Ragtime was a huge bestseller when it came out in 1975. It certainly made E.L. Doctorow's career, and was the kind of book you had to read to be on the cultural cutting edge. There are few books like that today, though there certainly continue to be books that folks feel they should have an opinion about. OK, well it might be 50 Shades of Grey, but still.
Set in the early 1900s, E.L. Doctorow's novel changed up the traditional historical novel. He mixed famous people like Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Evelyn Nesbit against imaginary characters. He chose to have the narrator's family unnamed, a modernist convention. There was father, mother, the son, younger brother. But what's not that different is that he tried to discuss contemporary issues through a historical narrative--the creation of American identity, the loss of innocence, racial injustice--that were of interest in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Another convention that seems more common now is having the plot not really start until halfway through the book. The fiirst half is a swirl of several different storylines, a set piece of sorts. It's only about halfway through that Coalhouse's story becomes the central arc. S. noted that Doctorow did a great job of having us identify with what might be perceived as a villain in another story.
C. questioned the veracity of the historical elements of the story. They knew that certain basic points were not true, but what could they trust? Others argued that this was a work of fiction and we shouldn't expect any of it to be true. I noted that Doctorow is a well-known practictioner of minimizing factual research in historical novels. Haven't we all read a novel where the factual detail got in the way? This can get him into trouble, most notably with The March, but we all know Civil War obsessives are the most obsessive of the historical obsessives.
It was N.'s thought that Doctorow may have set the book in the early 1900s, but he was actually writing about the late 1960s. I completely concurred. It's also about the rise of the immigrant and the fall of innocence. It's a story that played well in the early 1900s, the 1970s and today.
J.C Clementz, who was the casting director on the upcoming Milwaukee Rep production of Ragtime, joined us, along with Kaitlin Schlick from the marketing department. He talked about creating the Rep production from the script, how casting was done, and how the director Mark Clements found his inspiration for this production. One of the things to note is that the book of the Ragtime musical (which was by Terence McNally) is not the novel. So for example, Younger Brother is neither blond nor mustached. And when casting (which was done locally, in Chicago, and New York), you're trying to keep an open mind for how the character will be interpreted.
J.C. and Caitlin brought with them the stage model of the production, a spare set with several staircases. No lush period piece here. Even the car and piano used in the production have a modernist quality, have a frame but not quite a full body. That artifice certainly has its origins in the novel Ragtime, which uses various tools (the lack of names, the spare language) to distance the reader. The director was said to be inspired by the old Penn Station, a creation of Stanford White, a character who figures late in Ragtime, at least in spirit; he's dead by the time the story opens.
One other difference with the musical is that the historical characters which are quite central to the novel are played down in the musical, and several plotlines must be simplified. The latter happens in any any film or theatrical adaptation, of course. And how often has a critic complained that dramatic production stuck too closely to the script. It's the fans of course, who more often complain when a script veers too much away from an original work, but you can't please everyone.
Here's Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's original New York Times review of the book, which appeared in 1975. Contrast that with Boris Kachka's interview with E.L. Doctorow in New York Magazine 33 years later. He confirms his nontraditional nonresearch writing method, and discusses why the use of historical characters was so controversial at the time. Now it seems commonplace, but at the time, William Shawn at The New Yorker was furious. Kachka is the author of Hothouse, the FSG history that is currently featured on the Boswell Best.
For our next two in-store lit group selections, we're back to the first Monday of the month schedule.
Monday, October 7, 7 pm:
Marie Ndiaye's Three Strong Women.
"From the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt, a harrowing and beautiful novel of the travails of West African immigrants in France."
Monday, November 4, 7 pm:
John Boyne's The Absolutist.
A masterfully told tale of passion, jealousy, heroism and betrayal set in the gruesome trenches of World War I.