Study Guide

Ragtime

by E. L. Doctorow

Ragtime Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ragtime chronicles the lives of three families: a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) family (composed of the narrator when he is a young boy, Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, and Grandfather); a black family (Sarah, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and their illegitimate infant); and an immigrant family (Tateh, Mameh, and The Little Girl). At the beginning of the novel these families’ existences are entirely segregated from one another, but by the story’s end the three families have become one in a uniquely American type of ethnic heterogeneity.

It is significant that the story begins from an exclusively WASP perspective, told in retrospect by the Little Boy grown to manhood. This perspective, the reader is meant to understand, was America’s in the early years of the twentieth century, when Teddy Roosevelt was president and when “Everyone wore white in summer.” It is an ideal (and idealized) period, when there “was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.” In such an America, everyone was presumed to be patriotic, for “patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900’s.” Father is the model patriot as a maker of flags, buntings, and fireworks; his family is supposed to be a model American family. This, at least, is the status quo when Father, an amateur explorer, leaves with Robert Peary on his third (and ultimately successful) expedition to discover the North Pole. It is 1906, and Father will take part in the actual discovery in 1909. While Father is away, however, his WASP family undergoes a surprising change, only the first of several Americanizing changes he and his family will experience. Mother is the catalyst for this first change.

Mother, a stereotypically Victorian creature with whom Father has always had to make appointments to make love, finds an abandoned black infant half-buried but still alive in her flower garden, then takes the child and its young mother, Sarah (after she is found by the police), into her home as her responsibility. Not only does she take on this responsibility, but also she assumes all the executive responsibilities of Father’s business, so that upon his return he discovers that she can “speak crisply of such matters as unit cost, inventory and advertising,” and she has expanded the company’s sales into California and Oregon. Not the least of the changes that Mother has undergone concerns her reading: She now reads feminist and socialist literature, for example. Father, because he fornicated with Eskimo women while in the Arctic, assumes that the changes in his wife and home are God’s “punishments.” Another such punishment is that some of his employees have become union members.

Father’s home and business are also changed, through Mother’s Younger Brother, who lives in the home and works in the business. Having fallen obsessively in love with Evelyn Nesbit (the wife of Harry K. Thaw and lover of Stanford White until Thaw assassinates him), Mother’s Younger Brother succeeds in wooing Evelyn for a short time, and as he is doing so he meets and becomes a follower of Emma Goldman, the political radical and revolutionary unionizer. It is through...

(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Ragtime Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ragtime begins with a description of a comfortable American household in New Rochelle, New York, at the turn of the twentieth century. At the dinner table, Father, Mother, the little boy, and Mother’s Younger Brother are interrupted by the visit of a young black man, Coalhouse Walker. Eventually, it is discovered that Walker is the father of the child who had been abandoned by a young black woman who, along with the child, has been given refuge in the household. The appearance of Walker changes everything in the family’s life and eventually links the New Rochelle household directly to the fate of the United States. By not giving the family names, Doctorow emphasizes their role as representatives of white, middle-class life, gradually and inexorably drawn into the changing times of radicals, immigrants, and African Americans.

Doctorow uses Walker as the agent of change. This proud black man is offended when his motorcar is stopped by a group of unruly volunteer firemen who then block his way and (when he goes for assistance) deface his prized possession. Unable to obtain satisfaction from the law (he finds it impossible to file charges or to be taken seriously by the authorities), Walker takes justice into his own hands, recruiting a group of black comrades who devise an ingenious plan to occupy the J. P. Morgan Library in New York City and demand the return of Walker’s car in pristine condition—or the precious building will be detonated with explosives.

While no such incident occurred in the years Ragtime covers, and it is unlikely that such an incident could have taken place, Doctorow is less concerned with realism than with the implications of historical change. His novel is a compression of history, a fable making the point that the Establishment in the twentieth century will eventually find it more and more difficult to ignore the new immigrants...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Ragtime Summary

Section I Summary

Ragtime is a novel about three families living in the early years of the twentieth century and how their members' separate lives...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Section II Summary

This section is mainly devoted to the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the father of Sarah's baby. Father returns from his Arctic exploration,...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Section III Summary

Coalhouse Walker steps from the library and is shot down by the police. Younger Brother escapes to the southwest and eventually joins the...

(The entire section is 148 words.)