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.)