A Bygone Era: Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

September 27, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 6 3 min read

coverI’ve read and enjoyed many of E.L. Doctorow’s short stories, typically in the New Yorker, but I’d never had the occasion to read Ragtime, Doctorow’s most famous work, one that has been made into a film and Broadway musical.

I don’t know that I’m well read enough to insist that Doctorow invented this sort of quasi-historical book, a work of fiction that necessarily intersects with the notable political and cultural figures of the day, rather than using them as simply a backdrop, but it has certainly become more prevalent in recent years.

Back then, apparently, it was new and different. So new and different in fact that my 1976 Bantam paperback edition comes with this quote emblazoned on its back cover:

It is a novel so original, so full of imagination and subtle pleasure, that to describe it further would only dilute the pure joy of reading. Turn to the first page. Begin. You will never have read anything like Ragtime before. Nothing quite like it has ever been written before.

On the front cover the sentiment is the same, if less verbose. Ragtime is “the astonishing bestseller about America.” 30-plus years later, Ragtime is still a remarkable book, but to today’s reader it likely won’t feel quite as fresh, as “astonishing,” as it may have when it was first published, if only because it has, knowingly or not, been an inspiration for many novels that have followed.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, Ragtime traces a few intersecting threads, but the main one involves a family in New Rochelle, New York. Father is the owner of a fireworks and American flag business (“about America” remember) and also an amateur polar explorer; Mother runs the house and is the household’s real source of strength; Mother’s Younger Brother is a quiet dreamer with anarchist tendencies and skills with explosives; the boy, child and nephew of these three, is the window through whom the story is told. The family’s relatively quiet existence is shifted when a baby is discovered buried in the back yard, miraculously still alive. A black baby. In not altogether enlightened New Rochelle this causes something of a stir and sets in motion the arrival of Sarah, the baby boy’s mother, and Coalhouse Walker, his father. This in turn sets in motion further events that eventually, cascading, bring bustling New York City to a standstill. But this center thread is augmented by intimate fictionalized views of notables like Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman, all of whom peripherally interact with the central family at one point or another.

Perhaps because it shares with Ragtime a fascination with Houdini and a polar interlude, Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is the recent novel I most associated with Doctorow’s. And indeed the two books seem to inhabit the same gritty New York City, though they are set decades apart. At the same time, however, Kavalier is a more evolved form, crisper and brighter like the comic books Chabon evokes. With Ragtime, Doctorow is more lyrical and wandering, willing to swaddle the central narrative with peripheral stories, willing to leave loose ends untied.

Not long ago, in the New York Times and elsewhere, there was much discussion of the “best” novels of the last 25 years. Ragtime, being too old, was ineligible to be bandied about by pundits and bloggers, but, having read it, I can see that it was essential in laying the groundwork for the tone that a certain influential strain of popular literary fiction has taken since then. The hype on the back of my paperback may be overwrought, but clearly Ragtime was something special.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. So you know, Tolstoy did it way before Doctorow… War and Peace is crawling with historical figures.

  2. Two points. I agree with most of this, but I think that Carr's Alienist is clearly the closest match of the later works.

    Second, and more important, I think the more interesting point is that way that Ragtime is not like the novels that we see nowadays. I read Ragtime expecting something sprawling, like Gold's Carter Beats the Devil or even, subtract the historical figures part, Irving's Garp. What I got instead was a short, controlled, light, jewel-like novel, almost a novella or maybe like a Vonnegut novel without the high absurdism. If you think about it, Ragtime and Kalavier and Clay are very dissimilar in tone, even if they do share some of the same strategies.

  3. I agree with you Martin. I too was expecting something sprawling but instead Doctorow provides a fairly straightforward plot surrounded by tightly wound subplots and vignettes. It was interesting to me too how the novel shifted back and forth from a narrow focus to a broad one, which to me gave it a denser quality.

    And it's true that Ragtime and Kavalier and Clay overlap (and even then, barely) in subject matter only. Chabon is interested in exploring a very specific tone that's very different from what Doctorow is after.

  4. What I like best about Ragtime is that even as it gives us a tight "jewel-like" form, it opens out in innovative ways. For instance, Doctorow refuses to pin down the narrative voice. We are inclined to think the narrator is the Little Boy, but upon closer inspection, it could also be Little Girl. As a whole, the novel is told via a collective narrator–as so much of our history is told to us today.

    The collective narrative voice is enhanced by the naming of characters: the generc Mother and Tateh. In fact, the only named characters–besides the famous names–are Coalhouse and Sarah–the black characters. A wondersful response to the traditional historical narrative's erasure of the identities of people of color!

    The book was published several year's before Howard Zinn's A People's History of the US. But it shares a common heart.

  5. And another book with which it shares a heart (and a plot) is Kleist's Michael Kolhaas, to which Doctorow tips his hat with the naming of Coalhouse Walker

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