeared, with whites hurling stones at buses transporting black students.

Radical civil rights

Doctorow’s novel offers a portrait of a young black man driven to extremist measures by the injustices he suffers. During the late 1960s, one faction of the civil rights movement moved closer toward this extremist nature under the leadership of Malcolm X.

Like many urban black youths, Malcolm Little had worked several menial jobs in the black communities of New York and Boston. He soon moved into drug dealing and a life of full-time crime as the leader of a burglary ring. Arrested in 1946, Malcolm converted during his six-year prison term for armed robbery to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. He emerged reborn as Malcolm X, later becoming a minister of the Black Muslims.

The Black Muslims espoused a separatist doctrine and a belief in racial segregation from whites. Only through such extremes, they believed, would the black community survive. Like the novel’s Coalhouse Walker, Black Muslims advocated businesslike attire and articulate speech for their members. Also similar to Coalhouse, the Nation of Islam found that “nonviolence was suicide, and the acceptance of suffering masochistic folly” (Hampton and Fayer, p. 243). Although Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, his message had by then found a large following, increased by the publication that year of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored with Alex Haley, later of Roots fame.

Adopting a similar idea of self-empowerment, the Black Power philosophy emerged during the late 1960s. While Stokely Carmichael, the man who coined the phrase, denied any racial separatism in his ideology, he did profess a belief in self-help that would give black Americans the chance to live with dignity in a multiracial society. He and his followers argued that blacks needed to develop an organized economic and political base from which to assess the needs of their own community. These self-empowerment philosophies differed from the original civil rights movement, whose goals were equality and integration.

Reception of the novel

Ragtime proved a huge professional success for Doctorow. The paperback rights to the novel garnered for the author the largest sum in paperback publishing for its time. Not all critics applauded the format of the book, however. While some found it to be “as exhilarating as a deep breath of pure oxygen” (Clemons in Riley and Mendelson, p. 133), others disagreed with its mixture of history and fiction. But the disgruntled critics remained a minority. Most reviewers lauded Doctorow’s original prose style and interwoven story lines.

For More Information

Bailyn, Bernard. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1992.

Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1974.

Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer. Voices of Freedom. New York: Bantam, 1990.

Harte, Barbara, and Carolyn Riley, eds. Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 33. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.

Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963.

Riley, Carolyn, and Phyllis Carmichael Mendelson, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.

Trenner, Richard, ed. E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1983.


views updated Jun 11 2018


RAGTIME dominated American popular music style from the mid-1890s to about 1920. The word "ragtime" seems to have evolved from a compound term, "rag time" or "ragged time," describing the syncopated and percussive nature of the music. Ragtime's 1970s revival, boosted by the popularity of George Roy Hill's film The Sting (1973), whose soundtrack featured some of the most poignant and evocative of Scott Joplin's piano rags, put the piano at the center of popular perceptions of ragtime. Consequently, even some music historians have mistakenly privileged ragtime piano in assessing the genre. In fact, as Edward A. Berlin has argued, ragtime songs like "Mister Johnson Turn Me Loose" and "Under the Bamboo Tree" would probably have been cited by contemporaries as the most important ragtime compositions.

Ragtime's popularity crossed races, opening the way for the later appeal of blues and jazz and the prominence of African Americans as composers and performers of American popular music. Though black musicians and composers largely created ragtime, in its earlier years rag-time included songs with racially derogatory lyrics: "coon songs," in the terminology of the era used by both whites and blacks. Ironic and painful, this phenomenon also typifies the Jim Crow racial hierarchy of the new century.

Despite pockets of largely white resistance based on its identification with "Negro" music and its exciting rhythms, ragtime was adopted by both white and black Tin Pan Alley songwriters and classical composers, so that its distinctive sound has become a kind of shorthand for turn-of-the-century culture and society, first in the United States and then in Europe. Ragtime found a home in nightclubs, marching bands, bourgeois parlors, and concert halls. It helped elevate both the piano and the banjo as popular instruments. Among prominent ragtime composers, arrangers, and popularizers are Scott Joplin, James Scott, James Reese Europe, John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Jelly Roll Morton.


Badger, Reid. A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Berlin, Edward A. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Hasse, John Edward. Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music. New York: Schirmer, 1985.


See alsoMinstrel Shows ; Music: Popular .


views updated May 18 2018

Ragtime ★★★ 1981 (PG)

The lives and passions of a middle class family weave into the scandals and events of 1906 America. A small, unthinking act represents all the racist attacks on one man, who refuses to back down this time. Wonderful period detail. From the E.L. Doctorow novel, but not nearly as complex. Features Cagney's last film performance. 156m/C VHS, DVD . Howard E. Rollins Jr., Kenneth McMillan, Brad Dourif, Mary Steenburgen, James Olson, Elizabeth McGovern, Pat O'Brien, James Cagney, Debbie Allen, Jeff Daniels, Moses Gunn, Donald O'Connor, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Jeffrey DeMunn, Robert Joy, Fran Drescher, Frankie Faison, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Jeter, John Ratzenberger; D: Milos Forman; W: Michael Weller; C: Miroslav Ondricek; M: Randy Newman.


views updated May 23 2018

ragtime. Early type of jazz, particularly for solo pf., and comp. rather than improvised. Famous exponent and composer of it was Scott Joplin. Popular from c.1895–1920, when other forms of jazz took over, but it had a revival in 1970s, when Joplin's mus. was used for the film The Sting. Stravinsky comp. Ragtime for 11 instr. (1918) and Piano-Rag Music (1919). A Rag is a ragtime comp. To rag is to play in ragtime.


views updated Jun 08 2018

rag·time / ˈragˌtīm/ • n. music characterized by a syncopated melodic line and regularly accented accompaniment, evolved by black American musicians in the 1890s and played esp. on the piano.


views updated Jun 27 2018

ragtime music characterized by a syncopated melodic line and regularly accented accompaniment, evolved by black American musicians in the 1890s and played especially on the piano; it is now seen as the immediate precursor of jazz.