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Literature Study GuidesRagtimePart 3 Chapter 38 Summary

Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Part 3, Chapter 38 | Summary



Father arrives at the makeshift headquarters where Whitman and his men work across the street from Morgan's gallery. He listens to Washington recount the failed negotiation and Coalhouse's demands. Father is the only person to recognize Coalhouse's demands have changed. Boldly, Father pulls Whitman aside and insists Coalhouse is softening. Whitman feels helpless, however, waiting to hear back from Morgan about how he wants the negotiations to proceed. Morgan's telegraphed response from a ship bound for Egypt finally arrives; "Give him his automobile and hang him," it reads. Whitman fears giving in to Coalhouse's demands will ruin his career. Father convinces him otherwise. Grudgingly, Whitman agrees to pull Coalhouse's car into town for Conklin to repair and to put pressure on his colleagues to press charges against Conklin for his behavior. In exchange, he wants Coalhouse and all his men to surrender. Father nervously agrees to bring the deal to Coalhouse.

Inside the gallery, Father is outraged to discover Younger Brother as a member of Coalhouse's gang, although he isn't entirely surprised. He proceeds to organize the details of the deal with Coalhouse. Coalhouse agrees to everything but says he'll only surrender himself. He wants the rest of his gang to be absolved and demands to hold a hostage (Father) until he knows they're safe. Despite protest from Coalhouse's young followers, Father brings the demands to Whitman who agrees.


Father comes into his own during the negotiations with Coalhouse. He is assertive, clever, and persuasive. He is no longer an impotent old man. He seems to be the only person in the room truly interested in ending the stand-off rather than preserving their own legacy. His resurrection from complacent boredom comes moments before he enters the library; "He reminded himself that he was a retired officer of the United States Army. He had explored the North Pole." Father clings to his past accomplishments as proof of his masculinity. Whatever virility he conjures, however, disappears when he sees Younger Brother. "Father's knees buckled. He was helped to a chair." Just as the argument with Younger Brother in Chapter 28 pushed Father back into his "old world" thinking, whatever change occurred in Father during the negotiations disappears, and he is once again filled with "queer pulses of bitter glee" at the thought of Coalhouse and Younger Brother receiving their punishment. Seeing Younger Brother truly embrace change and put his life on the line for it offends Father, who had "always thought of himself as progressive."

Father aptly notes, "Since Sarah's death Coalhouse Walker's most fervent wish was to die," which Father uses to his advantage during the negotiations. Coalhouse has enough forethought to ensure the safe passage of his young followers and certainly knows turning himself over will mean death. The impassioned young men "believed they were going to die in a spectacular manner. This belief produced in them a dramatic, exalted self-awareness." These youths elevate Coalhouse's stand to a mythic white-versus-black struggle for respect. For this reason, they use "Coalhouse" in the plural to refer to them all. Meanwhile, Coalhouse himself is exhausted. Having lost everything, he cares only that in the final moments of his life he be respected as a man.

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