Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow

Published in 1975, Ragtime is an amazing tapestry capturing the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century & WW1, when … “patriotism was a reliable sentiment … everyone wore white in the summer… the only thing more irritating than immigrants is black folk, specially when they start acting like they was white folk.”

It’s aptly titled too, for Doctorow manages to capture the ragtime music energy of the era. A quote by Scott Joplin, a famous ragtime musician, at the beginning of this novel, affirming that “It is never right to play Ragtime fast”, gives away the style and tone.  It starts very slowly, with descriptions of the main characters, where they live, and what they do., and then proceeds forward.
This colorful semi-historical novel is jam-packed with a myriad of characters, some fictional and some real-life, revolving around the fortunes of three families; a white family who are unnamed (simply referred to as father, mother and mother\’s younger brother), a Jewish immigrant family and a black family. Their lives intersect in both happy and tragic ways. Interspersed are a cast of real life authentic figures such as magician Harry Houdini, Admiral Peary, tycoons Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan, anarchist Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, and even a brief mention of Tom Thumb.
There is no inkling of a plot or hint that the book will be anything more than disparate descriptive passages for several early chapters. When interconnections between the characters intermingled with their encounters with some of the famous historical personages of the age begin to appear, these are the first indications that it will evolve into the veneer of a novel.
These strange characters are inextricably linked by unexpected and unforeseen events seemingly outside their control; the young boy’s uncle is in love with a woman who meets a revolutionary who is arrested for creating anarchy when a criminal holes up in J.P. Morgan’s library after his fiancé is killed when she leaves the house of the mother of the young boy’s uncle. And so on.
Maybe it is Doctorow’s genius that he can link together as many characters as he chooses, keeping them intertwined in the fine fabric of turn-of-the-century New York. Or maybe it is because this bedlam and turmoil is intentional, reflecting perfectly the chaos and confusion of the era.
There is an undercurrent of radicalism in the novel and a strong sense of the inequality of society. What I found most stimulating was the fictional character of Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist, and his fight for his rights stands out against an obvious injustice. His fanatical pursuit of justice drives him to revolutionary violence at a great cost to himself, but also to those he loves. It’s about this time that the book begins to become very interesting, and his story dominates the rest of the novel.
Ragtime definitely delivers. This is extrovert writing – witty, active voice, strong verbs, present tense. It is beautifully crafted, a stylistic tour de force, ingeniously pulled together and craftily presented, worthy of the era it captures, and should be enjoyed by anyone interested in the period.
“Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your
headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L Doctorow
By Ken Johnson, June 23, 2018

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