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 1902 until 1912, with brief scenes towards the end describing 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," "Grandfather," and "the boy," Father and Mother's young son, who perhaps narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult reminiscing about the people and events of his childhood (the narrator is never identified as the boy, and could be, in fact, the adult child of Coalhouse Walker). 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 the first expedition to the North Pole, and his return sees a change in the sexual politics of his relationship with his wife, who has experienced a taste of independence in his absence. 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 through the city and eventually embarking on a brief, unsatisfactory affair with her that leaves him even more isolated.

Into this insecure setup comes first 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 badly tuned 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 single-minded pursuit of legal action but discovers he has no case due to the prejudices 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 come to refer to themselves as 'Coalhouse Walker', Coalhouse continues his vigilante campaign, and is eventually joined by Younger Brother, who brings with him his knowledge of explosives. Coalhouse and his gang storm the Morgan Library, taking the priceless collection within hostage and wiring the building with dynamite. Father is drawn into the escalating conflict as a mediator, as is Booker T. Washington. Coalhouse eventually 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 the Eastern European socialist immigrant Tateh, who struggles to support himself and his daughter after driving her mother off for accepting money for sex from her employer. The girl's beauty attracts the attention of Evelyn Nesbit, who provides financial support. When Tateh learns her identity, however, it drives him 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 (though he still describes himself in the final chapter as a socialist). He later 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. He meets, and falls in love with Mother, who eventually 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 JP Morgan, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Siegmund Freud and Emma Goldman.

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 by Kleist. The connection was acknowledged by Doctorow,[2] but it is a matter of opinion among critics whether this constitutes literary adaptation or plagiarism.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

Film and theatrical adaptations[edit]

The novel has been adapted for a 1981 movie and a 1998 musical.

Further reading[edit]

  • Morris, Christopher D. (1991). Models of misrepresentation: on the fiction of E.L. Doctorow. University of Mississippi Press. See chapter 5, Analysis of ambiguous narrative voice and issues of demystification 


  1. ^ All Time 100 Novels, Time, Oct 16, 2005 
  2. ^ 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 
  3. ^ "Hey! Grandpa Was Right-Doctorow Stole Ragtime". Observer. March 1998. 
  4. ^ "E. L. Doctorow Biography". Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2007. 
  5. ^ Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism. Duke University Press. pp. 21–25.