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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Part III, Chapters 37–39; Part IV, Chapter 40

Part III, Chapters 34–36

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Chapter 37

The narrator describes Booker T. Washington's beliefs on how best to advance the cause of the "Negro" people. Washington endorses advancement through the help of and friendship with white people. He has enormous abilities as a orator and has had the benefit of a prestigious education, with the assistance of Andrew Carnegie and Harvard University. Washington, having expected a find dozens of men inside the Morgan library, is surprised to find only three or four. Washington reprimands Coalhouse for his criminal behavior and Coalhouse's followers appear somewhat receptive to his pleas. However, Coalhouse remains unwavering in his belief that he must fight his battle without sacrificing his sense of self-respect. Coalhouse finally concedes that he will vacate the premises upon return of his automobile in its original condition. However, Washington does not recognize this statement as a modification of his original set of demands, he believes Coalhouse has rejected his plea, and leaves the building discouraged and disheartened.

Chapter 38

Booker T. Washington makes a public statement indicating his belief that Coalhouse is a "brainsick man." He invites many of his friends and colleges in Harlem to come to the premises to demonstrate their opposition to such a man. When Father arrives, every building within a two-block radius has been evacuated. He enters the building, where he overhears a description of the meeting between Washington and Coalhouse, remarking upon Coalhouse's modification of his demands and the possibility that perhaps no one had noticed this modification. Coming across the District Attorney, Whitman, he informs him of Coalhouse's statement. Whitman receives a message from Morgan, which reads, "Give him his automobile and hang him." However, Father wishes to negotiate the situation further. He is shocked to find Mother's Younger Brother inside Morgan's library. Soon Whitman presents Coalhouse with both his Model-T and Willie Conklin. Coalhouse reacts by telling Father he will vacate Morgan's property and turn himself over to the authorities on the condition that the police allow his followers to go free. Coalhouse's followers feel betrayed at Coalhouse's resignation. When Father reports Coalhouse's position to Whitman, Whitman agrees to Coalhouse's conditions.

Chapter 39

Under the direction of the police, Conklin repairs Coalhouse's Model-T with the parts that have been delivered to the premises. Held as a hostage in Morgan's house, Father sits down with Mother's Younger Brother to ask him why he has become involved with such a movement. Mother's Younger Brother responds by criticizing Father of his oppression of his workers. After Coalhouse's followers leave the building, Coalhouse asks Father details about the son of he and Sarah.

Chapter 40

Coalhouse exits Morgan's house, and Father, still inside, hears the firing squad. Police report that Coalhouse had made an attempt at escaping, but he more likely made a slight movement that he knew would cause his death. Mother's Younger Brother, having secured the use of Coalhouse's Model T, travels all around the country and soon to Mexico. There he joins the forces of the revolutionary Francisco Villa, and, subsequently, of Emiliano Zapata, to whom he contributes his knowledge of bombs. Mother's Younger Brother dies in a skirmish with government troops. As tensions in Europe develop, World War I approaches. Morgan travels to Egypt, where he hopes a visit to the pyramids will restore his sense of spirituality. Rather, he cannot sleep and becomes disheartened by his failure to experience what he has expected. Soon his health rapidly deteriorates and he dies. The narrator describes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Houdini continues to perform his tricks, and has an increasingly easier time with his mother's death. Grandfather dies, and Mother and Father stop speaking, Mother's Younger Brother's death having solidified their separation. Father lives in Washington DC for some time, having discovered Mother's Younger Brother's many innovations in the realm of explosives and weaponry. Father dies aboard the Lusitania, and a year after his death, Tateh and Mother marry each other.

Analysis

The events of Chapter 37 address the ways in which Booker T. Washington's vision for the advancement of his race differed from that of Coalhouse Walker. However, Doctorow introduces this debate to touch upon a larger struggle between African Americans of such differing views. Many African Americans felt that a reliance on whites to advance their cause would in fact not result in progress but simply an overdependence that would not ultimately help them help themselves. Other African Americans felt that solidarity with whites who were sympathetic to their cause provided an essential component of the movement's success. In fact, the civil rights movement in America often hinged on this debate.

Morgan's trip to Egypt in Chapter 40 addresses his need for self-exploration; however, in the end, Morgan fails to experience a true revelation. Doctorow writes, "He paced from the west to the east, from the north to the south, though he didn't know which was which. He decided one must in such circumstances make a distinction between false signs and true signs." Throughout Ragtime, Doctorow alludes to the characters' search for meaning and stability. Much as Theodore Dreiser constantly seeks the correct position for his chair, or Peary cannot find the exact location of the North Pole, Morgan has difficulty finding peace during his night in the Pyramids. This desire to make a distinction between true and false signs also touches upon another theme that may be described as a subset of the theme of the search for meaning. Throughout the novel, characters experience moments in which they briefly witness what they deem as meaning, but later discover its falsity. Houdini, in his research about contact with the dead, also endures such moments. Doctorow writes of Houdini's newfound happiness, "He attributed this to his new pursuit, the unmasking of spirit fraud wherever he found it." Here Doctorow again hints at the value of differentiating what is truly meaningful and what seems meaningful on a superficial level.

In describing Father's death on the Lusitania, Doctorow touches upon the relationship between personal lives and public history, as he does throughout the novel. He writes, "Poor Father, I see his final exploration. He arrives at the new place, his hair risen in astonishment, his mouth and eyes dumb. His toe scuffs a soft storm of sand, he kneels and his arms spread in pantomimic celebration, the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self." Implicit in this passage is the narrator's observation that although Father clearly occupies a socio-economic position separate than that of the cast majority of immigrants, his emotional state resembles that of an immigrant. Because he never attains a profound self- knowledge, his social and economic status remain irrelevant, and he appears perpetually lost.

In the very last pages of the novel, as Tateh observes a playful scene, Doctorow writes, "He suddenly had an idea for a film. A bunch of children who were pals, white black, fat thin, rich poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures in their own neighborhood, a society of raga muffins, like all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again." Here Doctorow alludes not only to Tateh's career as a filmmaker, but also to the entire nature of the American dream. This description of Tateh's idea for a film constitutes the idealistic vision of absolute inclusion in American society, if not the reality.

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