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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 2 Chapter 19 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 2, Chapter 19 | Summary



The man at the top of the American business hierarchy is J.P. Morgan, the American financier responsible for consolidating various large scale industries such as transportation, finances, and industry; "He controlled 741 directorships in 112 corporations." He has enough money to bail out the American government or to import a million dollars in gold bullion. Despite his wealth, Morgan is lonely as no one is as successful, rich, or savvy as he; "Somehow he had catapulted himself beyond the world's value system." During a trip to Egypt, Morgan becomes fascinated with the ancient culture, particularly its belief in reincarnation.


Chapter 19 introduces the fictionalization of real life character J.P. Morgan. Like many other characters, Morgan seeks to find meaning in his life, and like many other men (Houdini, Peary) he is primarily concerned with legacy. Because he has amassed a greater wealth than anyone could spend in a lifetime, mastered his business empire, and has "no peers" to challenge his thinking, Morgan feels lonely. Although he thinks Henry Ford is beneath him he feels a kindred spirit with the man, even believing they may be reincarnations of Ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Morgan's desire to find challenge "beyond the world's value system," leads him to obsess over reincarnation (another repetition) as the next "technology" to master.

During the Third Great Awakening (1850–1900) nontraditional spiritualism came to the forefront, suggesting that white men (like Father, Peary, Houdini, and Morgan) did not hold the keys to Heaven, rather that they belonged to children, indigenous people, Gypsies, faith healers, blacks, and women. Perhaps this is why the white men in the novel fail to achieve their goals, progress, or achieve transcendence. Nontraditional spiritualism also perpetuated a romantic concept that a person's moral virtue was exhibited in physical characteristics, such as in magicians, illusionists, and mystics, for example, which can also be seen in Houdini's obsession with the afterlife later in the novel.

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