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Ragtime | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, published in 1975, blends historical fact and fiction through a series of interwoven stories. Featuring a cast that includes both real people and made-up characters, the novel traces the efforts of a black man, Coalhouse Walker Jr., to find justice for wrongs perpetrated against him. Though some critics were taken aback at Doctorow's willingness to invent events and dialogue for real historical figures, that technique is now often used.

Ragtime won the 1975 National Book Critics Circle Award and was made into a movie in 1981 and a stage musical in 1998. Selling 250,000 hardcover copies in its first year, the book made Doctorow a literary superstar.

1. Critics have called Ragtime Doctorow's most controversial book.

Though many critics loved Ragtime, others distrusted the political message they believed the book sent. A reviewer for the American Scholar accused Doctorow of taking "gross liberties with history in the name of art." The Atlantic called Ragtime "the most overrated book of the year" and stated that its political message was simplistic. Commentary claimed that Doctorow's book was "a sweeping indictment of American life" and a "celebration of a radical alternative." And critic Hilton Kramer stated that Doctorow distorted "the actual materials of history with a fiercely ideological arrogance."

2. Doctorow begins Ragtime with a description of the wall at which he was staring.

When Doctorow started to write the book that turned into Ragtime, he faced a figurative blank wall, a dearth of ideas. So, as he explained, he began with a literal blank wall: "I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That's the day we sometimes have, as writers." He went on to write about the house attached to the wall, and then the world outside at the time the house was built, in 1906. From that beginning came Ragtime.

3. Critics have compared the structure of Ragtime to that of ragtime music.

The 1975 review of Ragtime in the Chicago Tribune stated:

Ragtime isn't a novel about ragtime music; indeed, ragtime music is barely mentioned in passing. Why, then, begin a review of it with a paragraph about ragtime music? Because this is a novel clearly inspired by that music and by the queer light it throws on the time in which it flourished and suffused with its mood and almost its rhythms. Because it is not a novel about ragtime but a novel in ragtime.

The review went on to point out the book's frequent introduction of new themes, which is a major element of ragtime music. By interweaving historical characters in unlikely situations with invented characters and gradually introducing ideas on race, immigration, love, death, and history, the novel mimics the musical form. Doctorow himself explained how his title relates to the musical form: "I became more aware of the possibility of the musical analogy and the form of the book. It is divided in four parts, as rag is."

4. Some critics think Doctorow plagiarized a character from another author.

In 1810 German writer Heinrich von Kleist published a novella called Michael Kohlhaas, which tells the story of a horse dealer forced to leave two of his horses for payment of a toll. When he finds them later, abused, he wreaks a terrible revenge. Doctorow often acknowledged the influence of Kleist's work on his own, saying, "I realized this was my moment to do homage to Kleist, to lift that situation and apply it to the life of a black American musician," and noting, "I'd been waiting for years to steal Kleist's story." Doctorow's character Coalhouse Walker is clearly modeled on Kohlhaas, the horse dealer in von Kleist's novella, but some critics feel that the debt to Kleist is greater than Doctorow allows.

5. Doctorow included real historical characters in Ragtime.

In Ragtime Doctorow merged real figures from history with fictional characters and created fictional events and dialogue for those figures. He included anarchist Emma Goldman, educator Booker T. Washington, turn-of-the-century supermodel Evelyn Nesbit, her husband Harry Thaw, architect Stanford White, industrialist J. P. Morgan, and magician Harry Houdini as characters. His reasoning for writing in real figures, he claimed, was this:

History is a battlefield. It's constantly being fought over because the past controls the present. History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth. I meant it when I said everything in Ragtime is true. It is as true as I could make it.

6. Doctorow claimed he wanted to "deify" facts in Ragtime.

Many readers and critics have criticized Doctorow for blending historical fact and fiction in ways that make it difficult to determine which is which. Doctorow didn't want to be considered a "historical novelist," and he wanted to distance himself from writers whom he called "nonfiction novelists." He intended to "deify" facts, saying: "give 'em all sorts of facts—made up facts, distorted facts." In an interview, he explained, "I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I'll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning."

7. A library was able to upgrade its security system thanks to Ragtime.

In Ragtime a black militant threatens to blow up the Morgan Library, the Manhattan library and museum that was once the personal library of financier Pierpont Morgan. The director of the Morgan Library wrote to Doctorow to thank him because the library's trustees, as a result of this plot thread, had agreed to pay for a state-of-the-art security system.

8. The film adaptation of Ragtime was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Ragtime was nominated for eight Oscars in 1982, including Best Supporting Actress and Actor, Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium), Best Costume Design, and Best Music. It won none but did win an Image Award and a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award. Reviews were mixed, from the Chicago Sun-Times's claim that it was a "beautifully mounted, graceful film" to the Boston Globe's statement that it was "better read than seen."

9. Doctorow found writing a note to explain his child's absence from school more difficult than writing a novel.

Doctorow has stated that he writes novels intuitively. He once described writing as "like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." He realized the problems inherent in this writing method when he had to write a note for his daughter to bring to her teacher:

I wrote down the date and I started, 'Dear Mrs. So-and-so, my daughter Caroline...' and then I thought, No, that's not right, obviously it's my daughter Caroline. I tore that sheet off, and started again. 'Yesterday, my child...' No, that wasn't right either. Too much like a deposition. This went on until I heard a horn blowing outside. The child was in a state of panic. There was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor, and my wife was saying, 'I can't believe this. I can't believe this.' She took the pad and pencil and dashed something off. I had been trying to write the perfect absence note. It was a very illuminating experience. Writing is immensely difficult.

10. Doctorow's passion for mixing fact and fiction resulted in an F grade on his first journalism class writing assignment.

Doctorow began his method of blending fact with fiction early in his career. In a high school journalism class (a course he took to avoid math and science), he had an assignment to do an interview. He turned in an interview with "Karl the Stage Door Man," a concentration camp survivor who worked the door at Carnegie Hall. His teacher claimed it was the best interview she'd ever read, but when she insisted on sending a photographer to get a photo of Karl, Doctorow had to confess he'd made the whole thing up. He received an F for the assignment.

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