Study Guide

Ragtime

By E.L. Doctorow

Ragtime Introduction

Ever heard of Harry Houdini? J.P. Morgan? How about Emma Goldman or Evelyn Nesbit or Henry Ford? Well, once upon a time they were the people who were changing America, the people on the covers of our magazines and newspapers (they didn't have TMZ then). Ragtime is their story, as well as the story of the America they lived in.

If that seems like an awful lot to fit in a novel, it is. But E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime is a portrait of a time in America that's not just biography or a re-telling of history. Instead it's like a big old quilt. And Doctorow has stitched it together with stories of celebrities and stories of normal folks —like an upper middle class family, a Harlem piano player seeking justice and a recent Jewish immigrant trying to overcome poverty—to show how everyone affects history and no one escapes it.

Published in 1975, Ragtime was written during another period of upheaval in the United States, when the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. Doctorow raises issues that were still affecting America as he was writing, from the abuse of power to racism to using sex to sell just about anything. Along the way you can see how much has changed, and how much is the same—even today.

Oh, and when it comes to those celebrities, this really isn't some biography that puts them on a pedestal. Whether it's J.P. Morgan's belief that he was reincarnated from the Egyptians, or Harry Houdini being a mama's boy, we see a side of these famous people that you won't get in the history books.

Maybe that's why Ragtime has been turned into a movie, a Broadway musical, and is one of the Modern Library's Top 100 Books. Or maybe it's just that it's a page-turner that shows the American melting pot, and how we got to be the America we are today. Doctorow puts it all in a book that grabs you from the first page and doesn't let go.

What is Ragtime About and Why Should I Care?

Don't know much about history? Don't even like it? Well, this is one way to learn about a dramatic time in America's past without cracking a history book. Sure, Doctorow might take dramatic license by entering the thoughts of such characters as Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud and countless others, but that's not all he's doing.

Ragtime isn't so much about famous people in American history as it is about the way famous and not so famous people create history together... the same way history is being made around you every day. Yup: history is happening right now, and you're part of it.

What Doctorow does so well is show history being created, as if you're right there when it's happening. It's not about dates and places—Ragtime is about struggles and the way the tide of history changes because of people.

The labor movement grows from the poverty of the slums. Civil rights grows from the oppression of individual rights. Fashion and music change because of the way our tastes change. It's that groundswell that we all feel every day. We feel it when something that was popular is no longer popular, or when someone or something that wasn't popular is suddenly everywhere.

So get ready to jump in your DeLorean. Set the dial for New York City, 1902. And be prepared not only to see and feel what people were thinking back then… but also how history still affects how we act and think today.

If you have a Chase bank card in your wallet, or drive a Ford, you can witness the men who founded these brands in action. If you've ever watched The Little Rascals, you can check out the rise of its creator. If you ever wondered why sex sells, you'll get a firsthand look at the world's first sex symbol. And if you can meet the great-granddaddy of most musical forms topping the charts today: his name is ragtime.

Ragtime Resources

Websites

It's E.L. Doctorow's website!
Wanna read more E.L. Doctorow or learn more about him? Why not check out his website?

Harry Houdini
Find out more about the greatest escape artist ever. He puts the cast of Escape From Alcatraz to shame.

Ragtime the Musical
You've read the book, now see the play! Don't worry, they made it more family-friendly.

Movie or TV Productions

Ragtime (1981 film)
Info on the film made from the book.

Murder of the Century
PBS did a special about Evelyn Nesbit and the murder of Stanford White. It's full of juicy turn of the century gossip.

America in 1900
PBS special about what America was like in the year 1900, featuring many of the characters from the novel.

Articles and Interviews

Who Got to the North Pole first?
There's some debate about whether Peary was the first to the Pole. Nothing hotter than a debate about frozen Arctic explorers.

Freud's Visit to America
Oddly enough, Emma Goldman came to his lectures, something that's not in Ragtime. C'mon Doctorow: that would have been an awesome scene.

J.P. Morgan and His Life
A good article for getting to know J.P. Morgan (at least in his Ragtime-era incarnation).

Video

Ragtime Movie Trailer
Check out what the movie looked like: the voiceover is booming and awesome.

Slide Show of Evelyn Nesbit
See the woman that inspired the crime of the century, and became the first sex symbol.

Scott Joplin playing Maple Leaf Rag
Just imagine it's Coalhouse playing.

Our Gang
The film series that Tateh is inspired to create at the end of Ragtime

Ragtime the Musical
Here's the opening number, in all its jangling piano glory.

Audio

Jacob Riis and his photos
See the photos Jacob Riis took of immigrants and hear a story about it.

William Howard Taft
Hear a speech by William Howard Taft.

Images

Winslow Homer Life & Paintings
See the painter mentioned throughout Ragtime

The Eternal Question
The Charles Dana Gibson image of Evelyn Nesbit that Younger Brother has on his wall, plus more images of America's first sex symbol.