Ragtime (novel)

From Academic Kids

Ragtime is a 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow. This work of historical fiction is mostly set in New York City from about 1900 until the United States entry into World War 1 in 1917.

Missing image
cover of the first edition of Doctorow's Ragtime

A unique adaptation of the historical narrative genre, the novel blends three fictional American families and various actual historical figures into a historical framework that revolves around events, characters and ideas important in the History of the United States.


Protaganists: Three families

The narrative tells of the interlinking lives of three groups of people.

The first group consists of "Father", "Mother", "Mothers Younger Brother", "Grandfather", and a young boy. They make up a white American upper middle class family that lives in New Rochelle, New York. Father and Brother are involved in producing U.S. flags and fireworks for displays of American patriotism. Father is represented as a character stuck in the past, but keen to make his mark in history. He takes part in the expedition that discovers the North Pole, but only joins the expedition for a fraction of the sledge journey. Brother gets mixed up with Coalhouse Walker's retaliation attempt (described in more detail below) due to his expertise in explosives. Although it is not explicitly stated in the narrative, many readers get the impression that the unidentified narrator of the book is the family's little boy, recalling the events of his childhood in his old age.

The second family is composed of the Jewish immigrants Tateh, Mameh, and Little Girl, who struggle to survive. Tateh is a strong advocate of the radical left, involved in the local Artist Socialist Group, and while opposed to Emma Goldman's anarchism, he finds solidarity with it.

The third family is an African-American couple, Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, who is the mother of his newborn boy and is supported by Mother from the New Rochelle family. Coalhouse is a ragtime musician. He owns a Ford Model T. This is causes resentment by some racist whites, upset at seeing a Negro owning the middle-class status symbol of an automobile, and makes Coalhouse the target of hostility. Walker's Model T is vandalized by members of the local fire department. Sarah gets killed by the police who mistake her hysterical attempt to petition for justice as a threat. After failing by peaceful means to get compensation, Coalhouse turns to violence, declaring that he will not stop until his Model T is repaired. These acts are a major turn in the novel.

Historical figures in the novel

Harry Houdini repeatedly appears in the narrative interacting with the characters and tying many details together. Other real historical characters in the novel include J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, Harry K. Thaw, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Literary references

The first name of Coalhouse Walker is a literary reference to the German novella "Michael Kohlhaas" by Heinrich von Kleist. Many events and plot points are drawn from this story.

Crticial reaction to the book

The novel was very well received by literary critics. It was a nominee for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and the Arts and Letters Award.

Fredric Jameson's 'Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism' (1991 Duke Uni Press) devotes 5 pages to Doctorow's 'Ragtime' in illustrating the crisis of historiography and a resistance to interpretation.


Portions of the novel appeared in two 1974 issues of The American Review.

The novel makes no use of the quotation mark. Quotations are made clear by context despite this lack of a usual piece of punctuation. Doctorow does not do this in his other novels.


It has been adapted for a 1981 movie (see: Ragtime (film)) and a 1998 musical, (see: Ragtime (musical)).

Further reading

  • Models of misrepresentation : on the fiction of E.L. Doctorow / Christopher D. Morris. Uni of Mississippi Press, 1991' - Chapter 5 - analysis of ambiguous narrative voice and issues of demystification
  • Postmodernism, or, The cultural logic of late capitalism / Fredric Jameson.Duke University Press, c1991. - p21-25


  • The Nation, October 4th 1975, p.310 'To Impose a Phrasing on History' by Joseph Moses
  • NY Times Review from 1975 (available from NY Times Ragtime theatrical website)

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