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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 ...
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Ragtime: A Novel

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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 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, disap-
pears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sig- mund 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 afford-
able hardbound editions of impor-
tant 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 inau-
gurating a new program of selecting titles. TheModern Library continues to provide the world's best books, at the best prices.

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Editorial Reviews

Ragtime is as exhilarating as a deep breath of pure oxygen... At times, the swift, short sentences suggest the pristine flicker of silent film; at others, the sharp angles and sardonic deployment of detail in Citizen Kane... The grace and surface vivacity of Ragtime make it enormous fun to read. But beneath its peppy, bracing rhythms sound the neat, sad waltz of Gatsby and the tunes of betrayed promise. History resonates with special clarity here. Doctorow has found a fresh way to orchestrate the themes of American innocence, energy, and inchoate ambition.
Charles McGrath
....Ragtime re-creates pre-World War I America. -- The New York Times Books of the Century
George Stade
"...(It) is in this excellent novel, whose silhouettes and rags not only make fiction out of history but also reveal the fictions out of which history is made. It incorporates the fictions and realities of the era of ragtime while it rags our fictions about it. It is an anti-nostalgic novel that incorporates our nostalgia about its subject. It is cool, hard, controlled, utterly unsentimental, an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases. yet it implies all we could ask for in the way of texture, mood, character and despair." Books of the Century, The New York Times, July, 1975
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452279070
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Lexile: 930L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow
Few writers have succeeded as E. L. Doctorow has at creating stories (largely based in 1930s New York) that evoke both warm, personal memory and a grander national portrait. Doctorow doesn't always promise historical veracity, but he captures our imagination of the past flawlessly.


E. L. Doctorow, one of America's preeminent authors, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation For Fiction, and the William Dean Howells medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also published a volume of selected essays Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, and a play, Drinks Before Dinner, which was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. He resides in New Rochelle, New York.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Good To Know

Doctorow began his career as a reader for Columbia Pictures. He went on to work as an editor for New American Library in the early 1960s, and then served as chief editor at Dial Press from 1964 to 1969.

Critics assailed Doctorow for delivering a commencement address critical of President George W. Bush at Hofstra University in May 2004.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (full name; named for Edgar Allan Poe)
      Edgar Laurence Doctorow
    2. Hometown:
      Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 6, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt


By E. L. Doctorow, Jorge Rizzo

Roca Editorial

Copyright © 1975 E. L. Doctorow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0579-1


En 1902 Padre construyó una casa en lo alto de la colina de Broadview Avenue, en New Rochelle, Nueva York. Era una casa marrón con buhardillas, ventanas en saliente y un porche con mosquiteras. Unos toldos a rayas cubrían las ventanas. La familia tomó posesión de aquella sólida construcción un soleado día de junio y durante años tuvieron la impresión de que en ella todos sus días serían tranquilos y felices. Los ingresos de Padre procedían sobre todo de la manufactura de banderas, banderines y otros artículos de manifestación patriótica, incluso fuegos artificiales. El patriotismo era un sentimiento muy arraigado en aquellos primeros años del siglo. Teddy Roosevelt era presidente. La población tenía la costumbre de reunirse de forma multitudinaria, ya fuera a la puerta de casa para ver los desfiles, en los conciertos públicos, para comer espetones de pescado en la playa, en meriendas al aire libre con fines políticos, excursiones de interés social o en convenciones, teatros de vodevil, óperas o bailes. Era como si no existiera ninguna actividad de ocio que no implicara una gran concentración de gente. Los trenes, los vapores y los trolebuses iban de acá para allá. Se hacía así; así es como se vivía. Las mujeres de entonces eran más fuertes. Visitaban a los marineros con sus sombrillas blancas. En verano todo el mundo iba de blanco. Las raquetas de tenis eran pesadas y tenían la cabeza elíptica. El sexo era languidez. Los negros no existían. Los inmigrantes tampoco. Aquel domingo por la tarde, después de comer, Padre y Madre subieron al primer piso y cerraron la puerta del dormitorio. Abuelo se durmió en el diván del salón. El niño vestido de marinero se sentó en el porche con mosquiteras y jugó a hacer morisquetas a las moscas. Al pie de la colina, Hermano Menor de Madre se subió al tranvía y llegó hasta el final de la línea. Era un hombre joven con un bigote rubio, solitario e introvertido, y se decía que tenía dificultades para encontrarse a sí mismo. Al final de la línea había un campo pantanoso con hierbas altas. El aire estaba cargado de sal. Hermano Menor, con su traje blanco de lino y su sombrero de paja, se arremangó los pantalones y caminó descalzo por las marismas espantando a las aves acuáticas, que salían volando. Era la época de nuestra historia en que Winslow Homer pintaba. Por la costa este aún había algo de luz. Homer pintaba la luz. Le daba al mar un tono pesado, amenazante e iluminaba con matices fríos las rocas y los bancos de arena del litoral de Nueva Inglaterra. Se producían inexplicables naufragios y valientes rescates con remolcadores. En los faros y en las chozas escondidas por la playa se registraban extraños sucesos. En todo el país, el sexo y la muerte pasaban bastante desapercibidos. Había mujeres desaparecidas que morían entre los rigores del éxtasis. Se acallaban historias y los reporteros recibían sobornos de las familias ricas. Había que leer entre las líneas de los periódicos y gacetas. En la ciudad de Nueva York los periódicos no paraban de hablar del asesinato del famoso arquitecto Stanford White a manos de Harry K. Thaw, excéntrico vástago de una familia enriquecida con los refrescos de cola y el ferrocarril. Harry K. Thaw era el marido de Evelyn Nesbit, la famosa belleza que en su día había sido amante de Stanford White. Thaw había disparado a White en la azotea ajardinada del Madison Square Garden, un espectacular edificio alargado de ladrillo amarillo y terracota situado en la calle 26 y que el propio White había diseñado en estilo sevillano. Era la noche de estreno de una revista titulada Mamzelle Champagne, y mientras el coro cantaba y bailaba, el excéntrico heredero, que aquella noche de verano llevaba un sombrero de panamá y un grueso abrigo negro, sacó una pistola y disparó al famoso arquitecto tres veces en la cabeza. En la azotea. Se oyeron gritos. Evelyn se desmayó. A los quince años ya había sido una conocida modelo de artistas. Llevaba ropa interior blanca. Su marido le pegaba de forma habitual. Un día conoció por casualidad a Emma Goldman, la revolucionaria. Goldman la liberó con sus ideas. Al parecer, los negros sí existían. Los inmigrantes también. Y aunque los periódicos calificaron el asesinato de «crimen del siglo», Goldman sabía que aún estaban en 1906 y que quedaban noventa y cuatro años por delante.

Hermano Menor estaba enamorado de Evelyn Nesbit. Había seguido de cerca el escándalo en que se había visto envuelta y había empezado a creer que la muerte de su amante, Stanford White, y el encarcelamiento de su marido, Harry K. Thaw, la dejaba en la necesidad de recibir las atenciones de un gentil joven de clase media sin un céntimo. Pensaba en ella todo el día. Estaba desesperado por conseguirla. En su habitación, colgado de la pared, tenía un dibujo de Charles Dana Gibson, publicado en el periódico, que se titulaba «La eterna pregunta». Mostraba a Evelyn de perfil, con una gran melena de la que caía un mechón formando un interrogante. Tenía la mirada abatida y el ojo que se veía quedaba embellecido por un tirabuzón que le caía por encima de la ceja. La nariz era delicadamente respingona y la boca dibujaba un ligero mohín. El largo cuello trazaba una curva como si se tratara de un ave a punto de emprender el vuelo. Evelyn Nesbit había provocado la muerte de un hombre y arruinado la vida a otro, por lo que dedujo que no había nada que valiera más la pena tener o desear que el contacto de sus finos brazos alrededor de su cuerpo.

La tarde estaba envuelta en una bruma azul. El agua del mar se filtraba entre la arena barrida por las olas. Se agachó y encontró una concha perfecta, una variedad de molusco infrecuente al oeste del estrecho de Long Island. Era una caracola rosa y ámbar en forma de dedal, la recogió y, bajo aquel sol oculto por la bruma que le secaba la sal pegada a los tobillos, echó la cabeza atrás y se bebió el sorbo de agua salada que contenía la caracola. Las gaviotas revoloteaban sobre su cabeza chillando como oboes, y tras él, al final de la marisma, tras las altas hierbas, fuera del alcance de su vista, la campana del tranvía de North Avenue anunciaba en la distancia su llegada.

Al otro lado de la ciudad, el niño vestido de marinero se sintió de pronto inquieto y empezó a medir la longitud del porche. Con los dedos del pie presionó la base de la mecedora con respaldo de mimbre. Había alcanzado aquella edad de conocimiento y sabiduría infantiles que pilla por sorpresa a los adultos, y les resultaba irreconocible. Leía el periódico cada día y estaba al tanto de la disputa entre los jugadores de béisbol profesional y los científicos, que afirmaban que la curva en los lanzamientos no era más que una ilusión óptica. Tenía la sensación de que las circunstancias de la vida de su familia iban en contra de su necesidad de ver cosas e ir a sitios. Por ejemplo, había desarrollado un enorme interés por la obra y la trayectoria de Harry Houdini, el artista del escapismo. Pero no le habían llevado a verlo. Houdini era cabeza de cartel en los principales escenarios del país. Su público se componía de pobres: carreteros, vendedores ambulantes, policías, niños. Tenía una vida absurda. Iba por todo el mundo aceptando todo tipo de mordazas y escapándose. Le ataban a una silla. Se escapaba. Le encadenaban a una escalera. Se escapaba. Le esposaban, le ponían grilletes en las piernas, le ponían una camisa de fuerza y le encerraban en una taquilla. Se escapaba. Se escapaba de cajas fuertes, de toneles claveteados, de sacas de correos cosidas; se escapó de una caja de piano Knabe forrada de zinc, de un balón de fútbol gigante, de una olla de hierro galvanizado, de un escritorio con puerta de persiana corredera, de una membrana de embutido. Sus fugas eran impresionantes porque nunca rompía ni parecía haber abierto los cierres de lo que le aprisionaba. Se levantaba el telón y ahí estaba, despeinado, pero triunfante junto al inmaculado contenedor de donde se suponía que había salido. Saludaba a la multitud. Se escapó de una cuba de leche llena de agua y sellada. Se había escapado de un furgón blindado siberiano. De un crucifijo de tortura chino. De un penal de Hamburgo. De un barco-prisión británico. De una cárcel de Boston. Le encadenaban a neumáticos de automóviles, a norias, a cañones, y escapaba. Lo tiraban esposado desde un puente al Mississippi, al Sena, al Mersey, y aparecía en la superficie saludando. Le ponían una camisa de fuerza y lo colgaban boca abajo de grúas, de avionetas o de la azotea de edificios. Lo tiraron al océano con un traje de buzo cerrado con candados, emplomado y sin conductos para respirar, y se escapó. Lo enterraron vivo en una tumba y no pudo escapar, y lo tuvieron que rescatar. A toda prisa, excavaron y lo sacaron. «La tierra pesa demasiado», dijo jadeando. Tenía las uñas ensangrentadas. Los ojos llenos de tierra. Estaba pálido y no se mantenía en pie. Su ayudante empezó a vomitar. Houdini farfullaba casi sin aliento. Tosía sangre. Lo limpiaron y se lo llevaron al hotel. Hoy en día, casi quince años después de su muerte, el escapismo atrae a un público aún mayor.

El niño se quedó inmóvil al final del porche observando con atención una mosca azul que atravesaba la mosquitera de un modo que parecía que estuviera trepando por la colina desde North Avenue. La mosca salió volando. Un automóvil subía ladera arriba. Al irse acercando, vio que se trataba de un Pope-Toledo Runabout negro de 45 caballos. El niño atravesó el porche corriendo y se quedó en lo alto de los escalones. El coche pasó de largo produciendo un ruido estrepitoso, hizo un trompo y se estrelló contra el poste telefónico. El niño se metió en casa corriendo y llamó a su madre y a su padre. Abuelo se despertó sobresaltado. El niño salió de nuevo al porche. El conductor y el pasajero estaban de pie, en la calle, mirando el coche: tenía unas enormes ruedas con radios de madera esmaltados en negro. Los faros estaban delante, frente al radiador, y eran de latón, como los pilotos laterales, situados sobre el guardabarros. Tenía la tapicería acolchada y cuatro puertas. Aparentemente no presentaba daños. El conductor llevaba librea. Cuando levantó la tapa del motor, un silbido anunció el chorro de vapor blanco que salió disparado.

Varios vecinos miraban curiosos desde sus patios. Pero Padre, colocándose bien el reloj en el chaleco, bajó a la acera para ver si podía ayudar. El propietario del coche era Harry Houdini, el famoso escapista. Había ido hasta Westchester a pasar el día porque tenía intención de comprarse una vivienda en la zona. Le invitaron a entrar en casa mientras se enfriaba el radiador. Los sorprendió con su actitud modesta, casi apática. Parecía deprimido. Su éxito había atraído a una legión de competidores, lo que le obligaba a idear fugas cada vez más peligrosas. Era un hombre recio y de poca estatura, con evidente aspecto de atleta, grandes manos y la espalda y los brazos bien definidos por los fuertes músculos que se adivinaban bajo la tela de su arrugado traje de tweed que, aunque de buena calidad, no había sido la mejor opción para aquel caluroso día. El termómetro marcaba más de treinta grados. Houdini tenía el cabello tieso y rebelde, peinado con la raya en medio, y unos ojos azul claro que no paraban de moverse. Mostraba un gran respeto por Madre y Padre y hablaba de su profesión con humildad. Lo que les sorprendió gratamente, pareciéndoles muy correcto. El niño no apartaba la mirada de él. Madre había encargado que hicieran limonada. La sirvieron en el salón y Houdini se la bebió con gusto. La estancia se mantenía fresca gracias a los toldos de las ventanas, que estaban cerradas para que no entrara el calor. Houdini hizo ademán de desabotonarse el cuello de la camisa. Se sentía oprimido por los sólidos muebles de diseño rectilíneo, las cortinas y las alfombras, los cojines de seda oriental, las lámparas con pantallas de cristal verde. El diván tenía una piel de cebra encima. Al ver la mirada curiosa de Houdini, Padre mencionó que había cazado aquella cebra en una expedición de caza por África. Padre era un explorador aficionado de considerable reputación. Había sido presidente del Club de Exploradores de Nueva York, al que hacía contribuciones anuales. De hecho, en unos días iba a emprender la marcha como portador del estandarte del Club en la tercera expedición Peary al Ártico.

—¿Quiere decir —replicó Houdini— que va a acompañar a Peary al Polo?

—Si Dios quiere —respondió Padre. Se recostó en su silla y encendió un cigarro.

Houdini adquirió de pronto una gran locuacidad y empezó a caminar por la estancia visiblemente agitado, hablando de sus propios viajes, de sus giras por Europa.

—¡Pero el Polo! ¡Eso sí es grande! Debe ser bastante bueno para que le hayan seleccionado —dijo. Dirigió sus ojos azules a Madre—. Y mantener el hogar en marcha tampoco es fácil —concedió.

Desde luego, no le faltaba encanto. Esbozó una sonrisa y Madre, una mujer rubia y de fuerte presencia, bajó la mirada. Durante unos minutos, Houdini deslumbró al pequeño haciendo trucos de habilidad con lo que tenía a mano. Y cuando decidió marcharse, toda la familia le acompañó hasta la puerta. Padre yAbuelo le dieron la mano. Houdini descendió por el camino que pasaba junto al gran arce y bajó los escalones que llevaban a la calle. El chófer estaba esperando; el coche estaba perfectamente aparcado. Houdini se sentó junto al conductor y saludó con la mano. La gente se quedó mirando desde los patios. El niño había seguido al mago hasta la calle y se paró frente al Pope-Toledo, observando el reflejo distorsionado de su cabeza en el brillante latón del faro. Houdini pensó que el niño era guapo, de rostro claro como su madre y rubio, pero algo lánguido. Se asomó por encima de la puerta.

—Adiós, hijo —dijo, dándole la mano.

—Advierta al duque —respondió el niño. Y salió corriendo.


Resultó que la visita inesperada de Houdini había interrumpido el coito de Madre y Padre. Madre no mostraba ningún indicio de que fueran a retomarlo. Salió al jardín. Con el transcurrir de los días, se acercaba la fecha de la partida de Padre, éste esperaba alguna señal que le permitiera hacer una visita a la cama de su esposa. Sabía que si él tomaba la iniciativa, se arriesgaba a perder la ocasión. Era un hombre robusto de fuertes apetitos, pero valoraba el hecho de que su mujer se resistiera a adoptar actitudes poco delicadas como respuesta a las necesidades de su marido. Mientras tanto, toda la casa se preparaba para su partida. Había que hacer el equipaje, arreglar las cosas para el tiempo que iba a faltar en el negocio y ocuparse de otros mil detalles. Madre se llevó el dorso de la muñeca a la frente y se apartó un mechón de cabello. Ningún miembro de la familia era ajeno a los peligros a los que se exponía Padre. Pero nadie quería asumir la responsabilidad de pedirle que se quedara. Durante las largas ausencias de Padre, el matrimonio parecía renacer. La noche antes de la partida, a la hora de la cena, Madre dio un golpe a una cuchara con la manga y se cayó al suelo, y se sonrojó. Cuando toda la casa dormía, Padre entró en su habitación a oscuras, solemne y cuidadoso como requería la ocasión. Madre cerró los ojos y le puso las manos sobre las orejas. Por la barbilla de Padre resbalaba el sudor, que caía sobre los pechos de ella. Madre se sobresaltó. Pensó: «Aún así sé que éstos son los años felices. Y en el futuro sólo nos esperan grandes desgracias».

A la mañana siguiente todo el mundo fue en coche hasta la estación de ferrocarril de New Rochelle para despedir a Padre. Había empleados de la oficina, y el primer ayudante de Padre dio un breve discurso. Hubo unos cuantos aplausos. Llegó el tren de Nueva York, cinco vagones barnizados en verde oscuro tirados por una Baldwin 440 con ruedas motrices radiadas. El niño observó mientras el mecánico, con su lata de aceite, comprobaba los pistones. Sintió una mano sobre el hombro, se volvió, y Padre le sonrió, le cogió la mano y se la estrechó. Al Abuelo le tuvieron que detener para que no cargara las bolsas. Con ayuda del porteador, Padre y Hermano Menor de Madre cargaron los baúles en el tren. Padre le dio la mano al joven. Le había ascendido a un puesto de mayor responsabilidad en la empresa.

—Vigílalo todo —dijo Padre.

El joven asintió. Madre sonrió encantada. Abrazó tiernamente a su marido, que le dio un beso en la mejilla. De pie en la plataforma trasera del tren, Padre se quitó el sombrero de paja y saludó con el brazo mientras el tren iniciaba la curva.


Excerpted from Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow, Jorge Rizzo. Copyright © 1975 E. L. Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of Roca Editorial.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

    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.

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 48 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 28, 2011

    No. 1 on my all-time reading list

    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.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2010

    Interesting and Infatuating

    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.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 3, 2010

    In a word: Painful

    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.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2013


    One of the finest pieces of modern American literature. An amazing panorama that reads like All the King's Men in its scope and perspective.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2013

    more from this reviewer


    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 18, 2012

    One of the absolute finest narratives of the 20th century--a gre

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2013

    Wonderful story

    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 Ragtime

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2013

    Wonderful read

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2012


    One of the most amazing novels ever written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2008

    Capturing an era

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2006

    Exploring the American Dream

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2004

    Loved it so much I'm teaching it

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2002

    An ingeniously interwoven masterpiece

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2002

    The Classic Novel--Now A Magnificent Musical

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2001

    41 reader of list of 200 20th Century

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2001

    Loved every moment of it

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2000

    The music is played in perfect sequence with the settting.

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2000

    New York , New York

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    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.

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