M. Keith Booker

University of Arkansas

In his 1975 novel Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow constructs a complex multi-layered historical allegory that paradoxically makes the book both a historical novel very much of the kind once praised by Georg Lukács in relation to bourgeois literature of the early nineteenth century and a demonstration of the impossibility of such historical novels in the postmodern era. Most of the action related in Ragtime takes place between 1906 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, though the novel looks back on events as early as 1902 and forward to events at the beginning of the 1920s. As a whole, the novel can be read as an allegorization of the large and powerful forces that transformed America in the early decades of the twentieth century from a mostly rural provincial backwater to the richest, most powerful, and most industrialized nation on earth. “Its official subject,” Fredric Jameson points out, “is the transition from a pre-World War I radical and working-class politics (the great strikes) to the technological invention and new commodity production of the 1920s” (Postmodernism 22). The first decades of the twentieth century were indeed a time of radical transformation in American society, and Ragtime tracks this transformation quite effectively, even if it necessarily lacks the history-driven narrative drive of the novels of Balzac and the other great novels praised by Georg Lukács in his monumental study of the historical novel. Indeed, one of the central projects of Ragtime is to track the beginnings of the historical developments that would ultimately make such historical novels impossible.

Ragtime as Historical Novel

Ragtime, in many ways, seems like a very simple novel, partly because of the simple, declarative sentences of which it is mostly constructed. On the surface, Ragtime is, first and foremost, an historical novel that vividly evokes the first two decades or so of the twentieth century, one of the most crucial periods in all of American history. It also includes within its narrative some of the most important historical events of this period, such as a complex of images surrounding the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (including the assassination itself), the event that triggered World War I, a world-changing war that destroyed the Russian and Austrio-Hungarian empires, thus virtually sweeping the traditional aristocracy from power in Europe.

The end of the aristocracy is clearly foretold by the events of Ragtime. In one telling scene, late in the text, famous financier and industrialist J. P. Morgan travels across Europe in the days just prior to World War I. On the way, he is met by an almost endless stream of European royalty, coming to him hat in hand to try to sell off their various treasures in order to cash in on their inherited wealth before the onset of the coming conflagration. Morgan’s own contempt for these aristocrats is clear in his conviction that centuries of inbreeding have endowed them with “just the qualities, ignorance and idiocy, they could least afford” (260). In contrast to the dynamic and powerful capitalist Morgan, the decadence and decline of the European aristocracy in the face of growing bourgeois hegemony is obvious.

Ragtime also evokes its historical period by weaving together a number of different narratives involving multiple sets of characters, each pursuing their own stories that reflect the times in which they live. There are at least three different main types of characters in the novel. First are the book’s opposed families of entirely fictional, largely allegorical characters, invented specifically for this novel in order to represent specific socio-historical forces within early-twentieth-century America. Indeed, these characters are not even given names, emphasizing that they are not unique individuals, but representative types. The first, a suburban bourgeois family, is headed by “Father,” a typification of the white American bourgeois patriarch, a status reinforced by the fact that he not only owns his own firm, but that the business of his firm is the commodification of Americanism through the manufacture and sale of “flags and buntings and other accoutrements of patriotism, including fireworks” (3). His wife, simply labeled as “Mother,” similarly stands in for the women of her class who derive the financial benefits (and must cope with the personal and emotional difficulties) of being married to men like Father. Their son is merely “The Little Boy,” living in luxury, but alienated from a father who is too busy succeeding in business and establishing his dominion over the natural world to establish a meaningful personal relationship with his child—or anyone else. Finally, “Mother’s Younger Brother” represents those disaffected white bourgeois males whose alienation is such that they reject the society around them, despite the material advantages and opportunities it offers.

Doctorow is careful to stipulate the comfortable lifestyle of this bourgeois family, with their formulaic three-story brown shingle suburban home in New Rochelle, New York, complete with dormers, bay windows, screened porch, and expensive (if somewhat vulgar) furnishings. In this home, the family is safely shielded from the activity and poverty of the nearby New York City, the elaborate commodities with which they surround themselves being so thoroughly reified as to remove all traces of the immigrant labor that went into their production. In this suburban bourgeois world, Doctorow’s narrator tells us in his distinctive off-hand style, “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants” (3-4).

In fact, there are “Negroes and immigrants,” of course: they are merely kept at a distance from the insulated world of this bourgeois family. The immigrants, indeed, are represented by the book’s second allegorical character group, a family of immigrant Jews without money living on the lower East Side of urban Manhattan. The members of this family again have no names but are simply labeled by the positions they occupy in the family. They include Tateh (the hard-working, socialist-leaning father), Mameh (the selfless, suffering, and unappreciated mother), and The Little Girl (clad in pinafore and lost in confusion amid the heteroglossic immigrant chaos of early-twentieth-century New York). They arrive in America and are processed through Ellis Island at the peak of the immigration boom that supplied workers for America’s emergent consumer capitalism. They assume prototypical lives of poverty and hardship in the East Side tenements, though Mameh is eventually banished from the family by Tateh when he discovers that she has granted sexual favors to her corrupt employer in return for extra money needed to finance their meager existence.

New Rochelle is, of course, a world away from tenement life, but contact between these two families (that is, between the world of bourgeois employers and that of their exploited immigrant workers) is immediately foreshadowed when Father, sailing out of New York Harbor on his way to the North Pole with Admiral Peary, passes a shipload of immigrants like Tateh, Mameh, and their daughter. Father, noting the teeming humanity aboard the immigrant ship, is overcome with a “weird despair” at this sudden reminder of the source of his wealth. But Father, of course, needs these immigrants, despite his preference that they remain invisible. The ship, after all, is only bringing more workers and more customers, “for the immigrant population set great store by the American flag” (13).

Ragtime also includes a third, African American, family, though this one is treated somewhat differently. For one thing, the father in this family is ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who is thus immediately distinguished from Father and Tateh by virtue of having a name, which makes him seem somewhat more of a specific individual than simply a signifier of his family function. It is also the case that Walker functions more as an individual agent in the plot than as a husband and father. Indeed, he never gets a chance to live with his wife, Sarah, and their infant child as a family because of other events that intercede, eventually leading to the deaths of both Walker and Sarah in different incidences of official violence, leaving their child to be brought up by the bourgeois family.

As numerous critics have noted, the name of Coalhouse Walker also calls attention to the extensive parallels between his story and that of the eponymous protagonist of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 historical novella Michael Kohlhaas.[1] Walker thus also has a somewhat different ontological status than that of Father and Tateh, both of whom are wholly Doctorow’s invention, even if he conceives them as products of history. Walker, though, is derived at least in part from a previous work of fiction, though one that was itself also inspired by real historical events. Indeed, Lukács identifies Michael Kohlhaas as the greatest nineteenth-century German historical novel (67).

To complicate matters still further, one of the most striking features of Ragtime is the inclusion of numerous characters who are ostensibly real-world historical figures, while these figures themselves are of several different types. For example, the novel includes a fourth “family” of characters consisting of Evelyn Nesbit, her abusive husband Harry K. Thaw, and her sometime lover, architect Stanford White. What many readers might not recognize is that these three characters were also real historical figures, who played important roles in their time but might not be remembered well enough to be recognized by most readers. Among other things, their rather tawdry story illustrates the fact that there has long been such a side to American society, while Nesbit’s status as perhaps the first American sex symbol suggests the way in which the rise of consumerism in America also involved a growing tendency toward commodification of human beings as marketable products, with women, in particular, treated as sexual commodities.

Nesbit becomes a fairly important character in the novel, befriending Tateh and his daughter and briefly becoming the lover of Mother’s Younger Brother. Other historical figures are introduced in brief cameos and do not participate in the events of the plot of the novel. The two most important figures of this type are Sigmund Freud and Henry Ford. Freud is introduced via an anecdote concerning his one and only trip to America in 1909, a trip during which he was appalled by what he saw as the vulgarity and commercialism of an America in the midst of the early-twentieth-century rise of consumerism. America, he declares in the text (as he reportedly did in reality), is a gigantic mistake. Ford’s appearance is a bit more significant in that it essentially presents a brief character sketch of this famous (and widely admired) figure, somewhat along the lines of the biographies of prominent Americas that are inserted in the U.S.A. Trilogy (1930–1936) of John Dos Passos, Doctorow’s most important literary predecessor[2]. As is often the case with the biography segments of U.S.A., the sketch of Ford in Ragtime is also a political critique: it focuses on the rather sinister nature of Ford’s attempts to exploit his assembly-line workers with maximum ruthlessness and efficiency. Describing Ford’s famous development of his highly effective manufacturing process, the narrator of this segment notes that, ultimately, Ford “established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture—not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts” (136).

This description, of course, closely parallels the arguments by Karl Marx that the capitalist system tends to reduce human beings to the status of mere commodities whose only value lies in what they can contribute to the economic system. It also helps to establish Doctorow’s critical attitude toward the rise of consumerism in America. Meanwhile, the representation of Morgan is a little less unequivocally negative, though there is clearly a problematic side to his project of scooping up treasures from the rest of the world in order to bring them to America, which he clearly regards as superior to the rest of the world. But Morgan is also different from Ford in that he plays a role, if an indirect one, in the plot because some of the novel’s most important events involve the Morgan Library, depository of his collected treasures.

Other famous historical figures play an even more direct role in the text. In the first actual event narrated in the book, none other than famous escape artist Harry Houdini (himself a Jewish immigrant from Hungary originally named Erik Weiss) crashes his shiny new car into a telephone pole in front of the home of the bourgeois family, much to the excitement of The Boy (one of Houdini’s biggest fans) and much to the annoyance of The Father (interrupted during his weekly Sunday evening postprandial intercourse with Mother). Again, this single moment allegorizes numerous historical forces, announcing not only the intrusion of Jewish immigrants (largely through success is show business) into the monied classes of America, but also the crucial role to be played by technology and industry in the transformation of American society in the early part of the twentieth century. Automobiles serve throughout Ragtime as the quintessential American commodity and as allegorical stand-ins for the dramatic social and economic changes underway in the America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Among other things, the crashing of Houdini’s car anticipates the later trashing of Coalhouse Walker’s, providing one element of the book’s complex constellation of images linking the culture of Jewish immigrants to that of African Americans.

Houdini interacts briefly with the bourgeois family after the crash, but otherwise he plays no direct role in the plot, nor does he interact with the central characters. He does, however, have a brief encounter with Franz Ferdinand, who mistakes the magician (who was, in fact, an early flying enthusiast) for the inventor of the airplane. Moreover, the novel also relates the way in which Houdini spent much of the latter part of his career debunking psychics and mediums and revealing them to be mere con artists, which reminds us that consumer capitalism has included an element of trickery and dishonesty from the very beginning. Structurally, the anarchist Emma Goldman essentially serves as a counterpart to Ford and Morgan, representing a political perspective that is virtually the opposite of that represented by these rich capitalists. And, while her perspective differs somewhat from that of the socialist Doctorow (or the socialist Tateh), she is represented quite positively in the text as a wise and courageous figure—until she exits when deported in 1919 amid a wave of repression of leftist activity now known as the “First Red Scare.”[3] Meanwhile, Goldman becomes directly involved in the plot of the novel, to which she makes an important contribution by becoming an inspiration for the politicization of Mother’s Younger Brother, who uses his expertise with explosives to aid Walker in his quest for justice.

The complex entanglement of fictional and historical personages within Ragtime  poses significant interpretive complications. Part of the fun of reading the novel is trying to figure out which characters and events are “real” and which are fictional. Of course, it is not quite accurate to describe characters such as Nesbit, Freud, Morgan, Goldman as “real,” in the sense that they all become fictional characters of a sort once they are imported into a novel. Meanwhile, any attempt to trace the “real” events within the novel is complicated by the fact that Doctorow has laced the text with events that are clearly based on historical reality but are not represented entirely accurately. In addition, there are inexplicable events, such as the fact that The Little Boy, after Houdini has visited the family in the wake of his crash, exhorts Houdini to “warn the duke,” apparently foreseeing (without explanation) both that Houdini will meet Franz Ferdinand and that Franz Ferdinand will be assassinated (10).

The Politics of Ragtime

Ragtime deals with a number of specific events and issues in American history in the early twentieth century. And Doctorow, a socialist, makes his own attitudes toward these events and issues very clear. His sympathies are clearly with the poor and the downtrodden, with the “Negroes” and immigrants who are so marginalized within the early-twentieth-century America of the book. Doctorow also shows an intense awareness of the important historical transformatons that were underway in America in the first decades of the twentieth century, as well as understanding that these events ultimately strengthened the grip of capitalism on the nation and defeated what was once a genuine hope of working-class liberation.

Among the transformations captured within Ragtime is the process of globalization that was already in the era in which Ragtime is set, ultimately becoming central to American political and economic power. Kipling’s notorious turn-of-the-century poem “The White Man’s Burden” is, we should recall, about American imperialism, not British, and the Americans were beginning to make a number of gestures toward globalizing their growing power. For example, within Ragtime itself, an American exploration party conquers the North Pole, on the way describing Eskimos via Orientalist stereotypes that would have done nineteenth-century British anthropologists proud; American marines invade Mexico to help ensure that the Mexican Revolution will not spread northward; Morgan mimics another classic Orientalist gesture when he collects Egyptian artifacts in an attempt to renew the spiritual energies of his reified modern world. And then, of course, there is that moment when Morgan visits the Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, which he reveres for their spiritual resonance, but is appalled to find the site contaminated by members of the New York Giants baseball team cavorting in full uniform. American culture, it would seem, was already spreading across the globe in 1914.

One of the clearest ways in which the United States had increased contact with the rest of the world in the early twentieth century was in the massive wave of immigration that was one of the central events of this period in American history—and of this novel. Doctorow, himself descended from Russian Jewish immigrants, is well aware of this history, of course. He is also aware that these immigrants were not always greeted with enthusiasm by the Americans who were already here, a fact easily discernible in Doctorow’s parodic description of the way immigrants, arriving in large numbers from Italy and Eastern Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century, are regarded in highly stereotypical ways by “real” Americans, especially those whose own parents were immigrants themselves:

“They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes” (14).

For most readers, the story of Walker is probably the one that will most stand out in this novel, and in this sense the issue that is most highlighted at the level of plot is the history of racism in America. At the level of political commentary delivered directly by the narrator, though, there may be even more emphasis on the exploitation of workers within the American capitalist system. In one long passage that immediately follows Freud’s diagnosis of America as a gigantic mistake, the narrator reminds us that many American workers might agree, given their shabby treatment at the time. He then reminds readers of the low wages and bad working conditions that then prevailed in America—and of the attempt to suppress labor unions in order to maintain this exploitative treatment. He particularly reminds us of the exploitation of child labor during this period. Then he suggests that there might be connections between American racism and the exploitation of American workers: “One hundred Negroes a year were lynched. One hundred miners were burned alive. One hundred children were mutilated. There seemed to be quotas for these things. There seemed to be quotas for death by starvation” (40).

The narrator then continues to note the obscene performances often staged by the rich at the time, ostensibly to raise money for charities to help the poor but really as a way of justifying the system that made them poor in the first place, in the meantime obscenely converting the poor into amusing spectacles for the entertainment of the rich instead of human beings plunged into suffering and despair by the rich:

“At palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. Guests came dressed in rags and ate from tin plates and drank from chipped mugs. Ballrooms were decorated to look like mines with beams, iron tracks and miner’s lamps. Theatrical scenery firms were hired to make outdoor gardens look like dirt farms and dining rooms like cotton mills. Guests smoked cigar butts offered to them on silver trays. Minstrels performed in blackface. One hostess invited everyone to a stockyard ball. Guests were wrapped in long aprons and their heads covered with white caps. They dined and danced while hanging carcasses of bloody beef trailed around the walls on moving pulleys. Entrails spilled on the floor. The proceeds were for charity” (40).

The mention of these poverty balls calls attention to the growing tendency toward spectacle that was common in American society at the time, a tendency that was a crucial element of what was probably the most important change taking place in America in the first decades of the twentieth century: the transformation of American capitalism from its nineteenth-century production-oriented form to the new consumerist form that still prevails today, though in a more advanced form. In what is still the best study of this transformation, William Leach notes the rise of consumer capitalism during the decades, documenting that rise with a rich array of examples.

In an example that seems particularly relevant to Ragtime, Leach cites the 1913 silkworkers’ strike in Paterson, New Jersey, for which organizers attempted to gain the support of workers in nearby New York by literally re-enacting the strike in fictionalized form as a pageant held in and around Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. The ensuing spectacle, however, did little to win support for the strike and in fact diverted so much energy from the strike that it ultimately might have contributed to its collapse (Leach 188). More importantly, the very idea of converting the strike into a pageant was shot through with the premises of capitalist marketing, representing an unconscious and inadvertent capitulation to the very capitalist ideas that the strike was meant to oppose. For Leach, then, this pageant “exposed the extent to which the new commercial culture was beginning to penetrate the ideological center of American life, and to what degree it had established—even in the heart of labor radicalism—the character of what people longed for and fought for” (189).

The failure of the Paterson silkworkers’ strike was an important victory of American capitalism over an American labor movement that had been, until that time, gaining momentum in the early years of the new century. For example, just one year before, the mostly immigrant textile workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, had won an important strike victory over their employers, thanks to the leadership of the radical union, the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.). Within a year, though, the I.W.W. had virtually collapsed, and capital had clearly gained the upper hand in its battle against labor representing an important turn toward the defeat of the American Left, a defeat that is a key subject of Ragtime.

Doctorow also directly (and very critically) addresses the rise of consumer capitalism within the pages of Ragtime. Father’s business, built on the marketing of flags, fireworks, and other items for use in patriotic spectacles, is a classic example of early-twentieth-century consumer capitalism. One of the more subtle ways Doctorow acknowledges the rise of consumerism in Ragtime is through the occasional inclusion of long lists of items, thereby suggesting the sudden proliferation of things in early-twentieth-century America. Some of these lists are particularly telling. For example, having newly arrived in Philadelphia in the wake of Tateh’s participation in the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, Tateh and his daughter are amazed by the goods on offer at a fancy department store there. But then Tateh is even more excited when he comes upon a shop selling a variety of novelty items, realizing that they might be interested in marketing the flipbooks he has been making. And interested they are, because

“at this time businessmen were discovering the profit in practical jokes and parlor magic tricks. There were exploding cigars, rubber roses for the lapel that squirted water, boxes of sneezing powder, telescopes that left black eyes, exploding card decks, sound bladders for placing under chair cushions, glass paperweights with winter scenes on which snow fell when you shook them, exploding matches, punch-boards, little lead liberty bells and statues of liberty, magic rings, exploding fountain pens, books that told you the meaning of dreams, rubber Egyptian belly dancers, exploding watches, exploding eggs” (132).

This list constitutes a subtle critique of consumerism and its efforts to generate profits by convincing people to buy things they don’t really need. In particular, this moment reminds us of the sometimes-tawdry nature of consumerism, which has so often tended toward the production of cheap trinkets, rather than items that might genuinely improve the quality of consumers’ lives.

Another list, near the end of Ragtime, is even more ominous. Here we learn that, before his death in Mexico, Mother’s Younger Brother had drawn up the plans for a number of innovative weapons to use against capitalism (which Father then sells to the U.S. government for military use in support of capitalism). These inventions include such items as “a recoilless rocket grenade launcher, a low-pressure land mine, sonar-directed depth charges, infrared illuminated rifle sights, tracer bullets, a repeater rifle, a lightweight machine gun, a shrapnel grenade, puttied nitroglycerine and a portable flame thrower” (317). We are thus reminded of the large portion of the newly ramped-up American manufacturing capability that would go into the production of highly destructive weapons that would ultimately rain destruction on both military and civilian populations all over the world.

Ragtime and Show Business

One of the key aspects of the rise of consumer capitalism in America was the growth of a powerful entertainment industry that ultimately spread its influence around the world. Houdini, for example, is, first and foremost, an entertainer (in vaudeville and in his own shows); the fact that he figures in multiple anecdotes in the novel helps to illustrate the important role played by show business in the rise of American consumerism, which converted marketing into a form of showmanship. The birth of this modern entertainment industry is, in fact, one of the central concerns of Ragtime, as its title, based on a form of popular music, suggests.

Among other things, Ragtime’s title points to the fact that Coalhouse Walker himself is a professional musician, a fact that combines with the title of Doctorow’s book to call attention to the central role played by African American culture in modern American cultural history. For example, if the very word “ragtime” can evoke the spirit of the years leading up to World War I (making Doctorow’s title very effective), it is also true that the very word “jazz” can be used to evoke the decade following the war. Walker is a formidable and impressive figure; his tragic fate in the novel can be taken as an allegorization of the continual appropriation of black culture by the white cultural establishment, that baleful history in which blacks provide the cultural invention and energy, while whites come along later to take the credit (and the profits).

The motif of popular culture is also important in Doctorow’s presentation of the Jewish immigrant family. By the end of the novel, Tateh has become a success in the burgeoning American film industry (where many immigrants and Jews, in fact, achieved great success), ending the book by wedding the widowed Mother, thus cementing his place in polite American society. He solidifies his fortune as well, hitting upon the idea of cashing in on America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by producing a series of Our Gang-like films featuring a multi-ethnic group of “ragamuffins.” This series turns out to be his biggest moneymaker of all: the lovable waifs are young enough that their ethnicity can pose no threat to the official racist ideology of America, while their tension-free relationship serves to obscure the very real ethnic tensions that inform the society at large.

However, the participation of African Americans and Jews in the American entertainment industry has been far from simple. One recalls here the crucial role, outlined by Michael Rogin, played by blackface in the historical process through which Jews inserted themselves into American culture partially through an appropriation of black cultural energies in complex ways that allowed Jews to proclaim themselves white.[4] Focusing on the seminal 1927 film The Jazz Singer (prominent in film history as the first “talkie”), Rogin outlines the centrality of Jews to the development of the American film industry, while at the same time insisting that “every transformative moment in the history of American film has founded itself on the surplus symbolic value of blacks, the power to make African Americans stand for something besides themselves” (230). For Rogin, the plot of The Jazz Singer (in which little Jakie Rabinowitz becomes the jazz singer Jack Robin in order to escape the European Jewish culture of his father and thereby become a real American) provides an allegory of the importance of the entertainment industry to the cultural and economic assimilation of Jews in America. The Jazz Singer includes a striking scene in which star Al Jolson dons his famous blackface, thus allegorizing the phenomenon through which African Americans supply cultural energy, while Jewish performers like Jolson become stars and Jewish entrepreneurs like the Warner Brothers become rich.[5]

And, as if the negative implications of this commodification of ethnicity were not enough, the romance ending implied by the domestic bliss of Tateh (now calling himself Baron Ashkenazy) and Mother (with their own collection of multi-ethnic children) is further undermined by a final announcement that Emma Goldman has been deported, the would-be sex goddess Evelyn Nesbit has fallen into obscurity, and the murderous magnate Harry Thaw has been released from his insane asylum to become a big booster of Americanism, marching annually in the reified utopia of the Armistice Day parade. The transformations of the early twentieth-century have been a triumph for capitalism, but not necessarily a good thing for America.

Ragtime as Postmodern Novel

In his essay “False Documents,” Doctorow comments on the mixture of history and fiction that appears in so many of his novels:

History is a kind of fiction in which we live and hope to survive, and fiction is a kind of speculative history, perhaps a superhistory, by which the available data for the composition is seen to be greater and more various in its sources than the historian supposes. … There is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction: there is only narrative. (25-6)

Doctorow’s skepticism toward the possibility of an authoritative account of history is one of the characteristics that mark his work as postmodern. Relevant here is Linda Hutcheon’s delineation of postmodern fiction that involves play with history as “historiographic metafiction.” Indeed, she draws in particular upon numerous Doctorow novels (Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Loon Lake, and—most extensively—Ragtime) as exemplars  of this phenomenon (130–39). For Hutcheon, however, there is much more at stake here than textual play: to her, historiographic metafiction is highly political in that its main thrust is to challenge the authority of official versions of history. Hutcheon goes on to delineate some of the political implications of the play with history in Ragtime noting, for example, its “extended critique of American democratic ideals through the presentation of class conflict rooted in capitalist property and moneyed power” (62).

Jameson, who sees postmodern fiction as far less effectively subversive than does Hutcheon, notes Hutcheon’s analysis of Ragtime and responds that “Hutcheon is, of course, absolutely right, and this is what the novel would have meant had it not been a postmodern artifact” (22). But, for Jameson, the meaning of Ragtime is far more complex than Hutcheon indicates, due to the fact that the postmodern character of the text undermines any attempt at simple and straightforward interpretation. Jameson further says of Ragtime that“this historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’)” (Jameson 25). In short, we have already seen so many representations of the historical material contained within Ragtime that Doctorow cannot possibly bring that past to us except as mediated through those previous representations.

In addition, Jameson argues that the intermixture of characters from different ontological levels creates an interpretive instability that makes it impossible to come up with a reliable interpretation of the text as a whole. All of this, for Jameson, is an intentional strategy designed to express in the only way available the historical experience of the defeat of the Left in America, due to what Jameson calls the “disappearance of the historical referent,” which is a direct result of the triumph of capitalism and the defeat of the Left (25).

In any case, Doctorow does not simply disavow coherent narratives of history. On the contrary, he evokes (in poignant and painful detail) the historical processes that have made such narratives inaccessible to us. Thus, Jameson, giving the screw of interpretation an extra turn, finds the historical vision of the book entirely “authentic,” in that it corresponds directly to the “existential fact of life that there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from our schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life” (Postmodernism 22). Calling Doctorow “one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the United States today,” Jameson describes Doctorow’s work as a marker of the “postmodern fate” of the “real history” that formed the materia poetica of the classic historical novel.

In addition, Barbara Foley concludes that Ragtime should not be seen as a return to the practice of the classic historical novel as described by Lukács because Walker is in no way typical of his age and the pivotal events surrounding Walker do not constitute “a plausible occurrence of the times” (95). Moreover, Foley suggests that, by making Walker more typical of black resistance in the 1960s than in the Progressive era, Doctorow introduces deliberate and often outrageous anachronisms that make his fiction more a commentary on the present than the past: “Doctorow seems to be implying that accurate representation of the past is less crucial than revelation of the haunting continuity of the past in the present” (96).

Foley’s observation sheds light on the key moment in Ragtime when historical figure Booker T. Washington (that quintessential figure of moderation in the quest for racial equality in America) enters the Morgan Library (while Morgan is off in Europe) to negotiate with Walker, who (with his followers) has occupied the library to demand justice and respect from the white establishment of New York after the trashing of his (Ford) automobile by a group of white racist firemen. Within Ragtime,Walker and Washington are both essentially allegorical figures that can be taken as embodiments of different strategies for the pursuit of racial justice in America, much as many historians would oppose Washington to the more radical W.E.B. Dubois (or even Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X). That Washington is a “real” figure from American history, while Walker is a fictional figure derived from a German novel, however, already suggests a potential instability in this seemingly neat allegorical structure. Indeed, Walker and Washington are radically incommensurate figures who differ not just because one is “real” and the other fictional. In fact, it might be even more important that Washington is a character typical of and shaped by this era in history, while Walker is a black militant of a kind that simply did not exist during this era.

Finally, there are also more subtle ways in which Doctorow suggests the difficulty of historical representation by sprinkling his text with slight historical inaccuracies. For example, Morgan’s encounter with the baseball team when he goes to Egypt has some basis in a rather minor historical event. On February 1, 1914, the Giants and the Chicago White Sox, as part of a world exhibition tour that was eventually cut short by the outbreak of World War I, played an exhibition game in Giza, with the Great Pyramid as a backdrop[6]. But Doctorow scrambles the chronology a bit here. The archduke was not assassinated until June 28, but Morgan visits Egypt after encountering those idiot aristocrats in Europe, suggesting that the aristocrats could see World War I coming well before the February 1 date of that exhibition game, which is highly unlikely. Meanwhile, the novel depicts Morgan as dying in Rome soon after his departure from Egypt. The problem, though, is that, while the real J. P. Morgan did indeed die in Rome while traveling abroad, he died there on March 31, 1913, not 1914.

We are also told that Morgan had attempted to get Ford to accompany him on his trip to Europe but that Ford had declined due to the fact that he was heavily involved in negotiations with an inventor who claimed to have developed a green pill that would be able to fuel Ford’s motorcars (178). Once again, there is a historical basis for this anecdote. Long Island inventor Louis Enricht did, in fact, claim to have invented a green liquid, a few drops of which could turn a bucket of water into viable fuel. And he did gain Ford’s interest in the supposed invention—which of course turned out to be a hoax. Far from being a genius inventor, Enricht was a simple con man who eventually wound up in prison. All of that is well and good, but it was in 1916, not 1914, that Enricht unveiled the scheme that drew Ford’s attention[7].

One could argue that Doctorow has simply changed the chronology of a few events for dramatic effect and that this minor inconsistency in dates is of little significance. However, there are also other small errors and inconsistencies in the text. For example, one of the first clearly recognizable indications of the date of an event in the novel occurs when reference is made to “the inauguration parade and ball the following January, when Mr. Taft was expected to succeed Mr. Roosevelt” (42). William Howard Taft, the chosen successor to Teddy Roosevelt, was indeed elected president in November of 1908, subsequently becoming president in 1909. Modern readers will probably not see any problem with this passage, because we are accustomed to presidential inaugurations occurring in January. In point of fact, though, Taft was inaugurated on March 4, the usual date of such inaugurations between 1793 and 1933, when it was shifted to the current January 20 date. It is possible, of course, that Doctorow was simply a bit sloppy here. I would argue however, that such small errors can be taken as subtle hints of the difficulty of representing the past accurately and directly.


Diedrich, Maria. “E. L. Doctorow’s Coalhouse Walker Jr.: Fact in Fiction.” E. L. Doctorow: A Democracy of Perception. Ed. Herwig Friedl and Dieter Schulz. Essen: Verlag die blaue eule, 1988. 113-23.

Doctorow, E. L. “False Documents.” New American Review, Vol. 26, November 1977, pp. 215–32.

Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1975.

Foley, Barbara. “From U.S.A. to Ragtime: Notes on the Forms of Historical Consciousness in Modern Fiction.” American Literature, vol. 50, no. 1, 1978, pp. 85–105.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage-Random House, 1993.

Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Translated by Hannah Mitchell and Stanley Mitchell, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Pizer, Donald. Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.”: A Critical Study. University of Virginia Press, 1988.

Roberts, Brian. “Blackface Minstrelsy and Jewish Identity: Fleshing Out Ragtime as the Central Metaphor in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.” Critique, vol. 45, no. 3, Spring 2004, pp. 247–59.

Rogin, Michael. “Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice.” New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds. Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 230–66.

Seelye, John. “Doctorow’s Dissertation.” New Republic, No. 174, April 10, 1976, pp. 21–23.


[1] See Diedrich for an interesting argument that, in addition to the Kleist allusion, the “Walker” in this character’s name invokes early-nineteenth-century black activist David Walker, while the “Jr.” invokes Martin Luther King, Jr., giving the character sources in both literature and history.

[2] Numerous critics have noticed the similarities between U.S.A. and Ragtime. See, for example, Seelye, who describes Doctorow’s book as what one might get by putting the materials of Dos Passos’s massive trilogy in a “compactor” (22). On U.S.A. as a historical novel of the kind valued by Lukács, see Pizer (72).

[3] The Second Red Scare, of course, involved the anticommunist hysteria that followed World War II.

[4] Blackface plays a direct role in Ragtime when Mother’s Younger Brother dons blackface to join Coalhouse Walker’s otherwise black gang. On the larger significance of blackface in relation to Ragtime, see Roberts.

[5] As Rogin notes, the most commercially successful figures of the “Jazz Age” were white, and most of them were Jewish. He notes that figures such as Jolson, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Sophie Tucker remain the era’s best-known stars, while the most popular band of the 1920s was led by the tellingly named Paul Whiteman (Rogin 254).

[6] An account of this game can be found on-line at http://onthisdayinsports.blogspot.com/2014/02/february-1-1914-white-sox-and-giants.html.

[7] A New York Times article from 1964, describing Enright and similar fake inventors, can be found on-line at https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1964/04/05/106954628.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0.