Study Guide

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Ragtime

Coalhouse Walker, Jr.

Ooh, here's a piece of trivia to impress your fellow Ragtime readers: Doctorow named his main character Coalhouse Walker after a character named Michael Kohlhaas (yep, sounds pretty much like Coalhouse) who suffers a similar humiliation in an 1811 novella published by Heinrich von Kleist. Both men pursue justice, and both meet the same tragic end.

Coalhouse is of course a very different character, though, because he's black at a time in America when being black and looking the wrong way at a white guy can get you killed. And Coalhouse doesn't just look at people, he stares them down. This is a man who doesn't back down from a fight. Father thinks of Coalhouse as a man who doesn't "act or talk like a colored man" (21.14), and it is this demeanor—and his fancy car—that irritates the bigoted volunteer firemen and leads to the vandalism of his car. As the narrator tells us, it does not occur to Coalhouse to "ingratiate himself in the fashion of his race" (23.5). He is a proud dude.

Coalhouse doesn't take no for an answer—not when he thinks he's in the right, at least. He's a man who holds on to his principles. He stubbornly holds his ground when Sarah won't see him at first, returning every Sunday only to be turned away. He takes persistence to the next level, because he really, really likes Sarah.

And he does the same when he's told to forget about getting his car replaced. He's willing to wait for justice, however long it takes. But his pride turns out to be a fatal flaw—he won't marry Sarah until the car issue is resolved, which leads the beginning of his downfall when she's killed seeking justice for him. Ugh. We hate it when old truisms like "pride goeth before a fall" turn out to be true. If Coalhouse had just paid attention to the morals of stories with hubristic tragic heroes, he would have been fine. Pay attention, kids: literature can save lives.

After Sarah's death, Coalhouse becomes that classic character in film and books that has nothing to lose. He's like Walter White meets Omar Little meets every character Liam Neeson ever played. He wants nothing except revenge against everyone who wronged him. This leads to the destruction of two firehouses and the killing of police and firemen, and ultimately, to his own death after he and his gang take over J.P. Morgan's library.

Doctorow dramatizes the difference between Coalhouse and accepted black behavior at the time through a clever technique—he brings in the black educator Booker T. Washington to negotiate with Coalhouse. Washington is famous for advocating peaceful solutions to discrimination and racism, but Coalhouse tells him he insists on both the "truth of our manhood and the respect it demands" (37.3).