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Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow

Part II, Chapters 19–21

Part II, Chapters 16–18

Part II, Chapters 22–24

Summary

Chapter 19

The narrator describes J.P. Morgan and his role as one of the wealthiest individuals in the country and as a pioneer in the world of finance. He is also an avid collector of art; Egypt in particular intrigues him. Having heard of Ford's innovations in mass production, Morgan wishes to meet him.

Chapter 20

Henry Ford pays a lunch visit to J.P. Morgan in his elegant home on Madison Avenue. They tour the library, and sit in front of the fire. Ford makes an anti- Semitic comment. They begin discussing Ford's assembly line principles, and soon their conversation shifts to the subject of religion. J.P. Morgan asks Ford about his religious beliefs, but Ford hesitates to answer. Morgan gives Ford a tour of his collection of ancient Egyptian and Greek artifacts, expressing his belief that science has been a "devilish conspiracy to destroy our apprehension of reality." Morgan invites Ford to join him on a trip to Egypt. Although the idea of reincarnation fascinates Ford, he only has interest in it to the extent that he feels it explains his genius; he assumes he has lived more times than others, and thus has the engineering know-how which has brought him such success. Ford declines the invitation to the trip, but Morgan will go alone anyway. However, after their discussion about Egypt and reincarnation, they found "the most secret and exclusive club in America, The Pyramid, of which they were the only members."

Chapter 21

Signs of ancient Egyptian culture grow quite popular during the Progressive Era; while Father finds them repulsive, they intrigue the little boy. One afternoon a black man named Coalhouse Walker stops by their home in New Rochelle, asking to see Sarah. Mother immediately notices that he does not act as other "Negroes" do; rather than acting deferent, he seems resolute and self-important. Sarah refuses to see him, but Coalhouse continues to call on her every Sunday. Finally, one Sunday, after some objection from Father, Mother invites Coalhouse in for a cup of tea. Coalhouse informs the family of his profession as a pianist in an orchestra in New York. He plays ragtime for the family, which none but Mother's Younger Brother have ever heard before; his skill impresses them. Continuing his calls on Sarah, he now begins to visit with the family regularly. Although Sarah still refuses to see him, she has begun to act more warmly toward her baby. Father, stumped by Coalhouse's proud behavior, concludes he is not aware that he is a "Negro." Finally, late in the winter, Sarah agrees to see Coalhouse in the parlor. After a few more visits, Sarah finally accepts Coalhouse's proposal for marriage, and they leave together with their baby, in his car.

Analysis

In a novel whose characters constantly seek meaning and reason, J.P. Morgan's character is no exception. The novel's characters all attempt to find meaning by different methods; Morgan approaches the struggle from an intellectual point of view. Through his reading, and also through his collection of art, Morgan becomes intrigued by Egyptian art, religion, and culture. Doctorow writes, "His desperate studies settled, inevitably, on the civilizations of ancient Egypt, wherein it was taught that the universe is changeless and that death is followed by the resumption of life. He was fascinated. His life took a new turn." In ancient Egyptian beliefs, Morgan finds a reassuring sense of continuity and meaning. Morgan later ventures to the Egyptian pyramid in an attempt to experience a catharsis of sorts; when this journey fails, he feels a great disillusionment.

Repetition serves as a structural framework for the novel's plot, as evidenced by Coalhouse's regular Sunday visits to Sarah, Peary's search for the North Pole, and Tateh's countless silhouettes of Evelyn Nesbit, for example. Repetition also shapes the characters' struggles for meaning and stability. However, the concept of repetition itself has a certain duality. A sense of repetition and routine can at times provide the illusion of stability that humans often seek; however, that same sense of repetition can also cause a sense of loss of direction and monotony resulting in sense of purposelessness. Implicit in repetition is both the potential for reassurance and the tendency toward meaninglessness. This repetition that Doctorow employs in Ragtime, which focuses largely on historical subject matter, also refers to the tendency of history to repeat itself. Thus, in his portrayals of certain characters, Doctorow transcends individual description; rather, his characters serve as allegories for many individuals who may have the same societal position. For example, Father represents the "decent man"; while his intentions are generally good, he also has his limits in coming to terms with modern times. Tateh represents the quintessential rags-to-riches story; while these allegories have universality, Doctorow relates Tateh in particular to a concept of the American dream.

The theme of technology's effect on society as well as on the nature of the individual manifests itself in many different circumstances in Ragtime. With increasing urbanization, industrialization, and mechanization, the turn of the century led many to question the benefits of such technology. For example, during his lunch with Henry Ford, Morgan emphatically argues that technology has limited us spiritually. He says, "The rise of mechanistic science, of Newton and Descartes, was a great conspiracy, a great devilish conspiracy to destroy our apprehension of reality and our awareness of the transcendentally gifted among us."

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