“Ragtime” is a 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow set in turn-of-the-century New York. The novel is famous for its narrative as well as its use of real-life historical figures in fictional situations. It was ranked among TIME Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language novels from 1923 to 2005 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The narrative revolves around an upper middle class family living in New Rochelle, New York. The family are only ever identified as Father, Mother and The Little Boy. The family go through the upheaval of finding an abandoned baby, labor strikes, race relations in the early 1900’s and the parents separation all with the occasional cameos by famous real-life figures like Harry Houdini, JP Morgan and Henry Ford.
The novel was adapted into a movie in 1981 starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. The film went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards. It was also turned into a musical in 1998.
In the year 1902 in the town of New Rochelle, New York, a family, whom the narrator identifies only as Father, Mother and The Little Boy live an upper-class lifestyle. Father is wealthy, having made his fortune selling flags, fireworks and other “accouterments of patriotism.” The Little Boy develops a fascination with the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini and is amazed one day when the man himself arrives at the house, his car having broken down outside. Father speaks to him, and he soon leaves. The Little Boy watches him ride away.
A news story about a murder over the love of a famous beauty named Evelyn Nesbit splashes all over the papers. Mother’s Younger Brother, who is only referred to as such, falls in love with Evelyn. Father is preparing for a trip to the Arctic on a ship called the Roosevelt. After he embarks his boat passes a boat full of immigrants and Father feels despair while looking at their drawn faces.
The narrator talks about the immigrants who arrive in New York City and how older immigrants look down on them. An immigrant family, Mameh, Tateh and The Little Girl are described. Mameh and The Little Girl make money by sewing and Tateh is a peddler. Evelyn Nesbit was the motive for a crime committed by her husband, Harry K. Thaw. Harry killed another man named Stanford White and is now in prison and awaiting trial. Evelyn feels that he has a slim chance of convincing a jury of temporary insanity.
Harry is treated well at the Tombs, or the jail that he is being held at, despite the violent nature of his crime. Harry Houdini is also at the Tombs, having challenged the warden of the jail that he could escape one of the cells. He does escape the cell and manages to bump into Harry, only later realizing that this is the man who killed Stanford White.
The narrator also talks about Sigmund Freud’s first visit to America and how he dislikes the level of noise and the busy atmosphere. Returning to Vienna, he concludes that America is a “gigantic mistake.” The narrator also talks about the horrible conditions of child labor and of African Americans at the time.
Evelyn visits her husband in the Tombs and then drives around the city, surprised that she is not being followed by paparazzi. She sees a young girl attached by a clothes line to the wrist of an old man. Outraged, Evelyn asks why the girl is on a leash. She is told that many young children are kidnapped and sold into slavery. The old man tells her that the girls mother was forced to become a prostitute to earn money for the family and the old man, who is the girl’s father, disowned the woman.
The man is Tateh and he is only 32 years old, but appears much older because his hair has gone prematurely white. Tateh is a painter and offers to paint a silhouette of Evelyn. Evelyn begins visiting the man to get more paintings as she befriends them. The press accuse her of having affairs but she does not care. One day, Evelyn visits Tateh’s tenement home and discovers that The Little Girl is sick. She offers to take care of the girl while Tateh goes to work. Evelyn has grown so infatuated with the girl that she considers kidnapping her before rejecting the idea. Mother’s Younger Brother, who is still obsessed with Evelyn, begins following her.
Tateh is also the president of the Socialist Artist’s Alliance. He brings Evelyn to a meeting of the Alliance, the speaker recognizes Evelyn and uses her in a speech about using her sexuality to become famous in a capitalist world. Tateh glares at Evelyn and then leaves her. The speaker, Emma Goldman ends up bringing Evelyn home and criticizes her behavior while helping her undress. Mother’s Younger Brother reveals that he has broken into Evelyn’s apartment by bursting out of a closet naked.
Back in New Rochelle, Mother discovers a baby buried in the garden, still alive. She saves the baby and calls the police. The family discovers that a black washerwoman has discarded the baby and Mother takes both the mother and the baby into her house. Father, who is still in the Arctic, writes everyday. He is with an explorer named Peary and his assistant, Matthew Henson. Father and his team are working with Eskimo men and Father considers them child-like and primitive. Father presents Peary with a flag to plant on the North Pole and then returns to New Rochelle while the rest of the expedition continue north. Evelyn and Mother’s Younger Brother begin dating and Emma criticizes Evelyn for not knowing how to communicate with men outside of sex.
Evelyn’s divorce is finalized and she receives 25,000 dollars as a payout. Tateh begins worrying about the conditions that his daughter is living in in the city. He takes a train ride with her out of the city and sees The Little Boy playing outside his house. Houdini is dismayed with his efforts to perform the ultimate escape. He begins learning to fly planes and begins conducting lessons for German officers. One day the Commandant of the Imperial German Army requests a demonstration. Houdini later meets the man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Archduke is confused and congratulates
Houdini on the invention of the airplane. Father returns home from the Arctic to find the child that Mother has adopted. The washerwoman is always upstairs crying and never cares for the child. Father realizes that he has been gone for a while and his family has changed in his absence. Mother has learned to manage to business without him. Mother’s Younger Brother, more and more infatuated with Evelyn and growing insane from the obsession, builds a small bomb.
Tateh and his daughter travel to Massachusetts to the site of a strike a textile mill. Tateh strikes a deal with a novelty shop owner about creating flip books. The Narrator talks about Henry Ford’s development of the automobile and how the assembly line production suddenly begins devaluing the individual worker. Ford meets with JP Morgan, the famous financier and the two talk about religion, reincarnation and Ancient Egypt. This is a segue into talking about the influence of Egyptian style and culture on the early Progressive Era. The Little Boy is intrigued by the style but Father is appalled by it.
One day, a black man named Coalhouse Walker comes to the house and asks to see Sarah, the washerwoman. Sarah refuses to see him, but Coalhouse returns every Sunday asking to see her.
One day, Mother invites him in for tea. Coalhouse tells her that he is a pianist in an orchestra in the city. He plays ragtime for the family which they have never heard before. He begins visiting the family every weekend. Sarah still refuses to see him, but she begins to take care of her baby more. Father observes that Coalhouse does not act like most blacks of the time and that he is very proud and defiant. Father concludes that Coalhouse must not know that he is a “Negro”.
After months, Sarah finally agrees to see Coalhouse and accepts his marriage proposal. They leave together with the baby. Mother’s Younger Brother begins traveling into New York regularly. He visits with prostitutes but only talks to them and does not have sex. He finds the offices of Emma Goldman’s magazine ‘Mother Earth’ and waits outside for several evenings. One day, a man invites him in, apparently mistaking him for a police spy. They attend a meeting together and he speaks to Emma who tells him that she does not know where Evelyn is. Emma tells him that even if they could get back together their love would not last. Mother’s Younger Brother is so upset that he considers suicide.
Coalhouse runs into trouble with the police when he is blocked from crossing a road by some firemen. The firemen disrespect Coalhouse and damage his car. Coalhouse demands that the fire chief pay the damages and is then arrested for disobedience. Father posts his bail and Coalhouse is released. Coalhouse takes the funds that he had intended for he and Sarah’s wedding and puts them toward finding a lawyer. Mother’s Younger Brother falls into a depression and begins excessively exercising in order to combat it.
Coalhouse has trouble finding an attorney that will represent him. Sarah confesses to Mother’s Younger Brother that she and Coalhouse cannot get married until his car has been restored. Sarah leaves the house alone one night to attend a gathering at which President Taft’s vice-president, James Sherman is going to be present. Sarah intends to do what she can to speak to the vice-president to petition the US government to help Coalhouse. Unfortunately, Sarah mistakes Sherman for the president and she calls out to him. A militiaman then hits her chest with the butt of a gun and a Secret Service agent tackles her. Sarah is taken to the hospital. Within a week she catches pneumonia and dies.
A large funeral is held. Coalhouse spends all of his wedding money on the funeral. Coalhouse’s orchestra plays and the attendees march to Brooklyn to bury her. Harry K. Thaw escapes from prison but is recaptured in Buffalo. Houdini’s mother passes away and he grieves for her heavily. He begins researching communicating with the dead. The research and methods of communicating with the dead cheer him up and he begins performing escapes again. At a performance in New Rochelle, Houdini almost reveals the secret to his performances but an explosion in the crowd distracts everyone.
The explosion came from the firehouse that Coalhouse had been arrested at. The newspaper reveals that as well as the explosion, there was a black man shooting a shotgun into the firehouse. Father assumes it was Coalhouse and he and the family argue. Younger Brother defends Coalhouse because of the loss of Sarah. Coalhouse sends two letters to major newspapers informing them of his involvement with the explosion and demanding that his car be fixed.
Father and Mother grow apart as Mother concentrates on caring for Sarah’s baby and grieving for the woman. Reporters begin to harass the family because of their connection to Coalhouse. In concern for his connection to the family, Father brings The Little Boy to a baseball game but is dismayed to see that the sport has changed since he was a boy and that the players are now mostly immigrants. Despite this, Father and the boy have a good time and the ballpark and return in good spirits.
Mother tells them that Sarah’s son has learned to walk while they were gone. Father and Mother discuss moving away from New Rochelle, since they have received so much bad press in the city. They decide to move to Atlantic City.
Meanwhile, the police’s racial profiling of the blacks in the city grows even worse since Coalhouse’s attack on the firehouse. Coalhouse’s car is found by the press and the extent of the damage is embarrassing to the authorities. After the fight about Coalhouse, Mother’s Younger Brother disappeared from the house and did not return. The family leave a note for him when they move.
Mother’s Younger Brother goes to Coalhouse and gets accepting into his group of radicals because of his ability to create bombs. Younger Brother paints his face black and dresses like the black men in Coalhouse’s group. Younger Brother keeps a journal of his activities in the group until his death a year later. The group collectively calls itself “Coalhouse”.
Despite their new life in Atlantic City, Mother and Father continue to experience marital troubles. Mother feels guilty for abandoning Coalhouse and her brother. The family meet Tateh and The Little Girl who are also living in Atlantic City and Tateh’s real identity is revealed, Baron Asheknazy. The families grow closer and The Little Boy and The Little Girl become friends.
Father grows restless in Atlantic City and worries about his business. He reads in the paper that Coalhouse’s group have broken into JP Morgan’s library. The District Attorney contacts Father who returns to New York. The group had intended to capture Morgan but mistakenly attacked his public library where Mother’s Younger Brother’s bomb kills a guard. Morgan is actually on a ship bound for Egypt. City authorities surround the building but do not want to interfere in the operation so the job falls to the District Attorney, Charles S. Whitman. Whitman tries to talk to Coalhouse from outside and Coalhouse throws a tankard with a telephone number out of the window.
On the phone, Coalhouse repeats his demands and adds that he wants Willie Conklin, the fire chief who harassed him, killed. Emma Goldman is arrested, despite the fact that she does not know Coalhouse. Whitman calls Booker T. Washington Washington arrives and is let into the library. He chastises Coalhouse on his methods of protest but Coalhouse remains steadfast, despite his followers wavering.
Finally, Coalhouse agrees to leave the building if his car is returned to it’s original condition. Washington does not realize that this is a compromise and leaves the building feeling defeated. Washington makes a public statement saying that Coalhouse is insane and invites colleagues to come to the library to demonstrate opposition to Coalhouse.
When Father arrives, he recognizes Coalhouse’s compromise for what it was and tells the District Attorney. Whitman receives a message from Morgan that says “Give him his automobile and hang him.” Father tries to negotiate with Coalhouse and is surprised to see Mother’s Younger Brother in the building. Coalhouse is presented with his automobile and Willie Conklin. Coalhouse says that he will come out if his followers are allowed to go free. Whitman agrees. Conklin repairs Coalhouse’s car under the police’s watchful eye. Inside the library, Father asks Mother’s Younger Brother what he is doing there. Mother’s Younger Brother chastises Father’s treatment of his workers. Coalhouse’s followers leave and Coalhouse asks Father about he and Sarah’s son.
Coalhouse comes out of the library and Father, who is still inside, hears the police firing on him. The police say that Coalhouse made an attempt to escape but it is more likely that he moved suddenly, knowing he would be killed. Mother’s Younger Brother, taking Coalhouse’s car, travels to Mexico where he joins another revolutionary group and dies a year later in another siege.
As World War I draws near, Morgan travels to Egypt in the hopes that it will restore his faith. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Countess are assassinated. Houdini recovers from his grief over his mother’s death. Mother and Father stop speaking entirely as Mother’s Younger Brother’s death driving them apart even more. Father moves to Washington DC and dies aboard the Lusitania. Tateh and Mother marry a year after his death.
Mother – the mother of an upper class family in New Rochelle, New York. Mother seems to have a giving and kind nature. She takes in Sarah and her baby and takes care of the baby while Sarah is suffering from depression. She also often feels guilty for not taking better care of her younger brother and for abandoning him when the family moves to Atlantic City.
Mother’s relationship with Father suffers greatly over the course of the novel and by the end they have separated. After Father dies, Mother marries Tateh.
Father – the father of the family. Father owns a company that manufactures fireworks and flags. He is a very wealthy man with wealthy friends. Father is a traditional turn-of-the-century man who represents old-fashioned views. He is worried about the influx of immigrants into New Rochelle and worries that he is alienated and distanced from his family.
Some of Father’s back story is given and it is revealed that he lost his mother very young. His father had some wealth but lost it and Father had to start his business on his own. In the end, he separates from Mother and dies in a ship crash.
Coalhouse Walker – Coalhouse begins the story as a ragtime pianist in an orchestra in New York. He is a successful black man who many are uncomfortable around because he does not act deferential to white people. Coalhouse’s life is marked by his mistreatment at the hands of the firemen and the police who destroy his car and arrest him for talking back. Rather than backing down, Coalhouse intends to sue the police but his life is thrown into devastation when Sarah is killed by a Secret Service agent when she tries to approach the Vice President on his behalf.
The death of Sarah drives Coalhouse to the point of a breakdown. Rather than suing the police, he instead begins bombing the firehouse and demanding the death of the fire chief who assaulted him. In the end, Coalhouse allows himself to be shot by the police after ensuring that his followers are set free.
Evelyn Nesbit – Evelyn was a real-life sex-symbol who lived during the early 1900’s. Her husband, Harry Thaw really did kill her ex-husband Stanford White. However, her interactions with the characters in the novel are obviously dramatized. Evelyn seems to have trouble reconciling her worth outside of her beauty and value to men. She befriends Tateh and his daughter and finds herself somewhat obsessed with The Little Girl to the point of wanting to kidnap her. At one point, Evelyn is said to leave town and she is not spoken of again for the remainder of the novel.
E.L. Doctorow Biography
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born on January 6th, 1931 in The Bronx, New York. The son of a second-generation Russian Jewish immigrants, Doctorow’s father owned a music shop. He became interested in books when he began working at his grade school’s literary magazine. He was first published in the magazine.
Doctorow went on to attend Kenyon College in Ohio where he majored in philosophy and acted in theater productions. He graduated with honors in 1952 and went on to study for another year at Columbia University after which he was drafted into the army. For two years in 1954 and 1955, he served as a corporal in Germany.
In 1954, Doctorow also married a woman named Helen Esther Setzer whom he met while serving in Germany. The couple went on to have three children. After he completed his service, he returned to New York and began working at a motion picture company. Working on so many Westerns gave Doctorow inspiration to write his first novel, “Welcome to Hard Times” a western that was published in 1960. The novel received positive reviews. Doctorow spent the next nine years working as an editor and then went on to become the editor-in-chief of Dial Press, a publishing company that dealt with authors like James Baldwin and William Kennedy.
In 1969, Doctorow decided to write full time and accepted a position as visiting writer at the University of California, Irvine. It was there that he completed his second novel, “The Book of Daniel” in 1971. In 1975, Doctorow completed his most well known work, “Ragtime” which went on to be considered one of the 100 best books of the 20th century by the Modern Library Association. Doctorow went on to write several more award-winning books, such as “World’s Fair” (1985), “Billy Bathgate” (1989) and “The March” (2005).
Throughout his life, Doctorow also taught at the Yale School of Drama, Sarah Lawrence College, The University of Utah and Princeton University. In 2001, he donated his notes to the Fales Library of New York University. On July 21st, 2015 Doctorow died of lung cancer in Manhattan. He was eighty-four years old. He is now buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in his hometown of The Bronx.