Random House, 1975, reprint 2007
by E. L. Doctorow
reviewed by Seana Graham
I first read Ragtime many years ago while I was still in college, not long after its publication. A friend had recommended it, but, much as I wanted to like it, I didn’t particularly take to it. At the time, the book was something of a sensation, blurring the lines between fact and fiction in a way that felt risky and a bit transgressive. In an interview with Ron Rosenbaum for the Los Angeles Review of Books (there’s a link below), Doctorow told him that William Shawn of The New Yorker fame wouldn’t print a review of the book when it came out because he considered the novel immoral.
I don’t know that I was bothered by any such qualms at the time. But I wasn’t comfortable with some of the more overblown and even cartoonish aspects of the book. I didn’t quite get what all the buzz was about.
And so things might have remained, if my book group hadn’t chosen the book recently in my absence. I picked it up somewhat reluctantly. I haven’t found over the years that my initial impressions of books usually change much even over a long period of time. But Ragtime proved an exception. Like everybody else in our group, this time I loved it.
Much that was once provocative about the novel seems a bit old hat now. This leaves us all the more room to see its other strengths. For instance, this time around I was quite impressed with Doctorow’s writing style. The current vogue in writing seems to be to break everything up into smaller paragraphs, for fear that longer ones will scare people away. Doctorow isn’t afraid of that. He writes long paragraphs but short chapters, which makes for an effortless read. Another element that makes it all so smooth is that he doesn’t use punctuation to mark out dialogue. People do talk in the book, though perhaps not as much as in most, but their words aren’t separated out from the main body of the paragraph. You don’t really notice it until you think about it, and when you do you realize that it’s perfectly easy to follow who is saying what without the aid of quotation marks.
One of the major plot developments of the story that I initially had a hard time with is the trajectory of Coalhouse Walker, the ragtime pianist turned terrorist. I found his name somehow unlikely and what happens to him a bit much. Never mind that similar actions were taking place at the time the novel is set in the lead up to World War I, at the time Doctorow was writing it at the tail-end of the sixties, and certainly in the present day. I just didn’t quite buy it. One of our members did some research on it, and it turns out there’s a reason this part of the book has a fable like quality. The story of Coalhouse’s ultimatum has roots in the early modern German story of a man named Hans Kohlhase, who is said to have gotten in a feud with the state of Saxony over what began as a small grievance and escalated from there, which is paralleled in Doctorow’s novel.
The overarching tone of the book is not of violence as I vaguely remember it being, but a kind of detached sadness. Many things turn out to be not quite what the characters hope for. The Great Houdini, who figures prominently in the story, is perhaps most emblematic of that. Several times in the book Doctorow lists his truly amazing feats. But Houdini remains restless and discontented, feeling that, in some crucial way, they do not add up to significant actions in the real world.
There’s an early passage that somehow captures the melancholy tone of the novel, which underscores all its genuine magic. “Father”, who has made his fortune selling flags and patriotic bunting, is leaving to join an Arctic exploration party and passes a ship full of immigrants.
Her decks were packed with people. Thousands of male heads in derbies. Thousands of female heads covered with shawls. It was a rag ship with a million dark eyes staring at him. Father, a normally resolute person, suddenly foundered in his soul. A weird despair seized him. The wind came up, the sky had turned overcast, and the great ocean began to tumble and break upon itself as if made of slabs of granite and sliding terraces of slate. He watched the ship till he could see it no longer. Yet aboard her were only more customers, for the immigrant population set great store by the American flag.
For passages like this one, Ragtime is well worth a second look.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.