Ragtime Essay

Ragtime

E.L. Doctorow

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Bantam Edition/ July 1976

Genre: Historical Fiction

Historical information about the period of publication:

            Ragtime was considered as a literary feat in 1975 and was hailed as a masterpiece with its well-researched presentation of America in the beginning of the 20th century. It was however released in a tumultuous period of America.

            In 1975, America was reeling from a war, was saving one of its famous cities from bankruptcy and the world recognized the borders of a communist state. By this year, the Vietnam War was a lost cause with America formally pulling out and the South was overrun by Ho Chi Minh’s troops. By 1976, the country would be unified as a communist state ( www.vietnampix.com).

            President Gerald Ford also signed a legislation that gave New York federal loans. Plagued by bankruptcy, New York received 2.3 billion in loans within three years to resuscitate its economy (www.historycentral.com).

            And finally, the Soviet Union attained international recognition as thirty five nations signed the Helsinki Accords (www.historycentral.com). This international treaty formally acknowledged the borders of the Soviet Union making the communist state the dominant power in the Baltic. However, this also lead to the creation of Helsinki Watch Groups throughout the Soviet Union that made sure human rights violation were made known globally.

            In this period of local and international conflict, Ragtime’s story of the American family captured the imagination of a weary nation.

Biographical Information about the Author:

            Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born in the 1930s Bronx to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. His fate was sealed when his father named him after another famous Edgar who was a beloved poet but also an infamous alcoholic and delusional paranoiac. Although he grew up in the Depression Era, he remembers a childhood full of music, books and good time.

            He received education from the Bronx High School of Science where he discovered his love for literature. For tertiary education, he went to Kenyon College in Ohio where he trained under the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom and was introduced to theatre. While completing his MA in Columbia University, he got married and was drafted into the Army. When he returned, he became a part of the film industry as a film reader, a job that inspired his first novel.

Characteristics about the genre:

            Historical fiction is a genre that melds historical fact with the imagination of the author. It is usually set in the past in a specific time period or historical events. In this genre, the setting plays a major role as the author must research accurate and authentic details concerning the time period of the story. Through this historical basis of fact, the author then creates a story wherein real events and people interact with fictional characters and occurrences (NCTE/IRA, 2004).

Plot Summary:

            Set in the early 20th century America, it follows the lives of three families as they move through the age of modernization. Their lives become entwined with the different personalities of that era: Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, and Emma Goldman among others. The families are thrust into the time of exploration, the age of magic and mysticism, the liveliness of jazz entertainment, the rise of the worker’s union and the issues of racism.

Memorable Quotes

Quotations and Page Number
Significance

Younger Brother: “I can make bombs, I know how to blow things up.” p.281
This statement uttered by Younger Brother showed who he really was. Throughout the novel, he was characterized as an eccentric who was lost and had no self-identity. However, as soon as he uttered these words he found the strength to identify his beliefs and fight for it, even if it meant sacrificing his life.

Boy: “the world composed and recomposed itself in an endless process of dissatisfaction.” p.135
Dissatisfaction is what drives man to improve himself. Dissatisfaction in the now gives birth to new ideas, new undertakings and new explorations. Much like the book that is anchored on the change of the family and its members, society will change because man will always be unsatisfied with it.

Emma Goldman: “Friendship is what endures. Shared ideals., respect for the whole character of a human being.” p. 197
I think this line uttered by Emma Goldman was what set Younger Brother to the path he took when he joined the Coalhouse Group. This dialogue also encapsulated Emma’s fight for the worker’s and women’s right, that is to attain a shared ideal or respect of character and thus equality for all walks of life.

Coalhouse Worker: “it is not I who reduced my demands but they who magnified them as long as they resisted them.” p. 337
Such powerful words from a very well-composed character. This line is racism from the view of the oppressed. In racism, it is not the victim that ultimately suffers but the racist who creates for himself a twisted and imaginary world of superior races. Thus, the racist is closing himself to the possibility of new ideas and new experiences by shutting off other races.

Booker T. Washington: “I have had to persuade the white man that he need not fear us or murder us, because we wanted only to improve ourselves and peaceably join him in the enjoyment of the fruits of American democracy.” p.325
This statement was an antithesis to the actions that Coalhouse Walker took when he sought justice and retribution. Booker’s words spoke of the spirit of a peaceful revolution, the framework in which famous leader like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King also adhered to.

Characters

Name
Role in Story
Significance
Adjectives

Father
The patriarch of the main family where the story revolves
He symbolized the American man of that era, adventurous but out of sync with his family due to the image of a man as the head of the family. He was practical and very much devoted to his work.
Practical, explorer, gaunt, honorable

Mother
The matriarch of the main family where the story revolves
She symbolized motherhood and femininity but also showed the changes that the women of that era went through, from being domestic and prim to slowly gaining a foothold as a man’s equal in business and life in general
Affectionate, beautiful,

Younger Brother
The eccentric brother-in-law, brother and uncle
His experiences weaved together feminism, racism and revolting, providing the story a bridge for such issues
Eccentric, lonely, withdrawn, genius,  reckless, respected

Boy
The introspective son, he is the one that charts the changes in the family
The embodiment of the future generation, he was the anti-thesis of the father in the sense that he would observe things rather than explore them.
Introspective, quiet, little, restless, smart, intellectual, alert, strange

Grandfather
The father of mother, he  embodies the past of the family before all the trials came into their lives
His constant attendance in all affairs of the family is a reminder of the West’s lost value in old people. The western current western culture no longer puts that much emphasis on the role of the grandparent sin the family
Ancient, frail, thin, stooped, smelled of mildew

Sarah
The young black girl that left a baby in the family’s garden, she is taken in by Mother and becomes their maid
She was in fact, the source for all the family’s tribulations. Her being part of the family brought forth Coalhouse Sr. and Jr. and opened the family to the issues of racism
Innocent, strong-willed, beautiful, stubborn, young, shy, awkward

Coalhouse Walker
The piano player who woos and marries Sarah and father’s her child. He would become the source for the family’s greatest conflict
His character and search for vindication gripped the latter part of the novel, providing action and drama.
Courteous, talented, strong-willed, respectful, resolute, self-important, stocky, gentleman, well-spoken, reckless

Coalhouse Walker III
The baby of Sarah and eventually adopted by the family
Coalhouse’s baby symbolized the new generation of African American who was borne out of so much tragedy.
Small, loud, happy

Robert Peary
Leader of the North Pole expedition that Father participated in
His portrayal in the story showed the selfishness and callousness of the West with other races in the World.
Large, courageous, callous, disciplined, organized,

Harry Houdini/Erich Weiss
The magician that stayed in the family’s house at the start of the story
This character connected both the local historical events and the international historical events in the book
Mama’s boy, escape artist,

Evelyn Nesbit
The infamous artist’s model who changed the lives of four men in the story: Harry Thaw, Stanley White, Younger Brother and Tateh
It was through her character that the evolving image of the woman was explored in the book
Enigmatic, beautiful, sexy, strong-willed, feminine, manipulative, greedy

Emma Goldman
Worker  and women’s rights activist
The anti-thesis of Evelyn Nesbit

Harry K. Thaw
The husband of Evelyn Nesbit who kills Stanley White
His only figuring in the story led to the meeting of Evelyn and Tateh’s family and his derangement caused the great Harry Houdini to question his profession
Suicidal, deranged, violent

Stanley White
Famous architect who was also Evelyn Nesbit’s benefactor and lover. Shot in the head by Harry Thaw
His only significance in the story was to make Evelyn Nesbit infamous
Fat,

Willie Conklin
The Emerald Fire Brigade Chief who racially abused Coalhouse Walker
He symbolized the racist mindset of that era
Brash, rude, huge

Girl
The daughter of Tateh, she attracts the attention of people who changes the courses of their lives
She symbolized the impoverished children of the early 1900s who were forced to work in the factories
Beautiful, silent, innocent

Tateh/Baron Ashkenazy
A poor immigrant but a talented artist. He starts out as a socialist but flees the a life of poverty turning his skills into a lucrative business
The embodiment of the fate of American immigrants, it was through him that the concept  of rags to riches was explored, a fate that would be a staple in the developing America
As Tateh: poor, desolate, depressed, artistic

As the Baron: energetic, full of life, artistic

Mameh
The wife of Tateh who sews for a living, forced into prostitution to make ends meet for her family
Another embodiment of the woman in the early 1900s who are so impoverished that they would do anything to survive

Coalhouse Boys
Five Black American boys who follow and idolize Coalhouse Walker, adapting his sense of independence and making his vengeance their own
They were the magnification of Coalhouse walker’s retribution, a fanatical group that used violence as the means to conquer the American mindset
Disciplined, neat, well-groomed, fanatical, violent, young, loyal

J.P. Morgan
The richest man of the story’s era, he is the man everyone aims to emulate
Although his story was mostly detached from the fate of the three families, his mansions became the scene of Coalhouse’s last stand
Top of the business puyramid, burly, hard working, ruthless, disappointed

Henry Ford
The inventor of the Ford Motor Company and the assembly line, he captures the interest of J.P. Morgan
The embodiment of the American industrialization, where precision is of importance and time is not wasted
Street smart, lanky, rough, not so cultured

Booker T. Washington
Famous Black American rights advocate, he negotiates with Coalhouse to end his terrorizing in the library of J.P. Morgan
The antithesis of Coalhouse Walker, he embodied the other approach adapted by Black Americans to attain equal rights
Famous, pacifist, good orator, religious, educated

Setting:

            The setting of the story is America in the beginning of the 20th century. Although the places range from the North Pole, to New Rochelle and Atlantic City, the feel and the atmosphere of a newly industrialized America is captured especially in the machines found in the story such as the Model T vehicle, the extensive tram lines and Houdini’s Voisin biplane

 Symbols:

Coalhouse Walker- symbolized the aggressive campaign for Black American Rights

Booker T. Washington- the anti-thesis of Coalhouse, he advocated non-violent means to attain equal rights

JP Morgan’s Library rigged with explosives by the Coalhouse Gang- this represents the Black American’s struggle to open the minds of Americans. The Library represents the American mindset of the Negro and the explosives are the violent actions have been done in the name of equal rights

Coalhouse and Sarah- represented the discriminated Black Americans of that era who tried to live a simple and peaceful life but became victims of their own color

Model T- symbolized the life of Coalhouse, gleaming and well-maintained, that one incident at the Emerald Company destroyed it and thus its owner. Until it was revived and repaired in front of J.P. Morgan’s library where its owner also redeemed his honor by sacrificing himself to save his comrades

Coalhouse Walker Jr. – symbolized the young generation of Black Americans, borne out of tragedy, he was adopted by the family eventually becoming a part of them, just like the new generation of Black Americans who are no longer racially discriminated

Significance of the Opening Scene:

            The opening scene welcomed the reader to the world of the family. It introduced each member of the family and also laid out the issues that dominated the news of that time. It also provided the reader a peek of the personalities in the story and how the family’s life would intertwine with such then famous names such as Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini.

Significance of the ending/closing scene:

            The closing scene tied up much of the lives of members of the family and the other personalities that they came across. Tateh married mother, Emma Goldman was deported, and Younger Brother died at the hands so his own explosive creations, leaving the reader satisfied and not hanging. It ended an era of the ragtime in which the whole novel was played out.

Possible Themes-Topics of Discussion

Racism and how the Black Americans reacted to it.
The evolution of the American family, from a close-knit unit that depended on each other to a fully independent family system
The impact of industrialization of American identity
The polar exploits of J.P. Morgan and Harry Houdini. One was the richest man in America man who was steeped in mysticism and the other was the most famous man of that era who sought to reveal the falsehoods of Mysticism
The changing role of the man and the woman, with a focus on the relationships between Father and Mother, and  Younger Brother, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman

Works Cited

“The Vietnam War”. www.vietnampix.com. Web. Accessed July 26, 2010.<http://www.vietnampix.com/intro4.htm>

“Helsinki Accords.”www.historycentral.com. Web. Accessed July 26, 2010.  <http://www.historycentral.com/Today/HelsinkiAccords.html>

“NY saved from Bankruptcy.”www.historycentral.com. Web. Accessed July 26, 2010. http://www.historycentral.com/Today/NYSaved.html

“Historical Fiction.” Read Write and Think Materials. NCTE/IRA. 2004. Web. Accessed July 27, 2010.

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