by E. L. Doctorow

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Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time

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, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307762948
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/17/2010
Series: Modern Library 100 Best Novels
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 14,505
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

E. L. Doctorow’s works of fiction include Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, City of God, The March, Homer & Langley, and Andrew’s Brain. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN/ Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career places him in the highest rank of American literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction. In 2014 he was honored with the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.


Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York

Date of Birth:

January 6, 1931

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53

Read an Excerpt

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.

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Ragtime 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 76 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Macaroni-Salad-Lover More than 1 year ago
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.
TheIcemanCometh More than 1 year ago
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.
MrBogey More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting picture of that time in history told from a different perspective.
amydross on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A funny little book, written almost entirely in expostional narrative. There are many small (and sometimes dirty) pleasures available in this book, but what particularly won me over was the character of Coalhouse Walker, a man so proud and stubborn, with such an inflexible sense of justice that it's impossible not to all in love with him. One thing that puzzled me: there's a lot in this book about anarchism and socialism, and I feel like it's doing more than merely "giving a sense of the period". But I'm not quite sure what.
Freeoperant on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am not quite sure what to make of this novel. I never did figure out where it was going or what it was trying to say. I never developed much interest in the characters in the book, and no sympathy for any of them. I did learn something about a period and some historical figures about whom I knew little, assuming that real people were represented accurately. There were some passages that I liked a great deal and read more than once.
browner56 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is the turn of the 20th century and the United States is struggling to find its identity. It is a country that is still recovering from its own recent Civil War and has not yet entered the new era of worldwide conflict that will come within the decade. The gap between the ¿haves¿ and ¿have nots¿ is wide and daily life is often marked by rampant social, racial, and political unrest. It is also a time of remarkable intellectual creation and productivity, with people such as Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, and Pierpont Morgan leading the way.¿Ragtime¿ is an ambitious book that attempts to mix the history of the times with three different fictional story lines. Set largely in and around New York City, the author haphazardly mingles the narratives of an upper-middle class family (Father, Mother, Younger Brother, the Boy), an immigrant family (Tateh, Mameh, the Girl), and a jazz musician and his fiancée (Colehouse Walker, Sarah) with a dizzying array of real-life characters, including Ford, Morgan, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, and Admiral Peary. Unfortunately, none of these invented tales is particularly compelling and the one involving Colehouse Walker is both overwritten and completely implausible.Although widely regarded as one of the best American novels of the last 100 years, I must confess that I found reading it to be a mildly disappointing experience. The problem, I think, is that the author seems so committed to working into the story as many cultural touchstones as possible that the fictional elements seem underdeveloped by comparison. At slightly more than 250 pages, the book is really too slight for its intended purpose; it felt as if the reader was being rushed through a history lesson at the expense of character development and the plot. While the historical references were interesting¿this is an understudied era, at least by me¿I did not come to care much at all about the fates of any of the characters. So, while successful in teaching me something about the events of the ragtime era in America, the book ultimately fell short of being a satisfying literary adventure.
jesssh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written book that weaves together stories of original characters and notable persons from early twentieth-century America. Although it involves many characters and often moves from one to another from one short chapter to the next, Doctorow's style and story make it easy for the reader to keep up. One is left satisfied and curious about the age and its people, and satisfied with the time devoted to a good story.
LisaMaria_C on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved a music survey course I was required to take in college. I learned to love Josquin Des Prez and Monteverdi and Bach and Mozart and a whole passel of composers until we reached Schoenberg, when my first thought was "You've Got to be kidding; this is garbage." I felt the same way upon reading the very first paragraph of Doctorow's Ragtime. Well, except at least Schoenberg was original, while with Doctorow I could see the modernist strands of Hemingwayesque uber-spare prose, Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness, and whoever is responsible for making it a sign of genius to omit quotation marks. Truly, you can tell I think if this novel is for you just from that first paragraph.It might sound perverse to take a book's measure from it's first paragraph--but it was a long paragraph--three pages long. We're introduced to the central family of the novel, referred to only as "Father," "Mother," "Grandfather," "Little Boy," and most important, "Mother's Younger Brother." It's not a unified topic-sentence king of paragraph either, but this long incoherent meandering melange mentioning, along with the fictional family, a potpourri of historical figures from the turn of the 20th Century. Here's a snatch of that paragraph that was typical of the syntax: "On the roof. There were screams. Evelyn fainted." Oh, and not only wasn't dialogue not offset by quotation points, but unlike Cormac McCarthy or Charles Frazier, Doctorow doesn't even deign to set each speaker off with different paragraphs. I found this book an unreadable mess. One of the worse novels I've ever tried reading. I guess I shouldn't be surprised some claim it to be great literature given what I've seen praised, but anyone who tried to tell me they enjoyed this with a straight face? I'd back away slowly.
ehines on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fiction incorporating real historical figures and events has become commonplace these days. Perhaps even a bit tiresome. But when Ragtime was published the technique was still worthy of note, and Doctorow uses it with a delicate hand.
jonesli on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent historical fiction that weaves together fictional characters : a black Harlem musician, a Jewish peddler, and rebellious young WASP from a middle class family, along with real life figures J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, and Henry Ford.The beginning was a little odd for me, but I soon was able to keep up with the various characters and accept the factual content mixed with the author's fantasy.
SweetbriarPoet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've always been fascinated with JP Morgan. This book just made him more interesting to me. And I have this sneaking suspicion that Houdini is good-looking in this novel. Whether or not in reality.
mrstreme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
During the first half of Ragtime, I prematurely concluded that this book was incredibly dull. Characters ¿ both fictional and non-fictional ¿ were dropped on the pages like a yo-yo, appearing and disappearing before you could identify their purpose in the story. I could not get attached to the characters ¿ they all seemed like random thoughts with no connection, no development and often no names.However, after I passed the novel¿s halfway point, pieces started to fall together, the plot emerged with force, and Doctorow enchanted me with this important novel of the 20th century.Ragtime is a story about the social lives and forces of the early 1900¿s. The plot follows a well-to-do white family, an immigrant Jewish father and daughter, and an African-American musician who is hell-bent on seeking revenge against the racial injustice that he endures. Mingled in are historical figures, including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington, and historical events of the time, such as presidential elections and the start of World War I. As a reader, you get a steady look into the history of this era.Doctorow flexes his creative muscles in writing this story. One critic described Ragtime as ¿impressionistic¿ ¿an accurate adjective for this novel. Like an artist, Doctorow paints his story but blurs the lines and colors. For most of the novel, you may wonder why this character or event is included. This intrigue motivated me to keep reading ¿ I had to know how it all ends. And Doctorow masterfully draws it all together during the last pages so that everything becomes very relevant and purposeful.I imagine high school and college students around the country read Ragtime because it¿s a classic study in foreshadowing, plot and character development, and literary tropes. Certainly, Ragtime requires a patient reader. It waits to pull you in. However, if you stick with it, Ragtime will reward you with a marvelous social tale of our country¿s past.
arblock on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I just read Homer and Langely before Ragtime, and I must say I did not enjoy Ragtime as much. I read Ragtime as mostly a period piece, trying to capture the times, color and chaos of the early 20th Century in New York. As such, it is quite vibrant and successful. I felt the story, however, was a bit thin. Also, I felt like Doctorow tried a bit too hard to bring into the book many famous figures, and some of their stories, at times, were distracting or too forced for my taste. Overall, however, I definitely enjoyed this book. Homer & Langely, however, shows me how much a writer can grow--to write a "smaller" story, with much greater emotional resonance and truth. Looking forward to my next Doctorow read, "World's Fair"
MariaKhristina on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a very easy read and I finished it in a couple of days. The author is a good story teller and is able to weave the lives of the characters together. It's historical fiction which is cool since you know that these characters exist and that there is a basis for them. Although other times I thought to myself "really, so and so just happens to be there!" I like how he deals with issues of race, class and radicalism although I wish Tahteh would have stayed a radical instead of *ahem* buying in. I laughed when he called Houdini last of the mother lovers. And i thought the Emma Goldman/Evelyn Nessbit rubdown was sexy. He also made me more interested in reading the writings of Emma Goldman.
SwampIrish on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Doctorow's prose and I love the period of time that this novel covers.
phoenixcomet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Cleverly written novel that interweaves historical characters from the early 20th century such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, etc., with that of a New Rochelle family comprised of Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Son. Also told is the story of a poor immigrant family: Mameh, Tateh and daughter and what befalls them on the streets of NY. The novel successfully captures the chaos of the early 20th century; the era known as Ragtime.
BooksForDinner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Certainly one of the finest books I've ever read. Doesn't happen very often. Not long ago I read a book called Carter Beats the Devil: that was very good, and it wants to be this book when it grows up.
neurodrew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this novel, about a radical takeover of a mansion in early 1900¿s New York by some black revolutionaries, with a long back story about the development of the revolutionary as a handyman for a family. Teddy Roosevelt appears as New York chief of police
Ahloren on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautiful quilt of lives smashed together in an era of change.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At first, I didn't know what to make of this book; for the first fifty pages or so, I felt I was being presented with a collage of history and fiction, and too many characters to make sense of the novel as a whole when it came right down to it. Without my realizing it, though, the book suddenly came together into something completely different. The collage became a tapestry, and I hated having to put the book down. In the beginning, I hadn't expected to care at any point in the novel--the ultra-objective style of narration had left me feeling detached; sooner than later, though, I was swept up in the way that Doctorow had woven each character's story together with the world around them. In the end, this was an incredibly touching and humorous novel, wonderful both for its reality and an odd sort of optimism that comes out by the conclusion (at least for this reader). As a statement on history and America, as an escape, and as a piece of art, this really is a wonderful novel and a deceptively quick journey. Absolutely recommended.
whitreidtan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ragtime is called one of the best books of its time. It was apparently a trailblazer in terms of the way the novel has evolved. It is included on the lists of 1001 books that will make you a well read person. Obviously I missed something substantial here because it didn't impress me, draw me in, or engage me in any real sort of way. In actuality, I found it to be rather a mess. Then again, my critical facilities may be going haywire or, conversely, it could be an emperor has no clothes kind of situation here. I know which scenario I think it is. Draw your own conclusions. This historical fiction novel is a pastiche. Ostensibly following several very different characters, Doctorow has woven real historical figures and actual events from the turn of the 20th century (right up until the eve of WWI) into his narrative. A plethora of characters is introduced and then seemingly dismissed in the early stages of the novel, only to reappear on the page later, making coincidental connections with each other. The almost vignette like narratives highlight the major ideas and enthusiasms of the time: Coalhouse Walker's quest for justice highlights rampant racism, Houdini's acts underline the public's fascination with death defying escapes and their interest in the occult, Father's trip to the North Pole emphasizes the way in which exploration still captured the imagination, the trial of Harry Thaw chronicles the birth of the celebrity culture through his actress wife Evelyn Nesbit's role in Stanford White's murder, the pow-wow between Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan showcases the rising industrialization and mechanisation of the time, and so on. Perhaps there's just entirely too much going on in the novel, too many characters, too many themes, and a superficiality to both. The combination of fictional and real characters resulted in a short-shift approach to both and I found myself lacking sympathy for anyone. Late in the book when one character finally reappears, I just didn't care. And the coincidental intersections of the characters, real or imagined felt too contrived and intentional. This was, of course, a fascinating time period with so much nascent but I felt as if Doctorow had just missed the mark in depicting it. Having read it, I am that much closer to being "well-read" but I'm not any closer to understanding why.
cestovatela on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In Ragtime, E.L. Doctrow explores the full scope of American society at the turn of the century. His characters include an upper middle class family, polar explorers, new Jewish immigrants, Harry Houdini, JP Morgan, Henry Ford and a black man trying to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Watching these segments of society interact and collide is a powerful statement on the making of America, but this book feels too much like a literary construct. With each character standing in for the race or class s/he represents, it's hard to forge a real connection with the book. I read to find out what Doctrow had to say, not because I cared about the characters.
dbeveridge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A seventies classic; a revelation in writing style for me. Though my enthusiasm has faded with time, it was a life-changer when I read it.