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June 18, 2017



by N@ncy


  • Author:  E.L. Doctorow
  • Title: Ragtime
  • Published: 1975
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Trivia:  Nr 86 on Modern Library’s top 100 novels 20th
  • #20BooksOfSummer
  • Setting: New Rochelle; Lawrence Mass; Atlantic City
  • Timeline: 1900-1917


1. Explain the title. In what way is it suitable to the story?
I had no idea what the connection between title and book was an had to do some research. Ragtime was a popular music genre in 1900. It  represents the last time America moved at such a slow, measured pace.  Doctorow writes about this  period just before the chaos of  WWI.

2. What is the predominant element in the story?
Ragtime follows the lives of three families: a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP); a black family and an immigrant family. At the beginning of the novel these families’ existences are entirely segregated. At the end of the story they come together to become an unique American unit.

3. Who is the single main character?
All the major characters are in the middle of the action but not really central to it. Doctorow mixes seamless fictitious characters with historical figures. J.P. Morgan – Booker T. Washington – Emma Goldman – Commander Peary – Sigmund Freud – Houdini – Evelyn Nesbit – H.K. Thaw – Stanford White.

4. What sort of conflict confronts the leading character or characters?
Each narrative has a conflict. Father and Tateh  want to react to changing times while Coalhouse Walker wants to start a revolution!
a. WASP: – Father wants to fight the elements and reach the North Pole
b. Black: – Coalhouse wants to fight racial injustice and destroy Morgan Library in NYC.
c. Immigrant:  – Tateh wants to survive hardships of tenement life.

7. What point of view is used?
a. A nameless ‘little boy’ tells the story. In chapter 15 we learn more about him.
b. An unidentified ‘we’ is used probably referring to Americans in general.


10. Does the story have a thematic message?
People are  trying to find a feeling of stability and purpose.
a. Novelist T. Dreiser is unhappy with the review of his book Sister Carrie. He sits alone in his chair and feels he is facing in the wrong direction. Throughout the night he turns his chair to find ‘alignment’.
b. Commander Peary looks for geographical ‘alignment’ the exact point on the North Pole.
c. J.P. Morgan seeks ‘alignment’ in trying to become immortal (reincarnation).

11. Does the story contain a single effect or impression for the reader?
Doctorow shows the reader the American Dream from different angles.
The rich and famous discover failure and disappointment (J.P. Morgan)
The poor immigrant fascinated by ‘moving pictures’
…becomes a successful film director. (Tateh)



  1. Ragtime was a very easy and entertaining book to read.
  2. Doctorow’s style is the use of short sentences and ever changing scenes.
  3. The action keeps moving to a ‘ragtime beat’.
  4. Tip: do a quickscan of the historical figures on Wikipedia before reading the book.
  5. Your back round information will make it easier to ‘place’ these people in the story.
  6. Strong point: motif  photograph (motion pictures or paper silhouettes).
  7. Motif is repeated several times:
  8. Photo of Evelyn in newspapers as first American sex goddess! (ch 11)
  9. Photo of Comm. Peary trying to  capture the North Pole. (ch 10)
  10. Silhouette portraits tossed in trash by dejected lover
  11. …only to be salvaged by his young nephew. (ch 14)
  12. The photo’s have a deeper meaning that goes beyond the literal object.
  13. In a photograph people leave a portion of themselves,
  14. …a residue of light and shadow. (chapter 15)
  15. Doctorow is doing the same
  16. …only his medium is ‘words’  not celluloid.

Last thoughts:

  • The book was good….not great.
  • I cannot understand why this is on the top 100 novels list!
  • I would have included
  • Advise and Consent by Allen Drury instead!


7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sophie
    Jun 18 2017

    I always saw that the ‘Ragtime’ title came from Coalhouse and the fact he played ragtime. I find your connection to the rhythm interesting. I think the ragtime is quite hypocritical and farcical, Coalhouse is playing it yet in the end, he has nothing to be happy about. You’re right that this is just before the cusp before everything goes off in WWI and it’s consequences, the votes for women, the later civil rights movements. I can see why this isn’t for everyone, I personally was seduced by the style so I found it easy to ‘accept’. Thanks for your tip on Advise and Consent by Allen Drury 🙂 A fascinating review as always Nancy 🙂


    • Jun 18 2017

      Sometimes I’m seduced by a style (Angle of Repose) only to be disappointed.
      At other times I’m disappointed (first 50 chapters The Way of All Flesh) and I keep going only to be rewarded with a wonderful book!
      It is so important to try and finish a book…there usually is a suprise somewhere!
      “When the going gets tough….the tough get going”!
      Thanks for your comments!


  2. Jun 18 2017

    This brings back memories for me, Nancy. We first saw the movie based on this book, primarily because James Cagney was in it in a small role. I then read the book, and I think I enjoyed it because of the historical setting. But it was a long time ago. Looking back I probably would not think it should be in a top 100 novels list, but then I would never be able to come up with a list myself.


    • Jun 19 2017

      I remember this book being very popular (book, movie…later Broadway)….but I had just left the country and missed the hype. That was before internet and Ebooks…so a popular book in English was a real treat for me. I used to visit USA and return with a suitcase filled with books!
      I thouught I read some books this summer ‘for old time’s sake’ !
      Thanks for your comments!



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