Thursday, August 27, 2020

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (novel #156)

…is injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s?


Ragtime is historical fiction, set mostly in New York at the turn of the 20thCentury [1902 – 1912].

One hundred Negroes a year were lynched. One hundred miners were buried alive. One hundred children were mutilated. There seemed to be quotas for these things. There seemed to be quotas for death by starvation.

It tells the tale of an upper middle class family, identified only as Father, Mother, Mother’s younger brother, the Boy, and Grandfather. The story centers around The Family, but the main character is Coalhouse Walker Jr., a successful African-American jazz musician. 


Doctorow also includes numerous historical persons, such as Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbitt, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, and many more. 


Their lives are intricately intertwined, most fatefully those of The Family and Coalhouse. 


Coalhouse is a masterful musician. When he played for the family…

There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by the music.

He is successful, independent, courteous, and responsible, until he suffers a hateful injustice at the hands of ignorant men, who resent his success and perceived arrogance.

Apparently it did not occur to him to ingratiate himself in the fashion of his race.

Coalhouse tries every legal avenue possible, but when all fail, he exacts justice on his own terms. His actions have far-ranging affect, including consequences for The Family. Father, is a decent man…

He did not believe in aristocracy except of the individual effort and vision.

So he tries to help Coalhouse, and yet…

It seemed to be his [Coalhouse’s] fault, somehow, because he was Negro and it was the kind of problem that would only adhere to a Negro. His monumental negritude sat in front of them like a centerpiece on the table.

Still Father tries to do the right thing, but…

Father wondered at this moment if their lives might no longer be under their control.

In spite of obvious comparison to recent events, the timing of my read of Ragtime was purely coincidental, though certainly made more poignant. It is not a fun or easy read. I thought Doctorow did a masterful job of weaving all the stories into one culmination. The historical characters gave reality to the setting and plausibility to the plot. While the terrible consequence of one injustice left unanswered is the main point, the range of characters made a powerful rendering of the American experience in the early 19thcentury. I’ll definitely read more by E. L. Doctorow.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies square O5, Classic of the Americas in the 2020 Classic Bingo Challenge.


Other excerpts:


America was a great farting country.


They [European aristocracy] had been marrying one another for so many centuries that they had bred into themselves just the qualities, ignorance and idiocy, they could least afford.




  1. This one is on my TBR. He wrote one on the burning of Atlanta I'd like to read.

    A few years ago Mom & I went to a live performance of Ragtime the musical. SO GOOD AND I RECOMMEND IT.

    1. It seems like an odd subject for a musical, but I imagine someone said the same about Alexander Hamilton. Thanks for the link. I started watching thinking it was a trailer...but hey, that's the entire musical! I'll definitely watch it, though I may watch the 1981 non-musical film rendition first.

      Make you a deal: I'll watch the musical; you read the book :)

  2. I loved this book when I first read it, over 20 years ago now. I have read a few Docterow titles since but they haven't quite lived up to the esteem I held for Ragtime. But I keep buying them when I see them second hand! I'd be curious to hear what you think of his other books.

    1. I haven't read a ton of historical fiction, but Doctorow may be my favorite thus far.


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