Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033

The early part of the twentieth century, as Ragtime explains, saw a shift in public sentiment away from the values of the wealthy, the established fraternity of men who had run business and government with increasing disregard since the end of the Civil War. At the end of the nineteenth century, the wealth of the country was absorbed by a small number of financiers who owned interests in key industries and bought out or forced out competitors in order to establish monopolies. Among the most prominent of these men were John D. Rockefeller, who built a petroleum empire; Andrew Carnegie, who dominated the market in steel; Andrew Mellon, who controlled banking; and the most powerful of them all, John Pierpont Morgan, who appears as a character in the book. In 1882, Rockefeller established the first trust, and many other industries followed soon after. A "trust" is a legal agreement that allows one owner or corporation to control the stock of several companies within the same industry, thereby giving it control over the prices charged to consumers and the wages paid employees.

The mood of the country changed early in the twentieth century, favoring workers and those without political or social power. Across the world, Socialism had been gaining support since the 1870s, which led to the formation of groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (the socialist trade union mentioned in the book in the Textile Mill Strike episode). The I.W.W. reached its peak in America between 1912 and 1917, when it had 60,000 to 100,000 members. A less radical, more mainstream form of support for workers was known as Progressivism. Progressivism was the movement to establish fair living wages for workers, and to loosen the control that the trusts had on the economy. The figure most associated with Progressivism is Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909. He was known as a "trust-buster" for using the provisions of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which Congress had passed in 1890 but never enforced, to break up the business monopolies. In 1912, having been out of office for a term, Roosevelt ran for office again with a new political party that he called the Progressive Party. Progressivism was such a popular idea that the three U.S. presidents who held office between 1901 and 1921—Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson—identified themselves as Progressives.

While Progressivism opposed big business, it did so in order to promote the rights of the poor. Progressivism supported suffrage (the right to vote) for women, minimum wage laws, and child welfare regulations. Unlike Socialists like Tateh in the novel, who wanted sweeping changes in the structure of the government, and anarchists like Emma Goldman, who supported violence as a justifiable way to destroy the existing system, Progressives generally came from the middle class, like the nameless family from New Rochelle.

After Vietnam and Watergate
In 1975, the year Ragtime was published, the Unites States was dealing with losses suffered by two of its most powerful establishments, the military and the presidency. The year 1975 marked the fall of Saigon, the capitol of South Vietnam, which American forces had fought to defend against the Communist government in North Vietnam from 1961 to 1973. The Vietnam War was one of the central issues that had U.S. citizens protesting against the government during the tumultuous 1960s.

Opposition to the war started on college campuses, where students who had grown up following the civil rights protests of the 1950s and early '60s applied the same methods to organize protests against the war. The protestors felt that the government's goal to "stop the spread of Communism in the world" was not a good enough reason for fighting. As the years wore on, with American soldiers dying by the thousands and no clear objective to be gained, more and more Americans agreed that the fighting should end. Military officials, many of whom began their careers as young men participating in the great American victories in World War II in the 1940s, could not accept the idea that America could lose in combat against a tiny country like North Vietnam. They did not want to leave without winning, and they expanded the war, spending more money and more lives and spreading the violence into the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, which served to intensify the protests at home. President Richard Nixon, hoping to please both sides, promised that a settlement would be negotiated but that America would not accept "peace without honor." In 1973 the U.S. troops were withdrawn. In 1975 the U.S. government stopped sending money and weapons to South Vietnam, and almost immediately the capitol city of Saigon was taken over by the Communists of the North. On television, U.S. citizens watched American diplomats in Saigon fleeing in terror, as army helicopters tried to carry them away—a strong visual image that the war had not been settled, giving the impression of America running away.

At the same time President Nixon was arranging the withdrawal of troops, he was concerned with the collapse of his own presidency. It started on June 17, 1972, when five men were arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Party in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. Investigators soon found connections between the burglars and Nixon's reelection committee. As the 1972 presidential elections approached, stories associating the burglars with the Nixon White House trickled out, but citizens paid little attention, and in November Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate, George McGovern. Throughout 1973 and 1974, however, investigations continued to turn up incriminating evidence that connected the men who planned the break-in to higher government officials, including Cabinet officials and Nixon's Chief of Staff. These investigations also uncovered other crimes associated with Nixon, including tax problems and using government agencies to harass his political enemies. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned. The man who followed him as president, Gerald Ford, granted Nixon an unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. Disappointed that he had let Nixon go without making him stand trial for his crimes, the country voted Ford out of office in the 1976 elections. In 1975, while Ragtime was a huge success on the bestseller lists, the country was recovering from watching its social institutions unravel.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684

Point of View
The point of view of this novel is uncertain. The prevailing consciousness is certainly that of the Little Boy—his personality is explained in detail, and much of the information that is given could have reached him, either from direct experience or through secondary sources, such as his uncle's diaries or newspaper clippings. When the narrative places itself in time as speaking "nearly fifty years after Houdini's death," it leaves open the possibility that the grown-up boy is telling the story (Houdini died in 1926, nearly fifty years before the book was published). On the other hand, there are many details here that the Little Boy really could not know, such as the intimate thoughts of prominent figures like J. Pierpont Morgan and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Throughout the book the narrator speaks as an unidentified "we," presumably representing America. The narrator is given a distinct persona in the last chapter, when it speaks in the first person: "Poor Father, I see his final exploration." Contradictions abound, but most of the evidence indicates that, if the narrator is a particular person (as opposed to the omniscient narrator, who tells the story but is not part of it), it is probably the Little Boy.

Zeitgeist ("Spirit of the Time")
More important to the success of this novel than any particular characters or plotlines is the way that it creates a convincing sense of what life was like in America in the first years of the twentieth century. Although no novel or historical work could ever give readers the experience of exactly what it was like then, Ragtime struggles to make clear what the issues of social concern were and who the celebrities were, in order to give the flavor of the time. The structure of the book, with quick scenes and short chapters covering a wide variety of people and situations, helps readers to feel the new century's spirit of motion and confusion. One of the most irrelevant, yet symbolic events in the book involves novelist Theodore Dreiser, who appears in one paragraph at the end of Chapter 4 and then never again: "One day he decides his chair was facing the wrong direction. He gets up to move it, then moves it again, then again. Throughout the night Dreiser turned his chair in circles seeking the proper alignment." The uneven motion of the book and its characters has been compared to this exasperated circling. Each of the real-life people chosen to represent this time period—Harry Houdini, Harry K. Thaw, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, and the rest—adds a slightly different, unique color to the overall picture, with no single story being more important than the overall effect.

This novel has a strong flair for irony, setting readers up to expect one thing but then leading to developments that, while logical, are quite different than expected. Usually, these reversals seem to deflate pomposity. Houdini, with the best intentions toward all humanity, offers money to subway workers who escaped a catastrophe, introducing himself as an "escapologist," and he is lifted off his feet and thrown out of the hospital. Morgan assembles America's wealthiest men to trade wisdom, and he finds them concerned with digestion, dozing off and muttering inanities: "Without exception the dozen most powerful men in America looked like horse's asses," he concludes. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death triggered the global catastrophe of World War I, is so befuddled by his formal, ceremonious meeting with Houdini that he thinks the airplane Houdini brings with him is his own invention. After a lifetime of actions against the government, the event that leads to Emma Goldman's deportation is her commenting about the Coalhouse Walker affair. J. P. Morgan, seeking eternal knowledge in the pyramid, instead finds bedbugs and catches the cold that kills him. Any good novel will have a number of surprises, in order to avoid being predictable, but Ragtime consistently uses reversal of expectation to point out the weakness of the old ruling order, although the book's ironic tone continually pretends to be upholding the old notions.

Literary Techniques

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

The narrative strategy of Ragtime is inventive and complex. The point of view is that of a minor character, the only child of Father and Mother, but this small boy is seldom seen in the novel, and his credentials as a future narrator are not explained until the middle of the book. Readers of Ragtime have to imagine that the story has been assembled by this character at a later date when he has matured and thought about the history of his family. The novel is thus told in the first person, but the storyteller is almost completely absent from the action as it unfolds. Only in Chapter Fifteen does Doctorow explore the mind and imagination of the small boy, and thus explain the design of his narrative strategy.

Equally inventive is the technique of mixing history and fiction. Doctorow combines the two in such a seamless manner that fictitious characters like Coalhouse Walker come across as more realistic than figures who are based on fact like Sigmund Freud or Booker T. Washington. When there is a conversation between Coalhouse Walker and Booker T. Washington, it is the voice of the former that rings with more validity in the novel. Doctorow has apparently succeeded in turning history into fiction and fiction into history.

Another hallmark of Ragtime is its cinematic style. Doctorow writes in short sentences with rapid cuts from one scene to the next. The effect is that of a fast moving camera at work capturing a decade of history before it disintegrates into a world war. This style is in keeping with the mind of the young narrator who is fascinated by the new art of moving pictures. The short sentences and rapid cuts from scene to scene represent the imagination of the narrator who believes "that the world composed and recomposed itself constantly in an endless process of dissatisfaction ."

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 210

Ragtime is a daring combination of fiction and history. Doctorow holds a mirror up to a decade of history in order to reflect the social and political concerns of America just prior to World War I. A prosperous Republican family tries to retain its privilege and class in a world where patriotism leads to chaos and war. A poor immigrant family attempts to survive the hardships of tenement life, and a black musician dies in a violent protest against prejudice and racial injustice. The intersecting plots of the fictional characters are measured against the background of historical figures including Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Houdini, Commander Peary, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, and Booker T. Washington.

Doctorow's mirror of history shows the American Dream from several different angles. J. P. Morgan is presented as a vain character so impressed with the power of money that he has designs for his own immortality. The rich and famous in the novel, however, are apt to discover failure and disappointment. The poor immigrant artist is the only character in the book to follow the American Dream and become a success as a film director. Ragtime ultimately reflects Doctorow's concern for social justice and the value of creative expression over class and wealth.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

1909: An interpreter for a French film company, attending the inauguration of President William Howard Taft, conceived the idea of presenting news events on film, which led to the practice of newsreels being shown in theaters across the world.

1975: The integrity of the news divisions was a source of competition for the three major television networks.

Today: There are specialized cable television channels for all sorts of special interests, including sports, weather, and local and national news.

1907: At the height of one of the strongest waves of immigration in American history, 1.2 million people came into the country, mostly from Europe. The years between 1900 and 1914 saw an average of a million people per year. The percent of the U.S. population that was foreign-born hit an all-time high of fifteen percent.

1975: Immigration, declining steadily since World War I, bottomed out at around five percent of the U.S. population.

Today: The rise of multinational corporations and communication has created a smaller world and awareness of what is available: U.S. immigration is up, led by immigrants from Asian and Latin-American countries.

1908: The Summer Olympics in 1908 had athletes from twenty-two nations competing.

Today: Athletes from over 175 nations compete in the Olympics.

1901: Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery, described conditions in the South after the Civil War. The existence of laws meant to keep blacks and whites separated, known as Jim Crow laws, created circumstances of intolerance and abuse toward blacks. Although the laws of the North were not as clearly against blacks, abuses were often tolerated.

1975: After the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and the confrontational race riots of the 1960s, the country began to slowly create a new, inclusive social order in the 1970s.

Today: Although civil rights laws are generally enforced and bigotry is socially unacceptable, blacks and whites still have sharply contrasting views of the world, as indicated by the vast differences of opinion over the 1995 acquittal of accused murderer O J. Simpson.

1910s: The North American Woman's Suffrage Association struggled for a Constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote. The amendment passed in 1919.

1975: The Women's Liberation movement, then at the height of its influence, struggled to raise the consciousness of men and women alike regarding guarantees of political, economic, and social equality. Congress ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, but it failed to gain passage in enough states in the next ten years to make it a law.

Today: Women enjoy many of the civil liberties that the Women's Movement has fought for, whether they identify themselves as feminists or not.

Literary Precedents

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 155

Doctorow has acknowledged his debt to Michael Kohlhaas, an eighteenth-century novella by the German author Heinrich Von Kleist. The hero of Kleist's story, itself based on a historical chronicle, is a man determined to obtain justice from a corrupt world. This gave Doctorow the idea for Coal-house Walker and his strong protest against the racial injustice of American society. Several details of plot and character in Doctorow's novel parallel the story by Heinrich Von Kleist.

The social realism of Ragtime and its mixture of history and fiction also owe much to the American tradition of John Steinbeck and John Dos Fassos. Doctorow's sympathy for the victims of social and economic injustice is as strong as Steinbeck's, and Ragtime often approaches the documentary realism of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Doctorow's blend of history and fiction is more ingenious, but his cinematic method is indebted to the newsreel technique of Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy (1938).


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135

Ragtime was made into a motion picture in 1981. (Produced by Dino De Laurentis. Directed by Milos Forman. Screenplay by Michael Weller.) The original director for the project was Robert Altman who planned a six-hour film and a longer television series to capture the historical scope of the novel. When he was replaced by Milos Forman the concept was scaled back to an average-length film with the focus left on the story of Coalhouse Walker. Missing many of the historical characters, especially Emma Goldman and Houdini, the film came out as a pale and distorted copy of the novel. Despite some good acting, including a farewell performance by James Cagney, the film did not succeed on its own terms. Doctorow found it disappointing, and it did not win the awards that Forman's other work has attracted.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40

An audio cassette version of Ragtime read by William Levine was released by Blackstone Audio.

The 1981 film version of Ragtime, directed by Milos Foreman and with a screenplay by Michael Weller, was released on videocassette in 1991 by Paramount Home Video.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292

Fowler, Douglas. Understanding E. L. Doctorow. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Provides criticism and interpretation of Doctorow’s works.

Garrison, David. “Ovid’s Metamorphoses in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.” Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 17 (Winter, 1997): 103-115. Garrison asserts that classical myths from Ovid are elaborated in Ragtime. These allusions to Ovid create an ironic tone and exhibit a deep interest in transformation, thus Ragtime continues a tradition that began with Ovid.

Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. E. L. Doctorow. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A study of Doctorow’s major fiction up to World’s Fair. Contains a chronology, a chapter on his biography, separate chapters on the novels, notes and references, and a selected bibliography. A succinct introductory study.

Levine, Paul. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Methuen, 1985. The first full-length study of the novelist’s career. Levine provides sound and often insightful readings of individual novels as well as substantial discussions of the recurring themes in the fiction: politics, the nature of fiction and history, and Doctorow’s critique of the American Dream. A useful bibliography and a discussion of film adaptations of Doctorow’s work make this a comprehensive study.

Persell, Michelle. “The Jews, Ragtime and the Politics of Science.” Literature and Psychology 42 (Fall, 1996): 1-14. A discussion of Ragtime as an allegory related to Francois Lyotard’s notion of “the jews” as a term for the unrepresentable. Persell analyzes the assimilation of the character Tateh who suppresses his Jewishness.

Williams, John. Fiction as False Document: The Reception of E. L. Doctorow in the Postmodern Age. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1992. A survey of Doctorow’s works with a focus on the author as a postmodern cultural critic. Williams presents a chapter-length discussion of Ragtime as a historical novel.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

David Emblidge, "Progress as Illusion in Doctorow's Novels," Southwest Review, Vol. LXI, Autumn, 1977, pp. 397-409.

Barbara Foley, "From U.S.A. to Ragtime: Notes on the Forms of Historical Consciousness in Modern Fiction," American Literature, no. 50, 1978, pp. 85-105.

David S. Gross, "Tales of Obscene Power, Money and Culture, Modernism and History, in the Fiction of E. L. Doctorow," Genre, no. 13, 1980, pp. 71-92.

Paul Levine, E. L. Doctorow, Methuen, 1985.

John G. Parks, "Compositions of Dissatisfaction: Ragtime," Continuum, 1991.

Bernard F. Rodgers Jr., "A Novelist's Revenge," Chicago Review, Vol. 27, 1976, p. 139.

John Seelye, "Doctorow's Dissertation," The New Republic, Vol. CLXXLI, April 10, 1976, p. 22.

Arthur Seltzman, "The Stylistic Energy of E. L. Doctorow," in E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations, edited by Richard Trenner, Ontario Review Press, 1983.

For Further Study
Linda Donn, Freud and Jung: Years of Friendship, Years of Loss, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.
This comprehensive and readable biography gives a good look at two of Ragtime's minor characters and how the world changed as the years passed.

Paul Levine, E. L. Doctorow, Methuen, 1985.
This book, which covers Doctorow's works up to Lives of the Poets, is arranged thematically, with chapters such as "Politics and Imagination," "Fiction and Formulas," "Fiction and Radicalism," and "Fiction and History."

John G. Parks, E. L. Doctorow, Continuum, 1991.
Parks's chapter about Ragtime is good but standard literary criticism. His chapter at the end of the book, "A Multiplicity of Witnesses," offers some real insight into Doctorow's overall style.

Richard Trenner, editor, Essays and Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1983.
The interviews in this collection represent a variety of interests and purposes, while the essays about Doctorow's works that comprise the last half of the book offer insights and in-depth analysis.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Essays


Teaching Guide