Ragtime is a 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow. This work of historical fiction is primarily 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, the novel blends three fictional American families and various actual historical figures into a framework that revolves around events, characters and ideas important in U.S. history.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ragtime #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.
The novel opens in the year 1902, in the town of New Rochelle, New York, at the house of an upper class family composed of Mother, Father, and the little boy. Mother's Younger Brother falls in love with the famous beauty Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband Harry Kendall Thaw has recently been charged with the murder of her ex-lover, architect Stanford White. Harry Houdini's car breaks down in front of the family's house, and he pays them a visit. Father leaves on a trip to the Arctic with the explorer Adm. Robert E. Peary.
An immigrant family, consisting of Mameh, Tateh, and the little girl, live in the Lower East Side in utter poverty. To make ends meet, Mameh is forced to prostitute herself to her employer. When Tateh finds out, he takes the little girl and leaves. Evelyn Nesbit visits the Lower East Side, where she becomes enchanted with Tateh's daughter, and soon her visits become regular. The little girl becomes ill, and Evelyn cares for her. Mother's Younger Brother begins to follow Evelyn everywhere, she is aware of her secret admirer and tolerates his presence from a distance. Tateh, Evelyn Nesbit, and the little girl attend a socialist meeting whose featured speaker, Emma Goldman, recognizes and singles out the disguised Evelyn among the crowd. Tateh is furious when he realizes her identity and leaves with the little girl. Mother rescues and claims responsibility for a newborn baby she discovers buried alive in her backyard; she soon learns it is the child of a black washwoman named Sarah.
Evelyn Nesbit and Mother's Younger Brother start to see a lot of one another. Mother's Younger Brother helps Evelyn search for Tateh and his little girl, but to no avail. Tateh and his daughter happily leave New York City and travel up the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, Houdini learns how to fly planes, and performs a demonstration for Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Father experiences a feeling of profound isolation upon his return to New Rochelle. Mother's Younger Brother becomes proficient in the use of bombs. Tateh and his little girl travel to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where there is a strike against the textile mills, and continue to many other cities.
In Philadelphia, Tateh finds a novelty store where the owner agrees to buy the movie books (flip books) Tateh has invented. Tateh decides they will return to Lawrence to settle down. Henry Ford pays a lunch visit to J.P. Morgan and they discuss technology and religion. One afternoon, a black man named Coalhouse Walker, the father of Sarah's child, stops by the home in New Rochelle, asking to see Sarah, who refuses to see him. After Coalhouse continues to call on her every Sunday, Sarah finally accepts his proposal for marriage. One day Coalhouse Walker is driving to New York when volunteers from the Emerald Isle firehouse, led by fire chief Willie Conklin, bar his path. While Coalhouse seeks help from the police, the volunteers wreck his car. When Coalhouse complains, he is arrested. Coalhouse dedicates the funds he originally intended for his wedding toward securing a lawyer. However, he cannot find a lawyer willing to represent him.
One night, Sarah leaves the house to attend an event at which Mr. Taft's Vice- President would be present; she wishes to petition the federal government on Coalhouse's behalf. However, the secret service men hit her hard in the chest; she soon grows ill and dies. In revenge, Coalhouse causes an explosion at the Emerald Isle firehouse, killing four volunteers. Father and Mother's Younger Brother fight over the situation, and Mother's Younger Brother leaves the household to join Coalhouse and his followers. Mother and Father move to Atlantic City to escape the scrutiny of the townspeople. Willie Conklin also begins to feel a lot of pressure to leave town. Mother and Father meet Tateh in Atlantic City, and the little boy and the little girl soon begin to spend a lot of time together.
Coalhouse and his followers break into the library of J.P. Morgan, who is abroad at the time, and threaten to explode the building. The District Attorney Charles S. Whitman calls Coalhouse, who reiterates to him his original demands that they return his vehicle and that Conklin dies for Sarah's death. Booker T. Washington attempts to persuade Coalhouse to end his siege, but soon leaves out of frustration. Father then meets with Coalhouse, and approaches Whitman with his demands, at which point Whitman presents Coalhouse with both his Model T and Willie Conklin. After his followers leave free of punishment, Coalhouse exits Morgan's house, and Father, still inside, hears the firing squad. Police report that Coalhouse had made an attempt at escaping, but he more likely made a slight movement that he knew would cause his death. Mother's Younger Brother, having secured the use of Coalhouse's Model-T, travels all around the country and soon to Mexico, where he joins revolutionary forces and dies about a year later.
As tensions in Europe develop, World War I approaches. Morgan travels to Egypt, where he hopes a visit to the pyramids will restore his sense of spirituality. Rather, he cannot sleep and becomes disheartened by his failure to experience what he has expected. Soon his health rapidly deteriorates and he dies. The narrator describes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Father dies aboard the Lusitania, and a year after his death, Tateh and Mother marry. Emma Goldman has been deported. Evelyn Nesbit is no longer beautiful and is therefore ignored. Harry Kendall Thaw is released from the insane asylum and marches in the Armistice Day parade.
About the Author
was born in the Bronx, New York City, the son of second-generation Americans of Russian Jewish descent. He attended city public grade schools and the Bronx High School of Science where, surrounded by mathematically gifted children, he fled to the office of the school literary magazine, Dynamo. There, he published his first literary effort, The Beetle, which he describes as ”a tale of etymological self-defamation inspired by my reading of Kafka.”
Doctorow attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied with the poet and New Critic John Crowe Ransom, acted in college theater productions, and majored in philosophy. After graduating with honors in 1952, he completed a year of graduate work in English drama at Columbia University before being drafted into the army. He served with the Army as a corporal in the signal corps during the Allied occupation of Germany in 1954-55.
He returned to New York after his military service and took a job as a reader for a motion picture company, where he said he had to read so many Westerns that he was inspired to write what became his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. He began the work as a parody of the Western genre, but the piece evolved into a novel that asserted itself as a serious reclamation of the genre before he was through. It was published to positive reviews in 1960.
Doctorow had married a fellow Columbia drama student, Helen Setzer, while in Germany, and by the time he had moved on from his reader’s job in 1960 to become an editor at the New American Library (NAL), a mass market paperback publisher, he was the father of three children. To support his family, he spent nine years as a book editor, first at NAL working with such authors as Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand and then, in 1964, as editor-in-chief at The Dial Press, publishing work by James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Ernest J. Gaines and William Kennedy, among others.
In 1969, Doctorow left publishing in order to write, accepting a position as Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine, where he completed The Book of Daniel, a freely fictionalized consideration of the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for allegedly giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Published in 1971, it was widely acclaimed, called a “masterpiece” by The Guardian, and it launched Doctorow into "the first rank of American writers" according to the New York Times.
Doctorow’s next book, written in his home in New Rochelle, New York, was Ragtime (1975), since named one of the hundred best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library editorial board.
Doctorow’s subsequent work includes the award-winning novels World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989) and The March (2005); two volumes of short fiction, Lives of the Poets I (1984) and Sweetland Stories (2004); and two volumes of selected essays, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution (1993) and Creationists (2006). He is published in over thirty languages.
He has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Yale School of Drama, the University of Utah, the University of California, Irvine, and Princeton University. He is the Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. He has donated his papers to the Fales Library of New York University.
In 1998, Doctorow received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award. The Helmerich Award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.
Doctorow is the recipient of the National Humanities Medal conferred at the White House in 1998.