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Ragtime - The Book

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By Chris Gorsuch

Before there was the musical (or even the film), there was the book. Ragtime was the fourth novel written by E.L. Doctorow, who had already experienced critical success with other historical-like novels. Published in 1975, it was generally enthusiastically embraced by a public who was ready for revisionist views of history. Although some reviewers criticized what was interpreted as a left-leaning interpretation of history, Ragtime was one of the top-selling books of that year, enjoying many reprintings.

In reading Ragtime, one needs to keep in mind that while there are many genuine historical characters and the environment is quite faithfully recreated, there is no strict adherence to a linear plot or an attempt to create a chronologically accurate document.

One of the most notable features of the work is the lack of quoted dialogue; all conversation is rendered in the third person. Some have criticized this device in that it gives the novel a flat or aloof quality that does not allow for the reader to develop an affinity for any of the genuinely interesting characters. In addition, the historical movement is not linear; although all of the action occurs between 1906 and 1914, the actual historical events do not occur in order, or are necessarily contemporaneous. When reading Ragtime, it appears to be less important to observe historicity than it is to observe the characters experiencing the history.

Readers expecting intricate plots will not be disappointed; there are several plots going on simultaneously, which are not resolved until almost the conclusion of the novel. The three major plots involving the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, the Jewish immigrant family and the African-American family serve as occasions for social commentary, historical reinterpretation and dramatic foreshadowing. The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One 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 families and other fictional characters--namely one Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.

Characters may be realized anywhere from the actual historical figures of J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington, to representational archetypes such as Father, Mother and Little Girl. The wise reader will learn to embrace them all in the world that Doctorow has recreated and enjoy Ragtime for the unique literary experience it is.

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Page updated: 08/09/13

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