Ragtime (novel)

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First edition
AuthorE. L. Doctorow
Cover artistPaul Bacon
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Media typehardcover and paperback
Pages270 pp
LC ClassPZ4.D6413 Rag PS3554.O3

Ragtime is a novel by E. L. Doctorow, published in 1975.[1] It is a work of historical fiction mainly set in the New York City area from 1902 until 1912.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ragtime number 86 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. TIME included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The novel centers on a wealthy family living in New Rochelle, New York, referred to as Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, and 'the little boy', Father and Mother's young son. The family business is the manufacture of flags and fireworks, an easy source of wealth due to the national enthusiasm for patriotic displays. Father joins Robert Peary's expedition to the North Pole, and his return sees a change in his relationship with his wife, who has experienced independence in his absence. Mother's Younger Brother is a genius at explosives and fireworks but is an insecure, unhappy character who chases after love and excitement. He becomes obsessed with the notorious socialite Evelyn Nesbit, stalking her and embarking on a brief, unsatisfactory affair with her.

Into this insecure setup comes an abandoned black child, then his severely depressed mother, Sarah. Coalhouse Walker, 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 piano. Things go well until he is humiliated by a racist fire crew, led by Will Conklin, who vandalize his Model T Ford. He begins a pursuit of redress by legal action but discovers he cannot hope to win because of the inherent prejudice of the system. Sarah is killed in an attempt to aid him, and Coalhouse uses the money he was saving for their wedding to pay for an extravagant funeral.

Having exhausted legal resources, Coalhouse begins killing firemen and bombing firehouses to force the city to meet his demands: that his Model T be restored to its original condition and Conklin be turned over to him for justice. Mother unofficially adopts Sarah and Coalhouse's neglected child over Father's objections, putting strain on their marriage. With a group of angry young men, all of whom refer to themselves as "Coalhouse Walker", Coalhouse continues his vigilante campaign and is joined by Younger Brother, who brings his knowledge of explosives. Coalhouse and his gang storm the Morgan Library, taking the priceless collection hostage and wiring the building with dynamite. Father is drawn into the escalating conflict as a mediator, as is Booker T. Washington. Coalhouse agrees to exchange Conklin's life for safe passage for his men, who leave in his restored Model T. Coalhouse is then shot as he surrenders to the authorities.

Interwoven with this story is a depiction of life in the tenement slums of New York city, focused on an Eastern European immigrant referred to as Tateh, who struggles to support himself and his daughter after driving her mother off for accepting money for sex with her employer. The girl's beauty attracts the attention of Evelyn Nesbit, who provides financial support. When Tateh learns Nesbit's identity, however, he takes his daughter out of the city.

Tateh is a talented artist and earns a living cutting out novelty paper silhouettes on the street. He tries working in a factory, where he experiences a successful workers' strike, but becomes disillusioned when he sees it change little about the workers' lives, although in the final chapter he still describes himself as a socialist. He starts making and selling moving picture books to a novelty toy company, becoming a pioneer of animation in the motion picture industry. Tateh becomes wealthy and styles himself "the Baron" in order to move more easily through high society. He meets and falls in love with Mother, who marries him after Father is killed in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. They adopt each other's children, as well as Coalhouse's son, and move to California.

Mixed into the interwoven stories are subplots following prominent figures of the day, including those named above as well as in the Historical figures section below.

Historical figures[edit]

Stanford White
Evelyn Nesbit
Harry Kendall Thaw
Stanford White (first), Evelyn Nesbit (second) and Harry Thaw (third)

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. One such figure is the black moderate politician Booker T. Washington, who tries to negotiate with Coalhouse Walker without success.

Harry Houdini plays an incidental yet prominent part, reflecting on success and mortality. As his success grows, he becomes increasingly depressed and believes his work is ultimately meaningless. After his mother's death, he becomes obsessed with exposing fraudulent occultism, while secretly longing to find a true mystic experience.

Arch-capitalist financier J. P. Morgan, pursuing his complex delusions of grandeur, becomes obsessed with reincarnation and Egyptian mysticism, and finds an unexpected kindred spirit in the down-to-earth Henry Ford. Traveling to Egypt hoping for a vision of his grand destiny, Morgan only dreams of a past life as an ordinary peddler.

Socialite Evelyn Nesbit, desperate to escape the press, becomes involved with Tateh and takes it on herself to care for his daughter. On meeting the anarchist agitator Emma Goldman her identity is exposed and Tateh leaves her. Emma gives Evelyn comfort and guidance on how to free herself from the domination of men. Later, Younger Brother encounters Goldman, who advises him to move beyond his obsession with Evelyn.

Other historical characters mentioned include

Two 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 Heinrich von Kleist's German novella Michael Kohlhaas (1811). The part of the story involving Coalhouse's humiliation and his increasingly desperate search for a dignified resolution closely follow the plot and details of the earlier work by Kleist. The connection was acknowledged by Doctorow,[3] but it is a matter of opinion among critics whether this constitutes literary adaptation or plagiarism.[4]

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.[5]

Fredric Jameson's 1991 book 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.[6]

Film and theatrical adaptations[edit]

The novel was adapted for an eponymous 1981 movie and 1998 musical.

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Stade, George. "Ragtime". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 July 2020.
  2. ^ "All Time 100 Novels". Time. October 16, 2005.
  3. ^ Doctorow, E. L.; Morris, Christopher D. (1999). Conversations with E.L. Doctorow. University Press of Mississippi. p. 124. Doctorow called Ragtime "a quite deliberate hommage" to Kleist's story
  4. ^ "Hey! Grandpa Was Right-Doctorow Stole Ragtime". Observer. March 1998.
  5. ^ "E. L. Doctorow Biography". Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2007.
  6. ^ Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. Duke University Press. pp. 21–25.