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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 ...
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.
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair. The best part of Father's income was derived from the manufacture of flags and buntings and other accoutrements of patriotism, including fireworks. Patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900's. Teddy Roosevelt was President. The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms. There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people. Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived. Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants. On Sunday afternoon, after dinner, Father and Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door. Grandfather fell asleep on the divan in the parlor. The Little Boy in the sailor blouse sat on the screened porch and waved away the flies. Down at the bottom of the hill Mother's Younger Brother boarded the streetcar and rode to the end of the line. He was a lonely, withdrawn young man with blond moustaches, and was thought to be having difficulty finding himself. The end of the line was an empty field of tall marsh grasses. The air was salt. Mother's Younger Brother in his white linen suit and boater rolled his trousers and walked barefoot in the salt marshes. Sea birds started and flew up. This was the time in our history when Winslow Homer was doing his painting. A certain light was still available along the Eastern seaboard. Homer painted the light. It gave the sea a heavy dull menace and shone coldly on the rocks and shoals of the New England coast. There were unexplained shipwrecks and brave towline rescues. Odd things went on in lighthouses and in shacks nestled in the wild beach plum. Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White's mistress. The shooting took place in the roof garden of the Madison Square Garden on 26th Street, a spectacular block-long building of yellow brick and terra cotta that White himself had designed in the Sevillian style. It was the opening night of a revue entitled Mamzelle Champagne, and as the chorus sang and danced the eccentric scion wearing on this summer night a straw boater and heavy black coat pulled out a pistol and shot the famous architect three times in the head. On the roof. There were screams. Evelyn fainted. She had been a well-known artist's model at the age of fifteen. Her underclothes were white. Her husband habitually whipped her. She happened once to meet Emma Goldman, the revolutionary. Goldman lashed her with her tongue. Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants. And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.
Mother's Younger Brother was in love with Evelyn Nesbit. He had closely followed the scandal surrounding her name and had begun to reason that the death of her lover Stanford White and the imprisonment of her husband Harry K. Thaw left her in need of the attentions of a genteel middle-class young man with no money. He thought about her all the time. He was desperate to have her. In his room pinned on the wall was a newspaper drawing by Charles Dana Gibson entitled "The Eternal Question." It showed Evelyn in profile, with a profusion of hair, one thick strand undone and fallen in the configuration of a question mark. Her downcast eye was embellished with a fallen ringlet that threw her brow in shadow. Her nose was delicately upturned. Her mouth was slightly pouted. Her long neck curved like a bird taking wing. Evelyn Nesbit had caused the death of one man and wrecked the life of another and from that he deduced that there was nothing in life worth having, worth wanting, but the embrace of her thin arms.
The afternoon was a blue haze. Tidewater seeped into his footprints. He bent down and found a perfect shell specimen, a variety not common to western Long Island Sound. It was a voluted pink and amber shell the shape of a thimble, and what he did in the hazy sun with the salt drying on his ankles was to throw his head back and drink the minute amount of sea water in the shell. Gulls wheeled overhead, crying like oboes, and behind him at the land end of the marsh, out of sight behind the tall grasses, the distant bell of the North Avenue streetcar tolled its warning.
Across town the little boy in the sailor suit was suddenly restless and began to measure the length of the porch. He trod with his toe upon the runner of the cane-backed rocking chair. He had reached that age of knowledge and wisdom in a child when it is not expected by the adults around him and consequently goes unrecognized. He read the newspaper daily and was currently following the dispute between the professional baseballers and a scientist who claimed that the curve ball was an optical illusion. He felt that the circumstances of his family's life operated against his need to see things and to go places. For instance he had conceived an enormous interest in the works and career of Harry Houdini, the escape artist. But he had not been taken to a performance. Houdini was a headliner in the top vaudeville circuits. His audiences were poor people--carriers, peddlers, policemen, children. His life was absurd. He went all over the world accepting all kinds of bondage and escaping. He was roped to a chair. He escaped. He was chained to a ladder. He escaped. He was handcuffed, his legs were put in irons, he was tied up in a strait jacket and put in a locked cabinet. He escaped. He escaped from bank vaults, nailed-up barrels, sewn mailbags; he escaped from a zinc-lined Knabe piano case, a giant football, a galvanized iron boiler, a rolltop desk, a sausage skin. His escapes were mystifying because he never damaged or appeared to unlock what he escaped from. The screen was pulled away and there he stood disheveled but triumphant beside the inviolate container that was supposed to have contained him. He waved to the crowd. He escaped from a sealed milk can filled with water. He escaped from a Siberian exile van. From a Chinese torture crucifix. From a Hamburg penitentiary. From an English prison ship. From a Boston jail. He was chained to automobile tires, water wheels, cannon, and he escaped. He dove manacled from a bridge into the Mississippi, the Seine, the Mersey, and came up waving. He hung upside down and strait-jacketed from cranes, biplanes and the tops of buildings. He was dropped into the ocean padlocked in a diving suit fully weighted and not connected to an air supply, and he escaped. He was buried alive in a grave and could not escape, and had to be rescued. Hurriedly, they dug him out. The earth is too heavy, he said gasping. His nails bled. Soil fell from his eyes. He was drained of color and couldn't stand. His assistant threw up. Houdini wheezed and sputtered. He coughed blood. They cleaned him off and took him back to the hotel. Today, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger.
The little boy stood at the end of the porch and fixed his gaze on a bluebottle fly traversing the screen in a way that made it appear to be coming up the hill from North Avenue. The fly flew off. An automobile was coming up the hill from North Avenue. As it drew closer he saw it was a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout. He ran along the porch and stood at the top of the steps. The car came past his house, made a loud noise and swerved into the telephone pole. The little boy ran inside and called upstairs to his mother and father. Grandfather woke with a start. The boy ran back to the porch. The driver and the passenger were standing in the street looking at the car: it had big wheels with pneumatic tires and wooden spokes painted in black enamel. It had brass headlamps in front of the radiator and brass sidelamps over the fenders. It had tufted upholstery and double side entrances. It did not appear to be damaged. The driver was in livery. He folded back the hood and a geyser of white steam shot up with a hiss.
A number of people looked on from their front yards. But Father, adjusting the chain on his vest, went down to the sidewalk to see if there was something he could do. The car's owner was Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. He was spending the day driving through Westchester. He was thinking of buying some property. He was invited into the house while the radiator cooled. He surprised them with his modest, almost colorless demeanor He seemed depressed. His success had brought into vaudeville a host of competitors. Consequently he had to think of more and more dangerous escapes. He was a short, powerfully built man, an athlete obviously, with strong hands and with back and arm muscles that suggested themselves through the cut of his rumpled tweed suit which, though well tailored, was worn this day inappropriately. The thermometer read in the high eighties. Houdini had unruly stiff hair parted in the middle and clear blue eyes, which did not stop moving. He was very respectful to Mother and Father and spoke of his profession with diffidence. This struck them as appropriate. The little boy stared at him. Mother had ordered lemonade. It was brought into the parlor and Houdini drank it gratefully. The room was kept cool by the awnings on the windows. The windows themselves were shut to keep out the heat. Houdini wanted to undo his collar. He felt trapped by the heavy square furnishings, the drapes and dark rugs, the Oriental silk cushions, the green glass lampshades. There was a chaise with a zebra rug. Noticing Houdini's gaze Father mentioned that he had shot that zebra on a hunting trip in Africa. Father was an amateur explorer of considerable reputation. He was past president of the New York Explorers Club to which he made an annual disbursement. In fact in just a few days he would be leaving to carry the Club's standard on the third Peary expedition to the Arctic. You mean, Houdini said, you're going with Peary to the Pole? God willing, Father replied. He sat back in his chair and lit a cigar. Houdini became voluble. He paced back and forth. He spoke of his own travels, his tours of Europe. But the Pole! he said. Now that's something. You must be pretty good to get picked for that. He turned his blue eyes on Mother. And keeping the home fires burning ain't so easy either, he said. He was not without charm. He smiled and Mother, a large blond woman, lowered her eyes. Houdini then spent a few minutes doing small deft tricks with objects at hand for the little boy. When he took his leave the entire family saw him to the door. Father and Grandfather shook his hand. Houdini walked down the path that ran under the big maple tree and then descended the stone steps that led to the street. The chauffeur was waiting, the car was parked correctly. Houdini climbed in the seat next to the driver and waved. People stood looking on from their yards. The little boy had followed the magician to the street and now stood at the front of the Pope-Toledo gazing at the distorted macrocephalic image of himself in the shiny brass fitting of the headlight. Houdini thought the boy comely, fair like his mother, and tow-headed, but a little soft-looking. He leaned over the side door. Goodbye, Sonny, he said holding out his hand. Warn the Duke, the little boy said. Then he ran off.
Posted December 28, 2011
When asked a few years ago to name my 10 favorite books, there was no hesitation in listing Ragtime first. Doctorow is without peer as a storyteller and a master wordsmith.
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Posted September 5, 2010
Ragtime, the story of America's pastime, consists of numerous characters, each with tales as different as could be.
E.L. Doctorow uses an interesting, slightly unusual, writing style that divides one book into separate stories that, with the smallest of threads tie themselves together. Because of this, however, he has left us a very convoluted novel with an array of over ten main characters.
In my opinion, the style of using some many different stories and characters is an extremely captivating way to form a book. I fell in love with them all, because Doctorow gives just enough of his own vision, and leaves the rest up to the reader's imagination. Soon after flipping back the front cover, you begin seeing the little boy on the back porch contemplating in awe at the world around him.
Another fascinating aspect of Doctorow's writing, is how he incorporates so many of the ara's famous celebrities and scandals that took place between. There are names like Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini, and though there names are fact, the stories are twisted into the fiction lives of those the writer has created. And to be frank, at times those twists make little to no real sense.
My overall opinions of this book were good, with moments of frustration, and the question: "What on Earth just happened?" often times forced me to reread a chapter once or twice. But it never ceased to hold my attention. Ragtime, for me was a nine out of ten.
I would indeed recommend this book; in fact, I already have. However, I implore digression to children under the age of thirteen.
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Posted June 18, 2012
One of the absolute finest narratives of the 20th century--a great omniscient voice that weaves in and around events, pulling threads from real historical figures and events that at first seem to have been observed for their own sake, but then, like colors in a tapestry, return and connect, and expand. Extraordinary storytelling.
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Posted September 3, 2010
This book was absolutely awful. It was slow, didn't make sense, choppy, bizarre, and plainly, in a word, painful.
Who was narrating the story? I was confused about this. This didn't make sense to me. Was it another member of "Younger Brother" and "Mother's" family? Was it some random person? What was this about? I still don't understand who was telling the story and why. It was very odd.
Secondly, what was the point of this book? The plot was terribly choppy and at times confusing, jumping from one place and one set of events to another randomly, switching from character to character to character. It was difficult reading about so many new characters in only the first part of the story. And the terrible plot is only accentuated by the painfully blunt and rather underdeveloped writing style Doctorow uses: short and simple to-the-point sentences that make his novel sound like a high school English student wrote it, and threw in random vocabulary all over the place for good measure.
Finally, the profanity of this book was really terrible. I am not one to agree on banning books; I'm all for reading 'banned' books like The Catcher in the Rye and other novels that people have frowned upon due to language and other "inappropriate" content. But this novel's sexual content was so awful it made me gag. Doctorow disgustingly writes of sexual encounters throughout the entire novel, frequently describes acts of sex (and possibly lesbianism) and masturbation. It's enough to make you put down the book for good. It's like a sexual overload. I don't know what statement Doctorow was trying to make in having almost all of his characters focus on sex so often. It's incredibly pointless. It doesn't convey that in the early 20th century American were becoming more sexual. It's just gross!
Overall, this book was completely terrible. I would not recommend it even to a high schooler because of all the awful sexual content. But the plot, which I guess Doctorow was inspired to write after reading some history book or something, is what really kills.
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Posted July 30, 2013
This is actually the second time I've read this work. It's Wonderfully written. You'll enjoy this book. To parphrase Dickens, "It was the best of time; it was the worst of time. It was RagtimeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 20, 2013
Posted January 18, 2013
I read this book because I had knew the musical of the same name. I decided to read it because of this. Filled with juicy sensual scenes and lots of historic facts, it really was a good story. However , by the end of the story. I didn't really feel a neeeed to ever pick up the book Again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2013
Complex characters with simple names represent three very different groups of people in the magical and tumultuous time that was turn-of-the-twentieth-century America.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 25, 2012
Posted August 2, 2008
Doctorow's Ragtime recreates a particular, vital period of the early 20th century with unusual focus on a very short time. The book is encyclopedic in its remembrance of that many- faceted era.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 13, 2006
The American mythos of being a land where dreams come true is paradoxically shattered and bolstered in Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. In fact, reading the book is like entering the magic of dreams -- a mystical and surreal land where life is beautiful and cruel and heaped with absurd correspondences that carry eerie significance. In Doctorow's early 1900s, the lives of everyday fictional people such as a wealthy white family, a poor Jewish immigrant family, and a black family broken before it can form, flow freely into the experiences of historical figures such as the radical anarchist Emma Goldman, Gibson Girl Evelyn Nesbit, magician Harry Houdini, financier J.P Morgan, automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, architect Stanford White, psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and General Tom Thumb, to name just a few. These imagined interactions have lasting effects on everyone involved. Goldman brings the numb and much-abused body of the Gibson Girl Nesbit to life with matronly care by rubbing the girl's confined muscles with liniment. The young white child, referred to only as ¿little boy,¿ has a chance meeting with the famed Harry Houdini and finds himself compelled to call out to him ¿Warn the duke,¿ which many years only later holds meaning for Houdini, and also for all of us, since it refers to the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Jung, while traveling with Freud in New York City, meets the eyes of the immigrant ¿little girl,¿ and experiences a ¿shock of recognition.¿ All lives brush against each other, sometimes in tragedy or horror, sometimes in kindness or beauty, and often with humor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 31, 2006
Ragtime is very interestingly written and that is what I liked about it. There was a clearly defined plot, but the plot was not impressive in itself. What was impressive was the writing. The way the author let the reader witness several different events happening at once by pulling the readre out of the story itself and making the reader an observer. Most authors try to pull the reader into the story. They want to make the reader feel the emotions of the characters in the story. Here, however, Doctorow let the reader simply witness the emotions of the characters in the story. He did this intentionally and very skillfully. It was a joy to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 30, 2004
This awesome book helps to illustrate life in pre-WWI USA very well. It truly helps to illustrate the conditions that people were forced to endure to survive. I loved the musical so much that I decided to teach the book to my sophomore students! It is worth the time it takes to read it with my students.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 22, 2002
Doctorow's Ragtime stands out to me, alongside The Great Gatsby, as one of the great American novels of all time. Its universal account of the momentous transition in American society from a generation of restraint to one of infinite possibilities and ironies is one which resonates not only in all American literature but in our history as a nation as well. It is constructed, similar to Fitzgerald's 'Gatsby', in a perfectly, symphony-like, internconnected manner that, by the novel's conclusion, leaves no threads untied and, in a novel largely concerning a dissatisfaction in the turn of the century America, leaves the reader immensely satisfied. Ragtime is not one of the 'best ten books of the decade' but rather one of the ten best American books ever written!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 28, 2002
RagTime is the best!I love it!I even have some of the songs from the play,RagTime the Musical.I want the Original Cast Recording--Broadway.RagTime is about three families--a rich white famly,a black family,and an immegrant family,who run into each other at various times,mixing in with Harry Houdini,Evelyn Nesbit,Henry Ford,J.P.Morgan, Harry K.Thaw,Stanford White,Emma Goldman, Admiral Peary,and many more real characters involved in the actual time and places mentioned in the book.Doctorow has brought the magic and wonder of the story too life,by making it a wonderful,funfilled play for all ages.The characters come to life by the actors.The caracters mentioned in the white family are-Father,Mother,Grandfather,Younger Brother,and The Little Boy.The black family are-Coalhouse,Sarah,and The Black Child.The immigrant family are-Tateh,and The Little Girl.Doctrow has made this a magnificent piece of work,and a wonderful musical for the heart and soul.Really,read this book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 23, 2001
This is not just a slice of Turn of the Century America....it's the whole pie. The most enjoyable reading experiece of all of the list of 20th Century best that I've read to date. All of the various vignettes are interesting in their own right - but when woven together the tapestry is both colorful and beautiful. Highly recommended for a pleasurable (and easy) reading experience.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 7, 2001
Before I read the book, I saw the play and it is my favorite Broadway musical. After reading the book, I was disappointed that the play and the movie did not go further into the stories of Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini. The way Doctorow weaves his ficticious characters into the lives of people such as Nesbit, Houdini, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford is fascinating. I couldn't stop reading this book.
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Posted October 20, 2000
In a time of unpredictable events, a new era of life and music is born. The ragtime era is a time of new politics, murder, aristocracy, immigration, revolution, and also a time of a country losing its innocence. E.L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime,' illustrates the many different events that occur during this time through numerous characters, both fictional and non-fictional. Each of the non-fictional characters help make the story more believable and help cement the setting. Doctorow accomplishes this by giving the reader a fact to support the fiction. Harry Houdini holds a minor role in which he wows the world with his magical talents. J.P. Morgan finances the world into a new dimension and Henry Ford produces Model T's and continually changes the way Americans work. Along with these characters the fictional characters exist, and they help to keep the story unfolding. One family is exposed to many of the unpredictable events that occur during this era. They witness racism, murder, magic, and revolution. The family connects with a Jewish man, Tateh, who brings immigration into the story, and a black musician, Coalhouse Walker, who brings with him revolt. All of the characters and events begin and end this ragtime era. Each character helps add to the changes in American society and the innocence lost during this time period. Scott Joplin's music is only a soft sound in the background, but his rags play throughout the entire book and keep it in rhythm. <p> Setting is the key in revealing the theme. 'Ragtime' is set at the turn of the century, before the first Great War. The family and their setting represent the innocence of the American society. They are protected in the beginning, but are soon exposed to the dangers and harshness of the world. Tateh, the Jewish man, represents the hope and ambition of the immigrants. His story begins in the Lower East Side, he has no money and is in constant fear of losing his daughter. At the end of the book he is prosperous and his American dream has come true. Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan also are representatives of ambition, but they play only a small role in the book. The changing world during this era, where anything is liable to happen, created a theme of a country losing its innocence. People no longer are able to predict what the future will be and demons lurch around every street corner. E.L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime' is written like a song, his themes intertwine and produce beautiful music.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2000
I, Believe that Ragtime is probably one of the best books that I have read in my lifetime. It was mandatory for my English I/II course and I believe that Ragtime was awesome is because it was interesting and informative.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 5, 2000
From the first sentence, I couldn't put it down. This tale fleshed out or gave life to historical personages I had previously considered little more than names of characters no different than those of ancient mythology. If you crave education laced with entertainment read this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.