It’s become cliche to call America a melting pot, but that does not make it any less true. America’s diversity goes far beyond race, to encompass wealth, religion, and the expression of gendered tropes such as mother or showgirl. All of these categories and more come into play in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a novel about the explosive beginning of the 20th century and all the identities caught in the mix.
The early 1900s was an especially good time to be white and wealthy in America, as evidenced by the family at the center of the novel. Named only Mother, Father, Grandfather, Mother’s Younger Brother, and the little boy, they live well off of Father’s business as a fireworks manufacturer. When Father leaves on an expedition to the North Pole, however, their perfect domestic world is disrupted by Sarah, a black washwoman who buries her illegitimate child in Mother’s garden. So begins a journey of racial, sexual, and political discovery for Mother and her family as they navigate the rapidly changing world leading up to World War One. Ragtime is notable for its liberal use of fictionalized historical figures to explore themes in American history, including “Red” Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, and Harry Houdini himself.
Ragtime is most important for the ways it explores poverty and racial prejudice. The white family might be the central aspect of thenovel, but they are far from the most important—that status goes instead to the melange of blacks (Sarah and her fiery man Coalhouse), immigrants (hard-working Tateh and his daughter), and dispossessed people surrounding them. It is rare for the privileged characters to remain archetypes while the rest have names, and Doctorow makes it clear who exactly we have the most to learn from.