|Douglas Strassler||Doctorow, E. L.: Ragtime|
|Assignment 1: Bibliographic Description|
|1. First Edition Publication Information||In 1975 Ragtime was first published by Random House, Inc., in New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, in Toronto.|
|2. First Edition in Cloth, Paper, or Both?||The |
first edition of Ragtime was published in light brown cloth.
|4. Pagination||146 leaves; 292 pages; i-2 unnumbered, 3-270 numbered, 271-278 unnumbered|
|5. Edited and/or Introduced?||The first edition of Ragtime had neither an editor nor an introduction|
|6. Illustrated?||The first edition of Ragtime was not ill|
|8. General Appearance||The book has an attractive, well-presented, simple appearance. The typography is easily legible, without looking too big. The margins are sized decently as well. I was not able to determine the font and size of the typography.|
|10. Description of Paper||The o|
riginal paper is of very good quality, having held up nicely over the past quarter-century. None of the pages are ripped, nor have they yellowed.
|11. Description of Binding||Each leaf is stitched to muslin lining, which in turn has been glued to the binding.|
|12. Title Page Transcription||RAGTIME/BY/E.L.DOCT|
OROW/RANDOM HOUSE - NEW YORK
|14. Manuscript Holdings||Unknown|
|15. Other||Doctorow gives a special acknowledgement: "The author thanks the John Simon Foundation and the Creative Artists Program Service for fellowships awarded during the period in which this novel was written."|
Dedication: "RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED TO ROSE DOCTOROW BUCK"
The page preceding Chapter One reads: "'Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast...'
Bantam's payment of 42 million for the rights to Ragtime in 1975 set a high-water mark for such purposes in the publishing industry.
|Assignment 2: Publication History|
|1. Other Editions:||N/A|
|4. First Edition printings or impressions?||N/A|
|5. Editions from other publishers?||In chronological order (repeated listings of the same publisher means that the company published several editions):|
1975 Bantam Books
1976 Bantam Books
1977 Pan Books
1982 Pan Books (in association with Macmillan)
1985 Pan Books (in association with Macmillan)
1987 Ballantine Books (under the Fawcett Crest division)
1991 Vintage Books
1995 Modern Library
|6. Last date in print?||Ragtime is currently still in print in both hardback and paperback|
|7. Total copies sold?||N/A|
|8. Sales by year?||N/A|
|9. Advertising copy:||The one advertisement for Ragtime appeared in July 1975 and quoted Doris Grumbach of The New Republic:|
"I predict that 'Ragtime' will be the most read, the most criticaly applauded and yes, perhaps the most accoladed novel of this year." It features smaller quotes from other critics as well, including Eliot Fremont-Smith of the Village Voice, George Sta
de of the New York Book Review and John K. Hutchens. It appeared in The New York Times
|11. Other promotion?||N/A|
|12. Performances in other media?||1981 motion picture released by Paramount Pictures. This 156-minute, color production was directed by Oscar-winner Milos Forman and starred Mandy Patinkin,|
Mary Steenburgen, Howard E. Rollins (Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor), Elizabeth McGovern (Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Debbie Allen, and James Cagney in his final film role.
1998 Broadway musical by Livent, Inc., which continues to run and has tours performing all across the world currently. Ragtime the Musical has been the highest grossing show on Broadway since its January 1998 premiere and was last year's most critically
acclaimed Broadway show, including 4 Tony Awards.
|13. Translations?||The following translations of Ragtime have been made:|
1975 Ragtime (Rio de Janeiro, Record Publishers)
1976 Ragtime (Paris, France Loisirs)
1977 Wang jih ch'ing huai (China, Hsing kuang)
1978 Regtaim (Russia, Izvesiia)
1979 Ragtime (Budapest, Europa)
1982 Ragtime (Czech Republic, Odeon)
1987 Ragtime (Havana, Cuba, Editorial Arte y Literatura)
1989 Ragtime (Mexico, Editorial Grijalbo)
1990 Ragtime (Barcelona, Spain, Grijalbo)
1993 Ragtime (Poland, Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy)
|14. Serialization?||Portions of Ragtime appeared in somewhat different form in "American Review 20" and "American Review 21"|
|15. Sequels or Prequels?||There are no prequels nor sequels to Ragtime|
|Assignment 3: Brief Biography|
|Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, the author whose works chronicle the American existence, was born in New York City on January 6, 1931. After attending the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, he received his B.A. in 1952 with honors from Kenyon College. He returned to New York to study at Columbia University.|
Doctorow served as senior editor for the New American Library from 1959 to 1964, and editor-in-chief of Dial Press from 1964 to 1969 (Shelton 7). Since then, he has devoted his career to writing and teaching, in such institutions as the University of California-Irvine, Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, the Yale School of Drama, and New York University, where he currently teaches. Additionally, he holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at NYU, having been made a member of the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters (Levine 30).
Spanning several styles and genres, E.L. Doctorow's work expands the literary art form. His 1960 Western novel, Welcome to Hard Times, turned the Great Plains experience into a moralistic tale of good and evil in human nature (Trenner 46). The book was inspired by his job as a script reader for Columbia Pictures, which he did between undergraduate and graduate study to make extra money. His second novel, Big as Life (1966), worked the other end of the storytelling spectrum, as it satirized the future (Tyler 68).
In 1971, Doctorow first experienced major professional success with the publication of The Book of Daniel, which received a National Book Award nomination. The book was inspired by the Atom Spy Trials that took place during anti-Communist hysteria in the 1950s.
Doctorow went one step further in delving into historical perspective with his 1975 best-seller Ragtime, in which he combined fictional events and historical fact to such effect that he won the first National Book Award given for fiction in 1976. It was the year's top-selling novel, and was ranked in the Modern Library of America's list of top 100 English-language novels. Interestingly, he has always written for Random House throughout his career, perhaps because they support his writing style, that of a leftist chronicling the urban ethnic (usually Jewish) experience (Skow 62).
Never one to rest on his laurels, Doctorow has continued to expand with style and form in his subsequent novels. 1980's In Loon Lake takes place during the Depression and its plot moves in concentric circles rather than linearly; in other words, events do not take place in chronological order but instead allow characters to move back and forth through time in order to create a sense of disorder. This creates the effect of setting "the American Dream in the context of an American nightmare" (Emblidge 397). Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella, released in 1984, also presented a strikingly original view of the creative spirit. His 1986 memoir World's Fair won Doctorow a second National Book Award.
Doctorow's last novel, Billy Bathgate, was published in 1989. The historical drama tells the story of Dutch Schultz, who was involved with the mob.
The notoriously private Doctorow continues to reside in New York City with his wife and three children.
|Although it was his earlier book, The Book of Daniel, that garnered E.L. Doctorow his first critical recognition, it was not until three years later that he experienced major success with 1975's Ragtime. Despite the novel's popularity, however, critics met Ragtime with varied response, due mostly in part to Doctorow's combination of fiction and fact (a technique he had previously employed in Daniel). Joseph Moses, one of the novel's proponents, had this to say: "The outrageous, the hyperbolic, the impossible - these are the elements from which Doctorow fashions a coherence so factitious and arbitrary it no longer distorts, but attains a purity and comic integrity of its own" (311).|
Fellow critic Paul Levy also celebrated Doctorow's intertwining of reality and illusion, which he felt ushered in an entirely new writing style: "Doctorow's narrative method here is an essay in the new journalism at its very best, cutting satirically through the elaborate veneer of illusions to the dark heart of latent cultural values" (403-4). In other words, Levy recognized that Doctorow did more than just simply recapitulate the past: he allowed it to reflect upon contemporary social values. Ragtime, according to him, represented the mid-1970s just as much as it did the early twentieth century.
Perhaps the most positive review of all came from Doris Grumbach in The New Republic. She praised the plot and language used in Ragtime too. "My enthusiasm for what Doctorow has accomplished in Ragtime....is based primarily on the quality of the prose, an ingenious representation in words and sentences of Scott Joplin's rag rhythms" (30). Time magazine's R.Z. Sheppard applauded Ragtime's "lyric tone, fluid structure and various rhythms that give it a musical quality that explanation mutes" (p. 64). Grumbach recognized that "there is [also] the skill of the plotting, the adroit cleverness with which Doctorow builds characters" (31). In fact, George Stade agreed with Grumbach in The New York Times Book Review. According to him, Ragtime succeeded "entirely in absorbing rather than annotating the images and rhythms of its subject, in measuring the shadows of myth cast by naturalistic detail, in rousing [one's] senses and in treating [him] to some serious fun" (1-2).
One would have thought, then, that Ragtime had something to offer to everyone, but a few dissenters remained. In direct contradiction to Grumbach and Stade, Raymond Sokolov of The Washington Post Book World appeared to be offended by Doctorow's goal "to restore popular interest in serious fiction" (3). He blasted Doctorow for his insistent, declarative pulse that beats on every page - subject, verb, object" (3).
Another critic, Jonathan Raban, had this to say of Ragtime: "It flares up on the page, and quickly dies," meaning that Doctorow "grasps arbitrarily and wildly at public facts and events" (141). While Ragtime represents something different to everyone, it is apparent that it enjoyed its moment in the literary hotseat during its 1975 publication.Sources:
Grumbach, Doris. "The New Republic." July 5 & 12, 1975.
Levy, Paul. "The Southwestern Review." Autumn 1977.
Moses, Joseph. "The Nation." October 4, 1975.
Raban, Jonathan. "Encounter." February 1976.
Sheppard, R.Z. "Time." July 14, 1975.
Sokolov, Raymond. "The Washington Post - Book World." July 1,1975.
|I could not find many subsequent reviews of Ragtime, except peripheral mentions of the novel in reviews of the film and musical adapted from Doctorow's novel.|
For example, movie critic Leonard Maltin said this about the book: "E.L. Doctorow's semi-fictional mosaic is glorious until Michael Weller's script narrows its focus to just one thread."
The only other review I was able find belonged to the website for the current Broadway musical. Producer Garth Drabinsky said that he thought the book "was a perfect exploration of the human condition." He added that Doctorow was given approval of the book for the musical, and that his notes of critique "were usually love letters," signifying his approval of the work.
Other than that, there were no subsequent reviews of the novel to be found.Sources:
|There is no accounting for what makes a novel successful. The quest to produce a best-selling novel involves a myriad of factors, some of which are more predictable than others. Just as with the work of a creative artist in any medium, such determinants as popularity of the author, subject matter of the book, length, critical reception, competition, and timing of the book's release have an effect on the success of the work. All of these factors played a part in the success of E.L. Doctorow's biggest-selling novel, Ragtime, but out of all of the aforementioned factors, the timing of the novel's publication provides the main explanation for the novel's success. Ironically, however, Ragtime is not an outright celebration of America; it also chronicles the hurdles society has had to (and in some cases, still has to) overcome. It is likely, therefore, that the hysteria surrounding the upcoming bicentennial clearly fueled the frenzy that made Ragtime the top-selling novel of 1975, although it was not the only reason why the book's social and political commentary became so palatable for a mass audience.|
The success Doctorow experienced with Ragtime could not have been predicted, mostly because it deviated from standard storytelling conventions in several ways. First of all, the main family around whom the book's entire plot revolves remains virtually nameless. Instead of giving them proper names, Doctorow refers to them as Mother, Father, Brother, Little Boy and Little Girl. Additionally, the author blends in the fictional accounts of the characters with real life figures (such as Booker T. Washington and immigrant activist Emma Goldman). While this technique had been used occasionally before (for example, in Mario Puzo's The Godfather), never before had a dramatic storyline intertwined between both real and fictional characters unfolded in such a convincing way. The Godfather featured fictional events in which real people occasionally were involved, but Ragtime highlighted real historical events and people. Because of this structure, Ragtime never stands still for a moment. As the storylines constantly interweave, the historical figures become part of fictional events while fictional characters participate in real history.
The narrative of Ragtime swings between three families: a prosperous, WASP family (comprised of Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Little Boy and Grandfather); a black family (Coalhouse Walker, Sarah, and an unnamed baby); and an immigrant family (Tateh, Mameh, and Little Girl). Significantly, the Little Boy narrates most of the novel, providing an open-eyed viewpoint to the reader. As the novel progresses, Little Boy understands increasingly more about the world and family in which he has grown up, and the reader learns along with him. Doctorow succeeds here in creating a fictional world that is both somewhat fantastical as well as dramatically convincing. The suburban upper-middle class WASP family of New Rochelle, New York, all combine and grow as they get carried away by the events that occur all around them.
This notion of escapist entertainment is most likely another main reason readers bought Doctorow's novel in droves. Ragtime takes place in 1906, when Teddy Roosevelt was the president. Readers are thereby completely transplanted and immersed in this relatively unknown world, a world which had previously consisted of nothing more than names and dates. And at the outset, Ragtime appears to be a very positive book. Father's family, for example, represents the fulfillment of the American Dream, a prospect that of course was very popular at the time of the book's release. He is a model patriot, a creator of flags, fireworks and buntings. Additionally, he is an amateur explorer; when he leaves with Robert Peary to discover the North Pole, the rest of his family experiences a turn of events significant enough to disturb their status quo. It is here that Doctorow employs his pro-feminist stance throughout Ragtime. Mother, who is first seen to be a proper, stereotypically Victorian woman, discovers a half-buried black child in her garden. She takes it upon herself to care for both the child and her mother, Sarah. On top of that responsibility, Mother also assumes the executive work necessary to continue Father's business while he is away, thus giving her a sense of empowerment and independence that she has never felt before.
In a subplot, Mother's Younger Brother attempts to woo the famous real-life dancer Evelyn Nesbit, the wife of Harry K. Thaw and lover of famous architect Stanford White, until Thaw assassinates White in what was referred to then as the "crime of the century" (Doctorow 67). Nesbit eventually leads Younger Brother to Emma Goldman, a political radical and revolutionary unionizer. Without clarifying his own opinion on unions, Doctorow shows the divisiveness such activism created at the time. In this way, he demonstrates the civil unrest that existed in the years before World War I turned American aggression outward. Goldman's work infiltrates the WASP family through both Younger Bother and Mother. Father feels punished by such involvement; he resents his wife's independent thinking, the fact that Younger Brother becomes a political radical and, most of all, that his own employees are forming unions of their own.
Father's employees are not the only subordinates trying to make their voice known. Doctorow also tackles the issue of race issue head-on. The father of Sarah's child is her former lover, Coalhouse, a ragtime pianist. Every Sunday he drives up to the WASP family's house to attempt to woo Sarah back. He eventually takes to playing piano in their home as a means of breaking down Sarah's resistance. Doctorow shows the dichotomy between the two distinct cultures in these vignettes. Unlike the reserved WASP family, Coalhouse has found an outlet for his emotions - his music. When Father returns from his trip, he is dumbfounded by Coalhouse's ability to wear his heart on his sleeve. Coalhouse can do express himself freely and without the scorn of his equals because his status does not preclude him from outward displays of affection. No one in the WASP family has the freedom to let go of their inhibitions and express themselves, on the other hand. Father, for example, must adhere to a certain degree of protocol at all times as a means of preserving his high standing in New Rochelle. In this way, the two classes experience a trade-off of rights: in order to enjoy a higher status, Doctorow recognizes that there must be a great deal of conformity on the part of the WASP family. Black people like Coalhouse and Sarah, on the other hand, have the benefit of much less respect by members outside of their class, but simultaneously experience a greater amount of solidarity among people in their own group. Jeffrey Hart praised Doctorow for his portrayal of potentially two-dimensional characters like Coalhouse and Emma Goldman, for being "free of moral skepticism that other authors [would have] bathed the characters in" (Hart 893).
Coalhouse, however, does possess one object that traditionally represents status: his shiny Model T Ford car, which to him suggests that he may one day be able to enjoy the fruits of his labor and realize the American Dream, as Father does. When a group of workers attack Coalhouse and destroy his car however, the violent act of racism sets the main plot of Ragtime in motion. When the law proves unable to help them, Sarah attempts to seek justice on her own, and ends up getting killed by a suspicious group of white people. Doctorow's message is clear: America may be the land of success, but the citizens will never truly find success as long as they try to do away with one another. Until Americans can all live in harmony with one another, then the work of the Founding Fathers will have been in vain. This is a sobering notion, to be sure, but Doctorow imbues enough positivity to counter Coalhouse's tragic downward spiral. This positivity lies in Mother's relationship with Tateh, the immigrant. As the book develops, the two grow closer and their children find comfort with one another. The conversations between Mother and Tateh suggest that it is possible to start over at any point in one's life. Doctorow gives hope through their union that it is indeed possible to create a world full of love, with no resentment, violence or hatred. This note of inspiration is what the novel Ragtime came to symbolize for readers in 1975.
The timing of Ragtime's release was definitely the main reason for its success. The popularity is inspired cushioned the heavy subject matter Doctorow addressed in the novel. However, another cause of the book's popularity was the author himself, who was on a high after his last novel, The Book of Daniel, which had received a National Book Award nomination. But despite Daniel's critical raves, it had a rather limited audience because of its focus on a young Jewish man. In making only one-third of the characters in Ragtime Jewish, Doctorow immediately made his novel more accessible to a large audience. The lesser success of Doctorow's follow-up books to Ragtime again demonstrates that the timing of its release had an effect on readers' reaction to the novel.
On top of that factor is the length factor. In its original printing, Ragtime ran 270 pages. Its fast-moving and all-engrossing plot makes it a very fast read, the type of novel that makes for very good airplane and beach-reading fodder. This type of book - high quality, but not the most challenging of literary efforts - often scores well. Other such books of the same time period included William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, Alex Haley's Roots, and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (Sale 22). This statement does not allow one to simply write off Ragtime as a piece of fluff, however. What Doctorow created in Ragtime was a rich tapestry of historical interaction, but he presented it in such an accessible manner that people from all walks of life could read, appreciate and understand the book.
Another way to prove that it is the timing rather than the content of a work of art that determines its success can be seen when comparing Ragtime the novel to Ragtime the movie. The film was released in 1981, six years after the success of the novel from which Michael Weller adapted the screenplay. Despite a great amount of fanfare, the movie bombed at the box office and with critics. This was a big shock in light of everything the film had in its favor. Not only was the film expected to score big with audiences just as Doctorow's book had, but the ensemble cast of characters boasted enormous star appeal. Silver screen legend James Cagney had announced that his work in the film would be his one return to film after a twenty-year self-imposed exile. Recent Academy Award-winner Mary Steenburgen (for 1980's "Melvin and Howard") and Tony Award-winner Mandy Patinkin (who starred on Broadway in the musical smash "Evita") also starred in the movie of Ragtime, as Mother and Tateh, respectively. Such young, up-and-coming movie stars Brad Dourif (as Younger Brother), Elizabeth McGovern (Evelyn Nesbit) and Howard E. Rollins, Jr. (Coalhouse) were cast in order to appeal to younger audiences, also. Milos Forman, the Academy Award-winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest directed the film, but for the first time in his career, he faced the wrath of critics, who felt that the movie's script was too thin and that too many of the real life historical characters' scenes were cut out.
Another possible explanation for the film's poor financial success is probably that it was released at a time when patriotism was not running particularly high for any given reason throughout the country. However, in 1998, Livent Inc produced the Broadway version of Ragtime, which found enormous success. It continues to be the top-grossing Broadway musical currently playing, putting it in the pantheon of such super-shows as Cats, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and The Phantom of the Opera. Lack of competition does not sufficiently explain the show's phenomenal success, because there are plenty of other shows also currently playing on Broadway competing for the same audience. However, for the last few years, there has been a plethora of productions, both musical and dramatic, dealing with life, the state of the world, and American history in retrospect, as the new millenium nears (such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, The Kentucky Cycle and Rent, just to name a few). One of the current trends in mainstream popular theatre appears to be to look back and reevaluate the manner in which humans have interacted with one another. Ragtime presents a great opportunity to celebrate and explore the history of the nation in the last century before the dawn of the new one.
It remains up to the critics to determine the literary merit of Doctorow's Ragtime. However, regardless of one's personal feelings for the book, he can not dispute the fact that it represents one of the cornerstones of American popular literature of the 1970s. And of the many unpredictable factors that brought about the novel's success, key timing was the most important of all of them. Both the bicentennial and the turn of the century have aroused a special interest in celebrating and studying America, which contributed largely to the success of Ragtime the novel (and ultimately the musical as well). Such other factors as the innovative story structure, length, and pace of the novel all contributed to Ragtime's success as well. For better or worse, Ragtime will go down in literary history as a catch-all: an interesting read with a fast-moving plot, a fictional account of history, and most of all, a generally appealing exploration of the ties that bind. That it found a place in the heart and bookshelves of millions of readers is the greatest proof of all that Doctorow's Ragtime was a true success.Sources:
Doctorow, E.L. Ragtime.
Hart, Jeffrey. "Doctorow Time."
Sale, David. "Easy Virtue: On Doctorow's Ragtime."
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