Ragtime is a novel
about early 20-century America on the cusp of change. Writing in a
fast-moving style that mirrors ragtime music, and intermingling real
and fictional characters, E. L. Doctorow produced a novel with a vivid sense
of time and place. His emphasis on history as much as on his characters
blunts some of the tragedies that occur, and the surface impression is
as buoyant as ragtime. Brewing beneath the surface, however,
are strains in the relations of whites and blacks, the
establishment and new immigrants, rich and poor, men and women, and
capitalists and labor that will continue for a century, into our own
The historical characters woven throughout the book — including Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, and the celebrated chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit — interact with three groups of fictional characters: prosperous white, black, and impoverished recent immigrant. Representing America in its pre–World War I innocence, an unnamed WASPy family (Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, and Little Boy) in New Rochelle, New York, sees its complacent life shaken up after an African American baby is abandoned in its yard. The mother is found, and to keep her from prison, Mother takes them both in. The father of the baby, a ragtime pianist, appears, and his run-in with prejudiced locals escalates into a violent confrontation in which Younger Brother joins the militants. Also eventually crossing paths with the family is a Jewish immigrant artist in New York City's Lower East Side and his young daughter.
Juggling so many people and issues while remaining entertaining and easy to read, Ragtime is considered one of Doctorow's great achievements. This inventive novel is likely to be appreciated by students of both literature and history.
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