By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by E. L. Doctorow
Novels add value to history when they offer context. Published in 1975, Ragtime is a historical novel about the turn of the century. (Ragtime became a Broadway musical in 1998.)
Written and narrated by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime captures time with real and manufactured characters. Credibility, notoriety, and continuity make Ragtime an informative and interesting historical novel.
Doctorow uses famous people in the history of the time for which he writes. These famous people are set in scenes to illustrate the tenor of a historical time. They are players, like actors on the stage of history.
Harry Houdini meets a chief of police that insists his new jail is inescapable. Houdini bets the police chief he can escape the jail. He offers to be stripped naked and jailed in a cell, and to reappear at the police chief’s office in a full set of clothes. The magistrate reluctantly agrees. Houdini is placed in the cell.
He meets Harry Thaw, a criminally insane millionaire murderer.
Houdini escapes, borrows Thaw’s clothes and appears at the Police Chief’s office as planned. Did it happen? The facts make little difference because they give a sense of the times; a feeling that nothing can stop someone in America with a determined personality.
Houdini idolizes his mother and is stricken by her death. He misses her with such grief that he pursues the idea of being able to contact the dead. The rise of séance and reemergence of belief in unseen spirits are endemic at the turn of the century.
Sigmund Freud makes his first appearance in the United States. He deplores America but he brings the principles of the ego, id, and superego (unseen spirits). Freud opens a new era of psychological explanation and pathology. He raises the issues of excessive mother love and the Oedipus Complex.
Ragtime tells a story of American opportunity, and American discrimination. Doctorow creates the story of Coalhouse Walker, an African-American jazz man. Walker abandons a young woman named Sarah. Sarah gives birth to an illegitimate child that she throws into the trash. The child is recovered by a wealthy white woman, whose husband is a successful fireworks manufacturer that travelled with the famous explorer, Robert Peary. The wealthy white woman, known as the character “Mother”, finds and reunites the orphan with his mother Sarah. Coalhouse Walker finds Sarah and the boy and begins to court Sarah with plans to marry.
Coalhouse has become a successful jazz musician. He drives a beautiful Ford convertible. On one of his drives he meets a fire brigade led by Fire Chief Willie Conklin. Conklin damages the musician’s car and dumps horse shit on its seat. Coalhouse is calm when he confronts the Fire Chief and demands restoration. The Fire Chief refuses. Coalhouse is thrown in jail before he can complete his plan to marry Sarah.
Coalhouse tries to get legal satisfaction for restoration of his automobile. He seeks condemnation of the Fire Chief. He demands an apology. The government and private lawyers refuse to help Coalhouse. Coalhouse resorts to vigilantism. His fiancé, Sarah tries to get the government to help Coalhouse. She chooses to confront the President of the United States at a rally. She is struck down by security. She dies in the hospital.
Coalhouse pursues revenge. Coalhouse is branded as a terrorist when he bombs a Fire Station and kills two of the firemen that damaged his car. Coalhouse takes a last stand in another fire station; this time with hostages and a bomb. He makes demand for Conklin’s execution and the return of his automobile. Booker T. Washington is summoned to negotiate a settlement. Washington gets Coalhouse to rescind the Conklin demand. The automobile is restored. Coalhouse commits suicide by cop with release of the hostages and personal surrender.
Every Doctorow’ character, real or imagined, contributes to reader’ understanding of what is happening in America at the turn of the century. Industrialization, wealth, poverty, changing morality, child labor, discrimination, women’s liberation; all are exposed in Doctorow’s historical novel, Ragtime.
There are the famous (1), the real (2), and the imagined (3) that give context to history–all players on the stage of life; in the mind of Doctorow’s imagination.
(1) Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Robert Peary, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, J. P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman)
(2) Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and Harry Thaw
(3) Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Coalhouse Walker, Sarah, and Willie Conklin