Book Written By E.L. Doctorow (Random House, $16, 336 Pages, Paperback)
by Harvey Freedenberg

For the last few years, I’ve devoted one of these columns each year to reflections on re-reading a favorite novel, like James Salter’s Light Yearsor Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam story collection, The Things They Carried.

I decided to start off this year by returning to E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 classic, Ragtime, included on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th Century. For me, the novel has become better with time and, in a year when our political debates will focus on highly charged issues, like immigration and racial equality, even more, pertinent than when it was published.

Ragtime’s plot develops out of the stories of two nuclear families at the turn of the 20th Century: a well-to-do one living in New Rochelle, New York, whose characters are given only the generic names Father, Mother (and her Younger Brother) and a Jewish immigrant father and his young daughter struggling to find a new life in America. In very different ways, both families are thrust into the maelstrom of history, as their lives and those of other characters intersect with a diverse group of real-life figures, like Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Sigmund Freud and Harry Houdini, in an exhilarating mingling of fiction and fact.

Over the decade from 1906 to the eve of America’s entry into World War I, the novel moves from the shady suburbs of Westchester County to the squalid tenements of the Lower East Side, even featuring a detour to the North Pole for the expedition of Admiral Peary, whose party Father joins. In whatever direction Doctorow turns his attention, we are guaranteed a vivid, almost cinematic, gaze, aided by crisp, economical prose.

The main drama revolves around the story of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a proud black musician who’s the father of a baby left by its mother in the garden of the New Rochelle family early in the novel. When Coalhouse re-enters the life of his son and her mother, who’ve taken up residence in the family home, his story becomes inextricably linked to that of Father and Mother, tragically so when his beloved Model T Ford is vandalized by a group of racist volunteer firemen.

The denial of Coalhouse’s demand for justice sparks an escalating wave of violence that terrorizes the New York area and even enlists Younger Brother’s skill, developed in the family’s flag and fireworks company, at bomb-making. Is Coalhouse’s “strategy of vengeance” the “final proof of his insanity,” Doctorow asks, or is “injustice, once suffered, a mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s?” In his sympathetic account, the answer to that question is not as obvious as it might appear.

What’s so striking about Doctorow’s creation is how much of his depiction of America at the dawn of the 20th Century finds an analog in this country some 100 years later. Whether it’s the “invisible, transnational kingdom of capital whose sovereignty was everywhere granted,” that J.P. Morgan inhabits or the electric atmosphere provoked by Coalhouse Walker’s retribution against his tormentors, a through line can be drawn to the Great Recession or the racial conflict in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore. The actress Evelyn Nesbit, testifying at the trial of her husband Harry K. Thaw for the murder of famed architect Stanford White (a proceeding every bit as sensational in its day as the O.J. Simpson case) becomes the “first sex goddess in American history,” a worthy celebrity ancestor to Kim Kardashian. We can identify with Sigmund Freud’s dismay, in the midst of his first visit to this country, at the “over-powered brash and rude” American society, that has him cutting short his trip to return to his Vienna study.

One of the most appealing aspects of Ragtime is Doctorow’s pure storytelling skill. In the novel’s second half, as the Coalhouse Walker drama escalates, he powerfully and efficiently winds the tension, culminating in a standoff between Coalhouse and his supporters, holed up in J.P. Morgan’s library on Madison Avenue, and the authorities, desperate to bring his reign of terror to an end. He’s equally effective at dealing with the domestic drama in the lives of the two families at the novel’s center, whether portraying the bewilderment of the New Rochelle family at the rising tide of violence and sensationalism that surrounds them or the determined climb of Tateh, the immigrant father, up the ladder that defines success in America.

Ragtime is a vibrant novel, filled to overflowing with colorful characters, provocative ideas and an unparalleled evocation of the United States in a time that, in its own way, was every bit as complex and interesting as our own.

E.L. Doctorow died last July, leaving behind a varied body of work that included prize-winning novels, short stories, and literary criticism. If this memorable book had been his only one, it would have been enough to secure his literary reputation for generations to come.

Email Harvey Freedenberg at hfreedenberg@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.