Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories

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A young boy is asked to maintain the fiction that his father is alive. A young woman is shot at by a hunter. A schoolgirl dies in an exploding car. In Lives of the Poets, six tense, poignant, and mysterious stories are followed by a novella in which the writer emerges from his work to reveal his own mind. Here the images and the themes of the earlier stories become part of the narrator's unsparing confessions about his own life. Seperated from his family, he chronicles the edgy urban landscape around him, ...
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Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories

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Overview

A young boy is asked to maintain the fiction that his father is alive. A young woman is shot at by a hunter. A schoolgirl dies in an exploding car. In Lives of the Poets, six tense, poignant, and mysterious stories are followed by a novella in which the writer emerges from his work to reveal his own mind. Here the images and the themes of the earlier stories become part of the narrator's unsparing confessions about his own life. Seperated from his family, he chronicles the edgy urban landscape around him, discusses marriages that fail but continue to entangle spouses, the influence of wives and other women, and the obsessions that haunt him. And in this brilliant, funny, and painful story about the story, the writer's mind in all its aspects - its formal compositions, its naked secrets - emerges as a rare look at the creative process and its connection to the heart.

An astonishing work, Lives of the Poets varies from realistic to dreamlike to become a virtuoso performance by E.L. Doctorow, deftly done by an author in total control of his craft, aware both of the enormity of his talent... and of the price it exacts.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Extraordinary beauty and power . . . a book to fall in love with.”—Chicago Tribune Book World
 
“Better than any fiction I know, Lives of the Poets illuminates the sources from which fiction springs.”—Newsweek
 
“Doctorow is an impeccable stylist, a man who writes with exceptional clarity and precision.”—Publishers Weekly
 
“Invaluable . . . Doctorow’s subtlest work of fiction.”—New York Times Book Review
 
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452278790
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 4/15/1997
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow’s novels include The March, City of God, The Waterworks, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World’s Fair, and Billy Bathgate. His work has been published in thirty-two languages. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. E. L. Doctorow lives in New York.

Biography

E. L. Doctorow, one of America's preeminent authors, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation For Fiction, and the William Dean Howells medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also published a volume of selected essays Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, and a play, Drinks Before Dinner, which was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. He resides in New Rochelle, New York.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Good To Know

Doctorow began his career as a reader for Columbia Pictures. He went on to work as an editor for New American Library in the early 1960s, and then served as chief editor at Dial Press from 1964 to 1969.

Critics assailed Doctorow for delivering a commencement address critical of President George W. Bush at Hofstra University in May 2004.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (full name; named for Edgar Allan Poe)
      Edgar Laurence Doctorow
    2. Hometown:
      Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 6, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53
    2. Website:

Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss your initial reactions to the stories and novella. What themes does Doctorow explore, and to what effect? How are the various narrators and characters similar or dissimilar?
 
2. Did you read the stories in order, then the novella? Or did you skip around? How do you think your reading of the book affected your experience? Is there is a right or wrong way to read Lives of the Poets? Do you think you can evaluate the stories and novella individually, or do they need to be considered as a collection?
 
3. Discuss the significance of Jonathan’s final letter to his grandmother in “The Writer in the Family.” Why did he write it? Why do you think it angered his Aunt Frances so much?
 
4. “The Water Works” is the shortest, starkest story in the collection. What did you take away from this mysterious story? How does it fit into the collection as a whole?
 
5. “Willi” is another short, bleak story, in which a young boy is both obsessed and repulsed by his mother’s infidelity. Though he fears for his mother, Willi tells his father about her affair—and then listens, rapt, as his father exacts his revenge. What did you make of this story? What additional meaning does it take on after reading the novella?
 
6. In “The Hunter,” when discussing her young students, the teacher tells the bus driver, “It is very easy . . . to make them fall in love with you. Boys or girls, it’s very easy” (46). What’s the significance of her statement? Does she try to make the bus driver “fall in love” with her? If so, why does she reject him at the end of the night? And what is the point of the elaborate display she puts on for the photographer at school the next day?
 
7. In “The Foreign Legation,” Morgan’s wife and children have left him. He goes through the motions of his former life, but doesn’t seem to find any meaning in it. After he watches a couple engage in sexual activities outside of his house, he thinks: “I am the lucky one chosen for my lack of consequence” (58). Why is it “lucky” to be of no consequence? Discuss this sentiment, and how it relates to the other stories in the collection.
 
8. Doctorow ends “The Foreign Legation” with a violent terrorist attack, which Morgan witnesses. Morgan’s reaction is very strange. What did you make of it?
 
9. In “The Leather Man,” Doctorow raises far more questions than he answers. Discuss this quote in the context of the stories and novella: “The universe oscillates. . . . If things come apart enough, they will have started to come together” (70).
 
10. Toward the end of “The Leather Man,” we are privy to a question and answer session with James C. Montgomery, “the astronaut that went bad.” Reflecting on his moon walk, he says, “The truth is I don’t remember. . . . I can see it on television and I don’t feel it, you know what I mean? I can’t believe it happened. I see myself, and I did it, but I don’t remember how it felt, I don’t remember the experience of it” (76). Discuss this statement and what it means for the collection. Have you ever experienced a similar sensation?
 
11. In “Lives of the Poets,” Jonathan thinks, “What I want for my life now is for it to be simple, without secrets, I want to be who I really am with everyone, all the time” (125). What exactly does he mean? Is this something we can ever achieve? Think about what we read three pages later: “Duplicity in individuals is, of course, the basis of civilization” (128). Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not?
 
12. Doctorow ties his collection together with his final entry, the novella “Lives of the Poets.” But reading about Jonathan, the boy from “The Writer in the Family,” as an adult, and a successful writer, certainly changes the way we perceive the previous stories.
What does the reappearance of Jonathan do for the collection? Does it change your reading of the stories? How?
 
13. Do you think the stories in the collection are Jonathan’s writing exercises? Discuss. When Jonathan says of a friend, “I’m willing to forgive him anything because he’s a good poet” (85), are we inclined to forgive Doctorow for his literary tricks because he is such a brilliant writer?
 
14. At the end of “Lives of the Poets,” Jonathan has engaged in an ill-fated affair, distanced himself from his wife and children, and watched his group of friends and acquaintances suffer private and public traumas. In the very last lines of the collection, he sits with one of the illegal immigrants he has taken in, a boy, letting him type: “Maybe we’ll go to the bottom of the page get my daily quota done come on, kid, you can do three more lousy lines” (145)—and with that, Lives of the Poets concludes. Doctorow doesn’t even end his sentence with a period—it just stops. What did you think of the ending? 
 

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