(An old friend of mine who teaches at the college level emailed me over the weekend with questions about E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime. It has been more than 30 years since I read the novel, and my reading of it was no doubt colored and informed by the movie, which I saw before reading the book. In any case, her question sent me to my copy of Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia [Fourth Edition] for answers; I wrote it up, and post it here. This discourse also reminded me of Mr. Doctorow’s famously controversial commencement address at Brandeis University in 1989, which in our current political environment looks innocently prescient.)
“Ragtime (1975) A novel by E.L. Doctorow. Set in New York between the turn of the century and the beginning of World War I, the novel revolves around three interlocking groups of characters: a family of Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side, their upper-class WASP counterparts from New Rochelle, and a black piano player, Coalhouse Walker, and his wife. Walker, probably based on the character of rag composer Scott Joplin, is a proud black man who, as a result of racism and insults, is driven to desperate acts. The evocation of World War I is enriched by the the interaction of Doctorow’s characters with such real-life figures as Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and C.G. Jung. Doctorow’s prose conveys a sense of his story by maintaining a contrapuntal, ragtime cadence.”
Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.