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 creati
ve 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 i
n 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-sel
ling 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. Washingt
on 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 co
nstantly 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, M
ameh, 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 t
hey 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 re
latively 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 prospe
ct 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 h
is 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 hal
f-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 cen
tury" (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 reserve
d 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 t
he 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 o
f 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 grou
p 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 th
e 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 i
ndeed 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 t
he 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 t
o 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 b
ook - 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 state
ment 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 re
ad, 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 fro
m 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 wi
th 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 youn
g, 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 Broadw
ay 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 compe
tition 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, bo
th 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 befor
e 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 Americ
a, 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 books
helves of millions of readers is the greatest proof of all that Doctorow's Ragtime was a true success.
Doctorow, E.L. Ragtime.
Hart, Jeffrey. "Doctorow Time."
Sale, David. "Easy Virtue: On Doctorow's Ragtime."