RAGTIME Ragtime is the story of three New York families that become intertwined with life and the people who epitomized it. They come in contact with not only one another but with great people of their time, including Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford. It takes place in the early nineteenth century, leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the Great War.
The story begins its course with a description of a family living in New Rochelle, New York. The family consists of Mother, Father, Mother's Younger Brother, The Boy, and Grandfather. They are given no distinct names. For a good portion of the novel, the actions and incidents of Evelyn Nesbit are traced. Evelyn is a prostitute to the rich. Her husband, Harry K. Thaw is put into the insane asylum for the murder of famous architect Stanford White.
She begins to pursue a secret interest in Manhattan in a poor socialist immigrant who makes silhouette portraits on the street. He has a little girl whom he keeps in close watch to save her from the harsh dangers of the street. The immigrant's name is Tateh. Evelyn pursues a relationship with him and his daughter due to the lack of substance and value in her life. After attending a rally in which anarchist Emma Goldman speaks, Evelyn loses all contact with Tateh. She then becomes acquainted with Emma Goldman herself who enlightens Evelyn with talk of freeing herself from the society that oppresses her. All this time Mother's Younger Brother had been stalking Evelyn in admiration of her. The two finally cross paths and form a relationship. Back at the household in New Rochelle, Mother and Father's relationship is tried along with their happiness. Mother discovers a Negro baby one-day in the flowerbed and takes the boy under her wing. The mother is tracked down, a silent girl named Sarah, and she too is given a place in the household. Eventually this leads to the visits of the father, a well-distinguished Negro gentleman by the name of Coalhouse Walker. Coalhouse Walker is harassed by a bigot fire chief and his car is defiled. He demands justice for this act, and society's lack of cooperation along with the death of Sarah eventually causes him to become an arsonist and murderer. To avoid the intensity of the situation the family stays in Atlantic City for a while where they come to live with Tateh and the little girl. Tateh was driven from New York City by his dissatisfaction and poverty. He had since proliferated on the lucrative business of filmmaking. Tateh was finally happy with his life. The life of Younger Brother takes strange turns after he loses contact with Evelyn. He seeks help from Emma Goldman and becomes a supporter of many radical causes. He starts with the assassination of President McKinley, and later becomes a follower of Coalhouse Walker. After Coalhouse's attempts at recompense end, Younger Brother drives to Mexico where he became a follower of Fransisco Villa, and is killed. The climax of the story occurs when the events of Coalhouse Walker unfold. He and a band of followers murder several firemen and burn several fire stations. At last he demands his car returned and the fire chief brought to justice in a showdown at the library of J. Pierpont Morgan who is in Europe at the time. When the car is reconstructed, Walker lets his followers leave with impunity while he allows for his own execution. He maintains his dignity through the entire ordeal. Father is killed in the beginning of WWI aboard the Lusitania. This is slightly ironic because the very weaponry used to sink this vessel was invented by Younger Brother, and printed in blueprints, which he gave to Father. Tateh and Mother marry following Father's death. Emma Goldman is deported for being an anarchist.
E.L. Doctorow was born in New York City. A well educated man, he attend the Bronx School of Science, acquired an associates degree with honors from Kenyon College, and also attended Columbia University. Doctorow became well associated with teaching and writing. He spread his knowledge at universities such as Irvine, the University of California, Yale University Drama School, and Princeton. He currently works at the University of New York. His writings are highly regarded and to some controversial. Ragtime was written while he was associated with the Creative Artists' Service. It won the first national book critics circle award for fiction in 1976, and the arts and letters award given by the American academy and national institute of arts and letters. When I read Ragtime I noticed that Doctorow had a distinct writing style. He was very straight forward, writing in short sentences. I found this to be a positive element in understanding the novel.
It seems that the author's intentions for Ragtime were simple: to illustrate profoundly the lives and compassion of people of this particular generation, as well as to exemplify many powerful human emotions. The lives of Harry Houdini and J.P. Morgan are described in significant depth. Although they have little to do with the main plot, these descriptions help to deliver the effect of the novel in its entirety. The description of these men's lives contributes to another purpose of the author. Doctorow wanted to show that happiness was not material, but something one must seek and achieve. Houdini is frustrated deeply with his life, he feels that he has been wasting his time amusing people, and has no significant accomplishments. Although he has made a decent living, he longs for more. This inspires him to learn how to fly a plane and a feeling of accomplishment is acquired. He is greatly grieved by the death of his beloved mother. This grief is concentrated into the pursuit of means of communication to the nonliving. Another man in pursuit at this time is Pierpont Morgan. Perhaps the most successful businessman of his time, Morgan is still dissatisfied with his life. He seeks something grander, and looks all over the world to find it. Finally his attention is caught by the fascination of ancient Egyptian philosophy. He seeks the companionship of Henry Ford, however Ford turns out to be a simple businessman, who profits off of the energy of the American People. Morgan comes to believe in reincarnation and eventually dies peacefully in Rome. Tateh lives poorly for many years until finally he seeks a better place a solid future. His attitude and spirit are uplifted when he moves to Atlantic City. He finally finds peace when his passion of filmmaking is established and his daughter is placed in healthier conditions. Younger Brother becomes a tragic example of attempts at fulfillment. He ends up reverting to radical and violent activities in order to make something of himself. To help contribute to the story were Doctorow's vivid illustrations of issues and emotions. A definite strength of the novel, these emotions stirred in every character's mind. Younger Brother demonstrates the power of lust with his pursuit of Evelyn Nesbit. He later realizes this is superficial and turns his attention to other things. Anger and revenge fill the brain of Coalhouse Walker as well as despair and grief over the deceased Sarah.
Ragtime is the story of people seeking satisfaction with their lives. The feelings of lust, love, despair, grief, frustration, anger, revenge, and torment, power them to seek life as it is and find themselves. Even Evelyn Nesbit becomes so distraught with dissatisfaction that she makes attempts at fulfillment. All the main characters had different goals in their lives, but also shared a common feeling of motivation. This motivation caused many to find contentedness, while others were lead down paths of wrongdoing.