BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
Summary: Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers, one
blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps
greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in
their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for
things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research
for Langley's proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as
prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of
the two brothers, wars, political movements, technological advances
and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history
seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants,
prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians
. . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as
they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.
The Real Story:
Pack rats on a grand scale, the Collyer brothers made news in 1947 when
they were found dead by a policeman who broke into their New York house
after neighbors smelled a stench coming from it. The corpses were surrounded
by more than 100 tons of rubbish they had collected-newspapers, furniture,
14 pianos, even an intact Model T. Homer had starved to death. Langley
had been crushed by a pile of newspapers. They are the subject of the
non-fiction book, Ghostly Men, by Franz Lidz and have become
legends. There are also two plays about the pair, Clutter: The True
Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out (written
by Mark Saltzman) and The Dazzle (written by Richard Greenberg).
Some of the changes from the true story that Doctorow makes in novel
--The Collyer brothers died in 1947 in real life.
--Homer, the older brother, was trained in law. Langley, the younger
brother, was a musician.
-- The brothers were young men when family moved into house in 1909.
-- Their father and mother did not die during 1918 influenza epidemic.
In 1918, their father moved out, leaving the brothers in the house with
their mother. Their father died several years later, then their mother
-- Homer's blindness did not occur in when he was in his teens, it happened
later. He had worked in an office.
-- There was nothing to substantiate Langley in the war; There was a
female reporter in 1938 who covered the bothers for decades and whom
they blamed for the initial attention paid to them.
1. Doctorow is known for taking real events and stretching them over
fiction--our Homer and Langley live well into the 1980s, it seems. We
see the almost the entire 20th century through the eyes of the two eccentric
brothers. Discuss the novel as a vehicle for historical events.
2. What is the effect of having a blind narrator?
3. What is Langley's Theory of Replacements?
4. How is music a theme in the novel?
5. How is social class a theme?
6. How would you describe the borthers' approach or thoughts on love?
7. Provide an overview of Harlem - from wealthy white community to
ghetto during this time period.
Edgar Lawrence Doctor was born 1931 in New York. He is the
son of a 2nd-generation Americans of Russian-Jewish descent. His father
named him after Edgar Allen Poe.
Doctorow is on a shortlist of the most acclaimed writers living today.
He is the winner of every prize you can think of, except a Pulitzer.
Doctorow attended Bronx High School and received a B.A. from Kenyon
College where he majored in philosophy. After graduate work at Columbia,
Doctorow was drafted into the army-signal corp in occupied Germany.
One of his jobs was reading novels for the motion picture industry.
He read so many Westerns that he was inspired to write his first book,
Welcome to Hard Times (1960).
Doctorow became a book editor at New American Library and The Dial Press.
He left in 1969 to write full time and became a visiting writer at University
of California, Irvine.
Doctorow states he wrote Homer and Langley because: "I
was one of those teenagers, one of millions whose mothers looked into
his room and said, 'The Collyer Brothers!'"
List of Books
--The Book of Daniel, a National Book Award nominee
--Ragtime, which received the first National Book Critics Circle
Award for fiction in 1976; --World's Fair, which won the 1986
National Book Award;
--Billy Bathgate, winner of the PEN/Faulkner prize, the National
Book Critics Circle Award and the William Dean Howells medal of the
American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1990;
--The Waterworks; City of God; and The March,
which received the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award, the 2006 National Book Critics
Circle Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
--Two collections of short fiction, Lives of the Poets, (1984)
a New York Times Notable Book, and Sweetland Stories (2004),
a New York Times Notable Book
--Three volumes of essays, Jack London, Hemingway and the Constitution
(1993), Reporting the Universe (2003), and Creationists
--Homer & Langley was published in September 2009. Mr.
Doctorow is a Fellow of the American -Academy of Arts and Sciences,
The American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts
and Letters. In 1998 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal at
the White House.
with E. L. Doctorow
Tour of Harlem by New York Magazine
History by Columbia University
of the Collyer Brothers home
Questions and related information provided by Frankie Bailey
and Naton Leslie.
This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York
State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley
Library System and participating member libraries.