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Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
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Ragtime (original 1975; edition 2007)

by E.L. Doctorow

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4,173641,200 (3.84)247
Member:katiekrug
Title:Ragtime
Authors:E.L. Doctorow (Author)
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2007), Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Rating:
Tags:Fiction, historical, 20th c., America, New York, pre-WWI

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Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (1975)

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    Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Doctorow called his book "a quite deliberate hommage" (sic) to Kleist's story.
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Showing 1-5 of 61 (next | show all)
E.L. Doctorow used to be an author I had never read but was quite certain I would not like. I’m not even sure what the reason for that was – I saw the movie Daniel and disliked it, and maybe transferred that dislike to the author of the novel (The Book of Daniel) the film was based on (and yes, I’m aware I should have known better, but we’re talking about my ca. twenty year old self here who was a lot quicker to judge than I am today), or maybe I considered him to conventional during my hardcore modernist / postmodernist phase, or maybe it was something else altogether I cannot now remember.

Somewhat less vague is the reason why I got interested in him again after all, namely me stumbling across various mentions of Ragtime as a novel important for the development of the historical novel in the 20th century. As I have always had a soft spot for historical novels, and an interest in how a genre that belongs so distinctly to the 19th century and its unshaken belief in the capability of fiction to represent the real has managed to not only survive into the 20th and 21st centuries but also has re-invented itself several times over to remain alive and relevant. While that had me teetering on the brink of reading a novel by him, it was his recent death that pushed me over, with its rather uncomfortable reminder that I am slowly but steadily running out of time to read and so had better get to it.

Ragtime was named, as Wikipedia informs me, for “its syncopated, or ‘ragged’, rhythm” and one can see after reading just a few pages how this fits the book, in particular its language. It is written mostly in short, simple sentences, in a very matter-of-fact style; and several references to an anonymous “we” that is collecting and presenting evidence made me think of a chronicle or some kind of report. But again and again there are interspersed between the plain statements longer sentences, where language takes off and becomes fanciful, lyrical even, disrupting the steady flow of facts, or – to stay in the metaphor – syncopating them, introducing an off-beat element. And also pretty quickly it becomes obvious how this fits the content of the novel as well when on the unblemished white of the petit-bourgeois world there are more and more outbreaks of colour, immigrants and negroes disrupting the orderly world of the Anglo-Saxon middle classes.

There seems to me to be a certain double entendre in the novel’s title – “ragtime” not only as the musical genre of that name, but also literally as a time of rags; very early in the novel one of its many protagonists (if one wants to call them that, more on that later) sees a “rag ship” coming into harbour filled with dark-skinned immigrants just as he leaves on an expedition for the white wastes of the North Pole. It’s maybe a bit too blatant, but one cannot deny that the irony that Doctorow has arranged here is quite exquisite. Rags, then, are everything that is outside of the orderly (and always immaculately dressed) white middle classes, the immigrants, the negroes, the working classes (one also can’t but thing of the Lumpenproletariat which actually might be translated literally as “rag proletariat”). Doctorow sets his novel at the start of the 20th century, at a time when all kinds of social unrest were fermenting, when Unions and socialists (actual socialists, that is, not what passes for it these days in the muddled minds of most Republicans) still had a public voice in the USA, and where in fact many people were expecting the US to be the first country to have a Communist revolution (a much more likely candidate than Russia).

I think what Doctorow tried here is to write an anti-Bourgeois novel – quite an ambitious project considering how much the bourgeoisie has made the novel form its own during the 18th and 19th centuries. And his formally most audacious move in achieving this is to remove the individual protagonist; Ragtime is very far from being the Bildungsroman of a single consciousness rising from immaturity to becoming a responsible citizen, but instead presents a whole host of protagonists (I did not bother to count, but it is an astonishing number for such a comparatively short novel) without favouring any of them but instead jumping from character to character gradually coalescing the threads into some kind of whole by letting them criss-cross each other again and again.

Which might not appear all that dissimilar from what Dos Passos did in Manhattan Transfer, but Doctorow goes a step father – while Dos Passos has a multitude of protagonists they still are individuals with their own, distinct personalities. The fictional protagonists in Ragtime, on the other and, do for the most part not even have names but are family archetypes, Father, Mother, Younger Brother etc. Only very few fictional characters have names, and they without exception are non-white, non-middle class like the Jew Tateh or the negro Coalhouse Walker jr. “Coalhouse” by the way being very close to how an English speaker would pronounce “Kohlhaas,” the titular protagonist of a novella by German 19th century writer Heinrich von Kleist which apparently was the original inspiration for Doctorow’s novel (and there are some interesting connections to be made between the two, not just the – very obvious – similarities in plot). Coalhouse’s identity is borrowed, then, and he remains (just like Kleist’s creation) a very ambivalent character – it never becomes quite clear whether he is confident in his identity as a person of colour or simply imitating the white man.

While Doctorow keeps his fictional characters for the most part anonymous archetypes, there still is a huge amount of name-dropping in Ragtime, as he introduces a large cast of non-fictional, historical figures. The list includes people like Sigmund Freud, Pierpoint Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini. By turning them into characters in a novel, Doctorow of course fictionalises them, but at the same time he also short-circuits his novel with history. He is of course not the first to have historical characters mix with his fictional ones, that tradition goes as far back as to the very beginning of the genre, to Walter Scott. But I don’t think any other writer has done it with quite the enthusiastic abandon of Ragtime, where we get a veritable parade of them, marching to the novel’s ragged, syncopated rhythm.

The best description of Ragtime is actually to be found in the novel itself, and as it not only precisely captures its feeling and structure but also is beautifully written, I’m going to deviate from my usual habits and quote a bit in closing this review:

“Coalhouse Walker Jr. turned back to the piano and said ‘The Maple Leaf.’ Composed by the great Scott Joplin. The most famous rag of all rang through the air. The pianist sat stiffly at the keyboard, his long dark hands with their pink nails seemingly with no effort producing the clusters of syncopating chords and the thumping octaves. This was a most robust composition, a vigorous music that roused the senses and never stood still a moment. The boy perceived it as light touching various places in space, accumulating in intricate patterns until the entire room was made to glow with its own being.”
1 vote Larou | Aug 5, 2015 |
Yes, I know, it gets rave reviews. But it is sort of a literary scam, imaginative history in formulaic fiction form and mock epic grandiose style. I can see that he has very interesting things to say. It strongly motivates me to read his nonfiction rather than his fiction. ( )
  johnclaydon | Mar 29, 2015 |
Good book, but I didn't understand the frequent references to Houdini. ( )
  Janethawn | Feb 2, 2015 |
Published in the 1970s, Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow is set in and around New York City about 1900. While it is a fictional novel it includes historical figures such as Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, and Booker T. Washington. But what is it about really? Actually, I can only give an attempt to answer this question. The narrator is a boy in his adolescence who talks about what is going on in his family, the members of which are aptly named 'Father', 'Mother', 'Grandfather' and 'Mother's Younger Brother'. But then again there is way more to the novel. This is especially true when an abandoned black baby comes into the family with his mother Sarah. Soon thereafter, Coalhouse Walker, a black musician, continually visits the family to see Sarah and the child. With the arrival of Coalhouse Walker the story slowly starts to unfold and the family's life is put to a test. One day, Walker is stopped on the street by a group of racist firemen who block his way and start to hassle him. They damage his car solely based on their belief that black people should not be wealthy. After this incident, Coalhouse seeks justice and wants to have his car restored to him. Since it is no use to trust in law enforcement and judicial assistance, Coalhouse Walker sees violence as his only means of exerting pressure on the city and to get his car back fully restored. He soon finds a group of followers, among them 'Younger Brother', who enter J. P. Morgan's library and threaten to blow it up.

While one could say much more about the plot of Ragtime, I find it rather hard to make up my mind of how I like it. Judging by my reading progress I'd say the novel became much more interesting, once the Coalhouse incident happened. At least that is when my reading pace started to pick up. Before that, the novel was not uninteresting but it was a bit tedious to read. Generally, there were a lot of episodes I liked, for example the one with Sigmund Freund and his colleague Jung who visit an amusement park in Coney Island. But then again there were also many parts I had to struggle through and which were just not my cup of tea. This is not so much due to the writing, which is simple at times but generally very readable, but more to the subject matter, I guess.

On the whole, because of its ups and downs, three stars. ( )
1 vote OscarWilde87 | Dec 24, 2014 |
The story of the United States at the turn of the 20th century leading into World War 1. Told from the point of view of various famous (Houdini, JP Morgan), infamous (Harry K Thaw), and constructed (Coalhouse Walker Jr.) characters, Ragtime details life in New York as the US was entering the realm of world superpower. The characters in this story are richly developed and their varied and various interconnections make for an exciting read. Some sections of the story do drag a bit or go on longer than necessary but overall this is a very engaging story. Doctorow deals with racism, classism, and numerous other -isms which shaped the US in the early 20th century just as they do today. ( )
  mfedore | Nov 16, 2014 |
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Hoog, ElseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast ...
Scott Joplin
Dedication
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)

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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.

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