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Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Ragtime (original 1975; edition 2007)

by E.L. Doctorow (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
4,547811,055 (3.85)302
Authors:E.L. Doctorow (Author)
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2007), Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, historical, 20th c., America, New York, pre-WWI

Work details

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (1975)

  1. 00
    American Pastoral by Philip Roth (charlie68)
    charlie68: Similar themes on the American ideal.
  2. 00
    Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Doctorow called his book "a quite deliberate hommage" (sic) to Kleist's story.
  3. 01
    The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (Booksloth)

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Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
Although I am a product of the 1960s and 1970s, I must admit to not having read anything by this author before finding Ragtime on a markdown pile at my local bookseller. Thus I embarked on a journey that I hoped was historical and entertaining. I found what I was seeking. Ragtime follows the lives of an upper middle class family whose members are known to us only by their title (Mother, Father, Grandfather, Younger Brother, and Little Boy). The story begins when the famous Harry Houdini crashes his car outside their home in New Rochelle, NY. What follows is a somewhat disjointed telling of the events, both historical and personal, that carry the family forward into the twentieth century, exposing along the way the steamy underbelly of life in America during this era. We are introduced to several colorful characters that leap off the pages of history and into the pages of this book.

The reader may find initial difficulty in adjusting to Doctorow’s style of writing as he pays little attention to spacing and punctuation and writes with benefit of capital letters. Beyond that, however, is an intriguing commentary on life.

I enjoyed this book for its snapshot of the early twentieth century and for its well-developed characters. ( )
  AuthorMarion | Feb 6, 2017 |
2.5 ( )
  Iambookish | Dec 14, 2016 |
My first 5 star book of the year, and that's not to imply there will be many - I checked and my last one was in May 2013. I found the style of Doctorow's writing to be smooth and engaging, and although I would usually say that WWII is my favorite era to read about, the time just prior to WWI is emerging now as a close second. I really get a kick out of historical fiction that winds the lives of real historical figures in with those of the fictional characters. Is it possible that the rate at which famous or notorious persons come into ocntact with this family is almost a little too much? Yes, but I won't complain. Is the end maybe a touch too contrived? Maybe, but it is fun. I also enjoyed that it reminded me of other books I have read from that era that included some similar events, such as The Fountainhead and the Interpretation of Murder. I am going to get this on audio now for my husband, and check out some of his other works. I already own Homer & Langley. ( )
2 vote MaureenCean | Feb 2, 2016 |
Funny what memories a certain book evokes. I was twenty years old when I read this, working as an itinerant photographer, living in my car, and traveling around New York and New England. I set up my 35mm camera in general stores (yes, before Walmart there were general stores in small towns), beauty salons, shoe stores, Montgomery Ward, basically anywhere the advance man could convince to host us. I remember sitting in the back room of a little store in upstate New York, waiting for my next customer and reading Ragtime. Almost forty years later the experience, if not the details, is still vivid.

(I realize this is not really a review of the book, but humor me, that's what I remember.) ( )
  RichardEvans | Feb 1, 2016 |
“It seemed like such a foolish thing to have happened. It seemed to be his fault, somehow, because he was Negro and it was the kind of problem that only adheres to a Negro. His monumental negritude sat in front of them like a centerpiece on the table.” (186)

This novel is a mosaic of real characters and the intersection of a black family and a white family. In an interesting twist, the white family are nameless and their members are known only with designations such as 'The boy”. "The Mother" finds an abandoned black infant, left to die, and takes it in. Soon the infant's depressed unwed mother, Sarah, is also taken into the household; when the baby's father ragtime musician Colehouse Walker, Jr., arrives, he also is befriended.

But Colehouse is bullied by a group of volunteer firemen outside their station house and Colehouse's cherished Model T car is vandalized. As Colehouse attempts to get justice, the situation spirals out of control leading to outright disaster and a standoff with the police.

It's a good enough story, but I didn't have fun with this book until I spent a bit of time investigating Ragtime music. I could hum one or two popular rags but that was the extent of my knowledge.

According to Wikipedia and other sources, ragtime is a style of music where the left hand plays a rousing, almost march tune in driving 2/4 or 4/4 tempo with the occasional chord thrown in on the unaccented beat. The right hand takes the melody and “rags it up” giving it a syncopation that sometimes sings and sometimes jars with the tempo played by the other hand. The combination of dissonance and harmony drives the musical piece onward with a feeling of urgency.

Ragtime references abound in the text as in this passage:

“But an hour later he stood between the cars on the milk train, going up to New Rochelle. He considered throwing himself under the wheels. He listened to their rhythm, their steel clacking, like the left hand of a rag. The screeching and pounding of metal on metal where the two cars joined was the syncopating right hand. It was a suicide rag. He held the door handles on either side of him, listening to the music. The cars jumped under his feet. The moon raced with the train. He held his face up to the sky between the cars, as if even moonlight could warm him.” (173)

And then there are all the mentions of specific ragtime tunes. I listened to them all on Youtube, but the book is best summed up with Colehouse Walker Jr.'s performance when he meets the family for the first time:

“The musician turned again to the keyboard. “Wall Street Rag,” he said. “Composed by the great Scott Joplin”. He began to play. Ill-tuned or not the Aeolian had never made such sounds. Small clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets . There seemed to be no other possibilities for life other than those delineated by the music.” (159)

Here it is, the – The Wall Street Rag. If it sums up all the possibilities of life, it must also sum up all the possibilities of this novel and so I'll let the music do the speaking.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zym1iQDvUAU ( )
4 vote streamsong | Jan 29, 2016 |
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E. L. Doctorowprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hoog, ElseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast ...
Scott Joplin
The author thanks the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Creative Artists Program Service for fellowships awarded during the period in which this novel was written
Respectfully dedicated to Rose Doctorow Buck
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In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812978188, Paperback)

Published in 1975, Ragtime changed our very concept of what a novel could be. An extraordinary tapestry, Ragtime captures the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century and the First World War.

The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow's imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.

The Modern Library has played a significant role in American cultural life for the better part of a century. The series was founded in 1917 by the publishers Boni and Liveright and eight years later acquired by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer. It provided the foundation for their next publishing venture, Random House. The Modern Library has been a staple of the American book trade, providing readers with affordable hardbound editions of important works of literature and thought. For the Modern Library's seventy-fifth anniversary, Random House redesigned the series, restoring as its emblem the running torch-bearer created by Lucian Bernhard in 1925 and refurbishing jackets, bindings, and type, as well as inaugurating a new program of selecting titles. The Modern Library continues to provide the world's best books, at the best prices.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:08 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Three remarkable families lives' become entwined with Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Theodore Dreiser, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata at the turn of the century.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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3 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141188170, 0143566377

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