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Ragtime | Study Guide

E. L. Doctorow

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Ragtime | Context


E.L Doctorow and Ragtime Music

Ragtime, a music phenomenon best characterized by its syncopated rhythm, rose in popularity in the 1890s when the first formal composition was published. Ten years later, the music publishing industry was "flooded" with ragtime compositions as the fad spread rapidly across the United States and Europe. The ragtime genre was born in black culture and eventually made its way onto radio stations where white musicians quickly appropriated and incorporated it into minstrel and vaudeville shows. Ragtime differed from other musical genres because it was played primarily on the piano for an audience; it wasn't meant to be danced to. Although the genre is difficult to define because scholars often differ on its characteristics, the public would generally classify any upbeat, syncopated rhythm as ragtime.

This syncopated rhythm became a perfect metaphor for the fluid, repetitive history Doctorow has created in Ragtime. On the piano, ragtime music is characterized by one hand playing a repetitive base rhythm while the other hand plays creative runs and phrases. Like ragtime music, Ragtime has a strong repetitive base of true historical events and characters, such as the explorer Peary and his quest to locate the North Pole, famed anarchist Emma Goldman's political speeches, and millionaire Harry K. Thaw's trial for murdering his wife's lover, Stanford White. Yet like a ragtime musician, Doctorow "riffs" on these historical events by blending fact and fiction. It's unlikely that Thaw's model wife Evelyn Nesbitt ever met Goldman, for instance, yet in the novel they are close friends. Similarly, billionaire financier J.P. Morgan probably never met the inventor of the Model T, Henry Ford, yet in the novel they consider traveling to Egypt together.

Connecting Past and Present

Doctorow wove history together like a patchwork quilt, giving seemingly random historical events deeper meaning when compared alongside other, non-related events. Discussion of Ford's assembly line, for example, takes on new meaning when viewed through the lens of immigrant men like Tateh, whose lives were the "interchangeable" parts Ford profited from. Thaw's murder trial takes on new meaning when discussed alongside Houdini's varied escape attempts and obsession with legacy.

Not only did Ragtime create new viewpoints for discussing American history, it also created dialogue about current events. In 1975 when Ragtime was published in book form, America was just coming out of the Vietnam War. Political unrest was rife; younger citizens in particular feared the government had abused its power to promote its own interests under the guise of a democratic war. America was also still experiencing the reforms resulting from the Civil Rights Movement, which fought against the same racism and segregation characters such as Coalhouse Walker experienced in the novel. Ragtime was published in the midst of America's "nostalgia movement," in which people disheartened by the Vietnam War and other political scandals popularized entertainment that looked back to simpler times: the musical Grease had opened in 1971, for example, and the television show Happy Days first aired in 1974. Ragtime upends the nostalgia movement by creating a peaceful, segregated community at the opening of the novel, before dismantling and reconstructing it in the American melting pot celebrated at the novel's close.

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