Customer Reviews: Ragtime: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)
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Even before the Broadway musical and the film, Ragtime was E.L. Doctorow's best known work, a celebrated novel that combines the syncopation of ragtime and the literary sensibilities of a writer intrigued by history as literary device. Set primarily in Westchester County's New Rochelle but also in New York City and, briefly, Massachusetts, the novel follows the stories of real and fictional characters as they move from innocence to disillusionment, from peace time to the beginnings of racial conflict and World War I.

Because the novel contains so many stories, some as short as a few pages (in the case of Freud) and some woven throughout the entire novel, describing the plot of the book is a challenge. The author primarily follows the lives of a New Rochelle family (Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and the Little Boy) as they navigate changing times. Father accompanies Peary on his exploration to the North Pole. Mother takes in a young black woman, Sarah, and her newborn, an impulsive act which leads to the introduction of ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker and his simple demands which escalate into violence. Younger Brother becomes infatuated with the celebrated beauty Evelyn Nesbit, which in turn leads to his association with anarchist Emma Goldman. Harry Houdini's car breaks down in front of their house, and the novel enters his story as well. The family acts as a touchstone for the disparate stories of a generation. Meanwhile, the story of a counterpart family - Mameh, Tateh, and the Little Girl - unfolds in the ghetto, where the Jewish immigrant family struggles for survival. Unbeknownst to both families, their stories are linked by those of the others.

In syncopated prose that dissipates partway through the novel as the short age of ragtime gives way to jazz, Doctorow manages to infuse irony in short, seemingly unrelated sentences: "Everyone wore white in the summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes." Since the novel is about the loss of the naiveté that gives birth to such generalizations, this kind of set-up allows for the numerous tales that shoot off in different directions.

The complicated novel is not demanding to read, although the huge cast of characters and the emphasis on history makes emotional identification with the characters difficult. If readers look at this novel as an Impressionistic look at life at the beginning of the 20th century, they will find more satisfaction than if they regard it as the story of Little Boy's family. The coherence of this novel comes from the brackets of an era and not from a tidy relation among the plots. I highly recommend this influential novel for serious readers and students of literature.
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on July 21, 2007
During the first half of Ragtime, I prematurely concluded that this book was incredibly dull. Characters - both fictional and non-fictional - were dropped on the pages like a yo-yo, appearing and disappearing before you could identify their purpose in the story. I could not get attached to the characters - they all seemed like random thoughts with no connection, no development and often no names.

However, after I passed the novel's halfway point, pieces started to fall together, the plot emerged with force, and Doctorow enchanted me with this important novel of the 20th century.

Ragtime is a story about the social lives and forces of the early 1900's. The plot follows a well-to-do white family, an immigrant Jewish father and daughter, and an African-American musician who is hell-bent on seeking revenge against the racial injustice that he endures. Mingled in are historical figures, including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington, and historical events of the time, such as presidential elections and the start of World War I. As a reader, you get a steady look into the history of this era.

Doctorow flexes his creative muscles in writing this story. One critic described Ragtime as "impressionistic" -an accurate adjective for this novel. Like an artist, Doctorow paints his story but blurs the lines and colors. For most of the novel, you may wonder why this character or event is included. This intrigue motivated me to keep reading - I had to know how it all ends. And Doctorow masterfully draws it all together during the last pages so that everything becomes very relevant and purposeful.

I imagine high school and college students around the country read Ragtime because it's a classic study in foreshadowing, plot and character development, and literary tropes. Certainly, Ragtime requires a patient reader. It waits to pull you in. However, if you stick with it, Ragtime will reward you with a marvelous social tale of our country's past.
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on July 23, 2000
This book is very amusing, presenting an interesting story as well as portraying nonfictional characters (such as H. Ford, J.P. Morgan,Evelyn Nesbit,and Harry Houdini) in their true identity. One gets to experience the early century and pre-Great War era. Each chapter allows the reader to enter a life of character all intermingled with one plot.
As one reads, the reader experiences the times as an African American, an immigrant, and rich businessmen. What I enjoyed most was the immigrant (Tateh & Daughter) which reminded me of my Great Grandmother's trip into America for the first time.
After reading, I did background research on many characters. For what reason? to see if Doctrow was telling the truth about the nonfictional characters, such as J.P. Morgan. It turns out that Doctrow was on the dot with all characters, which shows the hidden secrets of people we thought we knew.
I find this book very entertaining. Although not recommended for anyone under the age of 16 for some sexual content and vivid descriptions, I think anyone of any age old enoguh, would enjoy the read. It is a very interesting and a page turning history lesson as well as drama.
After reading consider getting the CD for the musical, which very precisely follows the book.
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E.L Doctorow's highly readable novels combine history, imagination, character development, a sense of time and place and beautifully controlled and paced writing. Doctorow's relatively early novel, "Ragtime" (1974) remains his best-known work. The book is a delight to read, moves with the feel of ragtime piano, and has a light happy surface. Yet the book combines many disparate threads and stories, a wealth of historical and fictional characters thrown together, and offers an unsettling vision of the United States at the turn of the century, c.1906. There is a complex, multi-layered vision at work here.

The story is told in the first person in the words of Young Boy, whose parents are Father, a successful manufacturer of fireworks and flags in New Rochelle, New York, and Mother, an increasingly frustrated houswife. Mother has a brother, referred to as "Mother's younger brother" who is infatuated with a notorious, (and historical) beauty and femme fatale of the day, Evelyn Nesbit, and who becomes an expert in the use of explosives in Father's fireworks business.

The story of this family slowly intertwines with that of a different American family -- Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from East Europe who at the beginning of the book is struggling as a silouette artist on Hester Street New York City, has young daughter, and Mameh, who through poverty and desparation has abandoned the family for a life of prostitution.

There is a third fictitious American intertwined in the story. Sarah is a young (18 years old) black woman who has a young child that come to live with Mother while Father is away exploring the North Pole with Peary. Mid-way in the novel, we meet the baby's father and Sarah's suitor, an older black man and a pianist named Coalhouse Walker. Coalhouse has studied ragtime with Scott Joplin. The book is redolent with Joplin's music including "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Wall Street Rag." Coalhouse, in his dignity and his violent rage, quickly becomes the chief protagonist of the book. Doctorow has resurrected the character of Coalhouse Walker; and as a much younger man he plays a prominent role in his most recent novel, "The March" (2005), a fictional retelling of Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas in the Civil War.

But these characters and their interlocking stories are only a part of "Ragtime". Doctorow threads their stories in stunningly with stories of historical figures from early 20th Century America. The characters we meet include the escape artist, Harry Houdini, the anarchist Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Roosevelt, Scott Joplin, Evelyn Nesbit, her cuckolded husband, Harry Thaw, and her lover, the architect Stanford White, and several others. Some of these people have prominent roles in the stories while others have cameo parts. But their personalities in virtually every case shine through Doctorow's prose.

For all the elan, rambunctiousness, and lyricism of the story, "Ragtime" presents a picture of a United States plagued by racism, poverty, and violence. The story pivots on Coalhouse Walker's attempts to assert his dignity and manhood in the face of a racial slur in New Rochelle. These efforts lead inexorably to violence and to destruction. The excitement, flow and complexity of the stories carry the reader along but the dark undertow is never absent.

I think Doctorow is at his best in his portrayals of New York City in all its aspects. I was particularly impressed with his portraits of his life in the tenements with Tateh and his daughters, his scenes of the powerful in New York, (J.P Morgan and his meeting with Henry Ford), and the ubiquitous and lovingly-portrayed Emma Goldman. Doctorow's feel for New York City comes through in this book and in many of his later novels, including "Billy Bathgate" and "City of God".

In its musicality, lightness, and depth, "Ragtime" is the work of a great American storyteller. It, and its author, are destined to become American classics.

Robin Friedman
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on August 1, 2005
A powerful evocation of the pre-World War I period in America. Doctorow painfully dramatizes (as well as personalizes) the social abuses of the latter 19th Century but still manages to re-affirm the possibilities inherent in the American dream. The focus is on a single, not-so-typical American family, although such luminaries of the era as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Pierpont Morgan also appear as minor characters. Father goes on an expedition to the North Pole and comes back with more than he bargained for. Mother's brother becomes embroiled in a torrid love affair with a notorious beauty who has played a significant role in a famous murder case. And the main plot line shows how the entire family is endangered (and has their lives dramatically changed) by their involvement in a black family's fight for due process.

But this isn't as small a novel as "To Kill a Mockingbird". Doctorow's focus on the family and the personal side of these events is only the lynchpin that holds together a sweeping, wide-ranging look at turn-of-the-century society as a whole. Perhaps not since "War and Peace" has one novel so successfully combined the intimately personal with the grand scope of history. Politics, racism, sexual mores, yellow journalism, corruption, the entertainment revolution, terrorism, labor relations: all pass under Doctorow's analytical gaze. Easy to read and not overlong, this would be a great book for high school students to read in learning about pre-War American society, if it weren't for the sexual content, which is higher than average for a work of this kind. As it is, this novel is episodic enough that teachers could assign excerpts without killing the power of the whole book. Very highly recommended.
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on March 20, 2005
Ragtime is not one of those gripping stories that will knock your socks off by toying with your emotions.

This is a more cerebral novel, dedicated to filling your mind with vivid pictures that, collectively, paint an era in American history. Historical figures and concepts come to life, as we get novelized scenes with Freud, Emma Goldman, Houdini, and a great many others whose names may have meant little to us before picking up this novel.

The writing is very well-done, with a voice that manages to be clear and lyrical at the same time.

History buffs in particular will appreciate seeing the way that this book brings so many events to life; for the casual reader, however, the staggering breadth of the plot is an obstacle to immersion in the story. There are just too many characters and subplots, at times juxtaposed in too convenient a manner, to make a story that has the dramatic power that a scaled down version might achieve.

But hey, Doctorow has achieved what he set out to achieve. He clearly wanted to make a novel that was a portrait of an era, and the fact that the book still works as a novel at all is pretty amazing.

If you want a great novel, I recommend that you go elsewhere. But if you want a novel that teaches you something, or if you just want to experience something that's a little different from the average work of fiction, give this a try.
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VINE VOICEon May 16, 2000
I would differ slightly with Eddie P.(who's insights I appreciate) who likened the novel to Fitzgerald's or Lewis' and say it has more in common with John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy. The vignettes Doctorow draws for us have a great deal in common, I believe, with Dos Passos' snapshots. In answer to Banger's question about why this time period, I would suggest that this is an era that is generally regarded in the American historical consciousness as being primarily bucolic and carefree. The nation, relatively innocent, having shaken off the aftereffects of the civil war, has recently won the spurious Spanish-American war, and is generally revelling in a sense of purpose and civility. What Doctorow is suggesting is that this serene surface was already infected, with a host of social ills festering beneath it. A shift was occuring that would lead to labor riots, race riots, change in mores (sexual attitudes), loss of faith in institutions, etc. that would define the 20th century. If this were all of Doctorow's plan however, it would have been interesting Sociology, but a pretty boring novel. Doctorow is above all an interesting storyteller. He knows how to keep a plot moving and how to invest it with enough intellectual hardware to make the reader feel that his/her time has been worth the effort. He can bring a scene to life with a few fresh (never shopworn) details. He doesn't spend a great deal of time elabortaing over these details, as James or Wolfe do, but he makes the reader just as cognizant of them. A few brushstrokes and we are there. His writing is cinematic, in that we can "see" the scene he is depicting, without burdening us with excess verbiage. This is the hallmark of a really good author. Ragtime is a primary example of this kind of shorthand acumen. The novel flashes by as seen in a kinescope. I, for one, was delighted I had inserted my nickle.
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on March 22, 2015
I read this book as a kid and was blown away by it. Who knew you could use real people in fictional settings? Who knew you could address the reader directly? And of course anything with Houdini in it made me sit up and want more. I re-read this recently to see if it held up over time, and was pleased to see that it did. I still think teachers of English and US History could probably get a lot of use out of this book with high school students. There's a strong theme of justice that runs throughout, which might appeal to young people. Language and sexuality warning.
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on March 19, 2010
The last two books I read before picking up 'Ragtime' were Gore Vidal's '1876' and 'Empire', both historical fictions set at least partly in New York between the Civil War and the First World War. With interwoven historical and fictional characters these books substantively have much in common with 'Ragtime', but from a stylistic perspective they differ markedly. Whereas Vidal's characters, both real and imagined, are elaborately (and often hilariously) brought to life, Doctorow tells us little. His historical characters are often mere outlines filled in with the most elementary of biographical detail. An example of this is Booker T. Washington, whose appearance seems as unfulfilling and unnecessary as a celebrity TV cameo - certainly we learn nothing about the man that we did not know before. Harry Houdini, who is presented as a tragic character, is one of the few exceptions, and here Doctorow succeeds in presenting more than the facts found in a one-volume encyclopedia.

Another major point of divergence is in the writing style. It has been said that the short simple sentences of 'Ragtime' echo the rhythms of the music itself. Maybe my rhythm is off, but I found them to be a distraction that impeded the flow of the writing. Fortunately the style improves as the novel moves on - whether this is meant to signify a change in the music of the time, I don't know, but it came as a relief.

There are some great chapters in this book. Indeed, for the first half of the book they almost seem like separate vignettes bound together by a time and place. Given the contrived way they are eventually bound together, I almost wish they had been left alone, ala 'Winesburg, Ohio'. There is still much to like in this book, no doubt, but it disappointed this reader.
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on December 30, 2004
Ragtime is a classic example of a book about nothing and everything all at the same time. Same might call it daring, others might call it entertaining and others might call it confusing. I think this book is capable of generating a slew of different responses depending on the reader.

Ragtime is set at the turn of the century. You will find yourself puzzled at the beginning of the novel as to who is speaking and what in the world is going on. Hold on, it will make sense if you just keep reading. The narrator is never mentioned my name, but I suppose he is the one referred to as the "boy". We never learn the names of the family in this novel; they are simply referred to as Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and Grandfather.

The wandering story follows the life of this family and the lives of a few other famous people: including Harry Houdini, Pierpoint Morgan, Sigmund Freud, and Henry Ford. There are also many others. The story does a good job of intertwining the lives of these famous people with the main family in the story.

Ragtime is written more like a journal than a novel. It has no clear cut plot, but rather drops us off at one event and then we are transported to the next. Some interesting passages include: The discovery of the black baby by Mother, the final showdown with Coalhouse, a famous whore has an affair with Younger Brother, and Father's voyage to the arctic.

The story seems more intent on sharing scenes than telling a story. There is dialogue, but no quotation marks around it. The style is very original. I have not read anything like it. At first it takes some getting used to, but if you stick with it, the events will unravel in your mind and you will be able to follow what happens.

I am recommending Ragtime because I feel you have to read it to believe it. I certainly would understand if one thought it was a masterpiece and the other hated it. With that in mind, it certainly deserves to be taken a look at, and you can't argue with its imagination and inventiveness.

I have two main quarrels with the book that prevent me from thinking this work of fiction deserves to be called a masterpiece. The main one is that the book tries to do too many things. I understand the feeling Doctorow wants to give us about the turn of the century, but he tries to juggle too many issues at once here. He never really gives the proper focus on any one issue for very long before throwing another one in our face. For that reason, the book seems a bit heavy handed at times (which is my second quarrel).

Despite those issues I found myself enjoying a great deal of Ragtime and marveled at its writing style and unusual characters. I also enjoyed how strong Doctorow ended his chapters. His most thoughtful and sublime sentences in the book are those he chooses to end the chapters with. That alone made me want to keep reading. There really is a lot to appreciate and admire here if you can get past the flaws and past the unconventional way of telling a story.

Grade: B
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