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Tatyana Sampson

April 25, 2015


2B
Research Essay: (Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow) Compare and Contrast Coalhouse Walker vs. Tateh

Early 1900s America was a time of high racial tensions, womens rights, and advancement of
technology. Music was in the air and let people escape from the corruption; that kind of music
was Ragtime. This era brought together all kinds of people and tore them apart at the same time.
In Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, we explore the lives of many people living in 1900s Northeastern
United States. Everyone from the rich to poor, black to white, immigrants to American born,
everyone. Struggling to make it in America affects everyone in different ways; we see that the
most in the characters of Coalhouse Walker and Tateh. Both of them come from oppressed
backgrounds, African American and immigrant respectively, and made something of themselves.
They are both very persistent and work hard to get what they want in order to have a good life.
When it comes to their relationships with other people, they both take on the typical comforting
and care taker role of a man that is well respected. Besides being different races, they both
respond to failure differently. The main point of this book is about the breakdown of Coalhouse
Walker and how his actions shook fellow African Americans. Many people think its crazy that
he would respond to racism by rioting, but as evidence shows, it is still going on today in our
society. Coalhouse Walkers actions were unexpected and add an interesting element to the story
that ties together many different people in the novel. Out of all of the characters in Ragtime,
Coalhouse Walker and Tateh are some of the more complex ones that reflect an individual person
that we dont see in our day to day lives. They are more than just an African American or
immigrant.

We meet Tateh, along with Mameh and Little Girl, early on in the novel. Like many immigrants,
they came to America to become successful. Unfortunately for Tateh, its not as easy as it looks.
Not everyone can be a JP Morgan or Henry Ford. However, he does not stop trying to do what he
does; he has to find a way to make ends meet for the family, and that is not always a success. Just
like Tateh, Coalhouse Walker does not give up. As the father of Sarahs baby, Coalhouse goes to
where she stays every Sunday for months on end until she finally gives him the chance to talk to
her. Both of these characters are good examples of the saying hard work pays off. Their lives
are going well until something violent happens, two separate events that shake them in
completely different ways. I will talk about that later when I contrast the two. But for now, these
two have faced similar conflicts. Both are very well respected by the people closest to them and
are determined to be the provider. Both are fathers that just want the best for their children. As
minorities in America, we see the struggle to fit in with their white peers, for they do not fit in
the stereotypes of a typical black man or immigrant. On the surface, they may seem similar,
but they are more different above anything else.
Coalhouse Walker and Tateh are both main characters of Ragtime and contribute to the plot
significantly. As the reader, we feel their anger and frustration when things dont go their way,
but their struggles are very different. Although both are oppressed individuals of America, the
struggle for equality and justice for Coalhouse Walker is significantly harder for him to achieve.
Even though Eastern European immigrants were looked down upon, they were still white and
had a greater chance to succeed. A perfect example Harry Houdini. The oppression of African
Americans goes way back to the beginning of American slavery, even before that. Black people
have always been stereotyped as lazy, dirty, or poor. Doctorow highlights how cruelly
Coalhouse Walker was treated does not shy away from the truth about racism during the Ragtime

period. It is easy to overlook the bad times because of the beautiful music and well-known
celebrities like Evelyn Nesbit; but the harsh truth about the early 1900s was that racial
discrimination was alive and well. It is really brought to our full attention in the novel when
Coalhouse Walker passes the firehouse and is told to pay the toll. Many say Coalhouse
Walkers reaction was unrealistic and a bad representation of African Americans and enforces the
stereotype that they are loud and violent. Others argue by asking, how would you react to
blatant racism? And what would you do when injustice is obvious but no one is willing to help
you? sometimes, in order to make an impact you have to go to drastic measures to get someone
to listen. In the end, his actions did not resort to any real change. So the question becomes, was
all of that worth it? When Coalhouse Walker comes into the picture, we sort of lose sight of
Tateh, but we know that he too has faced some injustice. After the protests for workers rights
gets violent, unlike Coalhouse, Tateh runs for safety. He ends up traveling throughout the
Northeastern United States and ends up in Springfield, MA where he becomes a successful
entrepreneur and lives a happy life with Mother, Little Girl, the Narrator, and Sarahs baby. It is
definitely a contrast to Coalhouse Walkers death.
The outcomes of the lives of Coalhouse Walker and Tateh are direct results of how they deal with
violence. Doctorow does not favor one way or the other, he simply shows us two paths of two
very different, yet similar, complex characters. The next question becomes, what is the right
way to react to violence? The early 1900s was the turn of the century, and in America, things
sure were turning around. Progressive movements like womens suffrage, workers reform, and
equality overall were making headlines in the newspapers. This novel is an excellent piece of
literature that needs to be taught in high school. The subjects Doctorow writes about are
undeniably controversial, but absolutely necessary to discuss.