America’s Most Musical Tale of Protestants, Blacks, and Jews


In Ragtime, an enormous and varied cast of characters knocks shoulders with each other–black and white, upper-class and working-class, fictional and real (Harry HoudiniEmma Goldman, and Sigmund Freud all appear).

Originally a novel by E.L. Doctorow, the story has been adapted into a film and a Broadway musical. It follows three families through two decades of American history. One is a comfortable white Protestant family; another is a black couple; the third is a family of poor Jewish immigrants. The Jewish family immigrated to the USA to find a better life, but they fell victim to extreme poverty, and the mother–known only as “Mameh”–prostitutes herself.

When the father (“Tateh”) finds out, he leaves her, and takes their young daughter. Soon, Tateh’s daughter is taken under the wing of early-1900s model Evelyn Nesbit, both father and daughter have front-row seats to the budding revolution started by Emma Goldman, and they stumble across some other major world events. The meshing of fictional tales and true events leaves you dizzy and breathless, and the story illustrates just how much our cultural history entangles with our individual lives.

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