Ragtime (novel)

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This article is about the 1975 novel. For other uses, see Ragtime (disambiguation).
1st edition cover
Author E. L. Doctorow
Translator none
Cover artist unknown
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical novel
Publisher Random House
Publication date
Media type Print Hardcover & Paperback
Pages 270 pp
ISBN 0-394-46901-1
OCLC 1273581
LC Class PZ4.D6413 Rag PS3554.O3

Ragtime is a novel by E. L. Doctorow, published in 1975. This work of historical fiction is mainly set in the New York City area from about 1900 until the United States entry into World War I in 1917. A unique adaptation of the historical narrative genre with a subversive 1970's slant, the novel blends fictional and historical figures into a framework that revolves around events, characters and ideas important in American history.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ragtime number 86 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel centers on a wealthy family living in New Rochelle, New York, simply named "Father," "Mother," "Mother's Younger Brother," and "Grandfather." Their young son, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult reminiscing about the people and events of his childhood, is not named at all. The family business is the manufacture of flags and fireworks, evidently an easy source of wealth due to the national enthusiasm for patriotic displays. Father joins the first expedition to the North Pole, and his return sees a change in the sexual politics of his relationship with his wife. Younger Brother is an insecure, unhappy character who chases after love and excitement.

Into this secure setup comes first an abandoned black child, then his severely depressed mother Sarah. Coalhouse Walker, apparently the child's father, visits regularly to win Sarah's affections. A professional musician, well dressed and well spoken, he gains the family's respect and overcomes their prejudice initially by playing ragtime music on their badly tuned piano. Things go well until he is humiliated by a racist fire crew who object to him as a black person of means and damage his Model T Ford. Sarah dies, and Coalhouse demands restitution for her life and his Model T Ford. After exhausting all official channels of complaint, Coalhouse eventually resorts to violence to force the city to meet his demands; that the fire crew chief be turned over to him and his Model T restored to its original condition. Mother unofficially adopts Sarah and Coalhouse's neglected child. With a group of angry young men, all of whom come to refer to themselves as 'Coalhouse Walker', the original Coalhouse Walker occupies the library of JP Morgan, threatening to blow it up, and is joined there by Younger Brother, who makes bombs for the group. Father is drawn into the escalating conflict as a mediator.

In the slums of New York city, the Eastern European socialist immigrant Tateh struggles to support himself and his daughter, little girl, after driving her mother off for accepting money for sex from her employer. The girl's beauty attracts the attention of notorious socialite Evelyn Nesbit, who provides support but ultimately drives Tateh to take his daughter out of the city. Tateh is a talented artist, and earns a living cutting out novelty paper silhouettes on the street, later working in a factory. After a successful factory workers' strike changes little about the workers' lives, he becomes disillusioned and moves away from his socialist roots to become an entrepreneur. He makes and sells moving picture books to a novelty toy company, progressing into a pioneer animation in the moving picture industry. Tateh subsequently becomes wealthy and styles himself as 'the baron', in order to move more easily through high society.

Historical figures[edit]

The novel is unusual for the irreverent way that historical figures and fictional characters are woven into the narrative, making for surprising connections and linking different events and trains of thought about fame and success, on the one hand, and poverty and racism on the other. Harry Houdini plays a prominent yet incidental part, reflecting on success and mortality. Arch-capitalist financier J.P. Morgan, pursuing his complex delusions of grandeur, is delivered a plainly spoken comeuppance from down-to-earth Henry Ford. Socialite Evelyn Nesbit becomes involved with the slum family and is aided by the anarchist agitator Emma Goldman. The black moderate politician Booker T. Washington tries to negotiate with Coalhouse Walker, without success.

Other historical characters mentioned include the polar explorer Robert Peary and his black assistant Matthew Henson, the architect Stanford White, Nesbit's mentally unbalanced husband Harry Kendall Thaw who murdered White for allegedly having an affair with Nesbit when she was 15, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Countess Sophie Chotek, Sigmund Freud, who rides the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island with Carl Jung, Theodore Dreiser, Jacob Riis and the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Several real-life New York City officials also appear in the book - Manhattan District Attorney Charles S. Whitman and Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.


The name Coalhouse Walker is a reference to the German novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, published in 1811. The part of the story involving Coalhouse's humiliation, and his increasingly unbalanced search for a dignified resolution, closely follow the plot and details of the earlier work[which?]. The connection was acknowledged by Doctorow, but it is a matter of opinion among critics whether this constitutes literary adaptation or plagiarism.[2]

Literary significance[edit]

The novel was a nominee for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1975 and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1976.[3]

Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism devotes five pages to Doctorow's Ragtime to illustrate the crisis of historiography and a resistance to interpretation.[4]

Film and theatrical adaptations[edit]

It has been adapted for a 1981 movie and a 1998 musical.


  1. ^ Magazine's All-TIME 100 Novels
  2. ^ http://observer.com/1998/03/hey-grandpa-was-rightdoctorow-stole-ragtime/
  3. ^ http://www.notablebiographies.com/newsmakers2/2007-Co-Lh/Doctorow-E-L.html
  4. ^ Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism / Fredric Jameson. Duke University Press, c1991. – p21-25

Further reading[edit]

  • Models of misrepresentation: on the fiction of E.L. Doctorow / Christopher D. Morris. Uni of Mississippi Press, 1991' – Chapter 5. Analysis of ambiguous narrative voice and issues of demystification.