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“I feel my typewriters, my table, my chair to have that assurance of a solid world, where things take up space, where there is not the endless emptiness of insubstantial thought that leads to nowhere but itself.” – page 207

Study Questions

Homer_and_Langley_coverCongratulations to the 2011 Reading Project Contest winners!
Complete text of winning essays (pdf)

Students were asked to select one of the questions below and write a one page response to it. This response was handed it during the small group discussions to be entered to win $200 worth of books from the Cornell Campus Store. One prize was awarded for each question posed.

Some questions required internet use and some did not. All questions had additional resources available by following the link after the question. Students were invited to leave comments and share insights with all of the other Cornell Students, faculty, staff and alumni who were reading the book along with them over the summer.

  • Catherine Chen is an enthusiast of literature, art, and coffee from San Jose, California. She is currently studying English and Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Catherine is also involved in a variety of activities on campus such as the Business Department of the Cornell Daily Sun and the Editorial Team of the Cornell Business Review.
  • Sara Gushgari is a new transfer student in Cornell’s College of Engineering, where she has junior status and majors in Civil Engineering. She is a native of Scottsdale, Arizona, and completed her first two years of undergraduate education at Arizona State University. After she obtains her bachelor’s degree, she hopes to continue her education in biomedical engineering graduate studies.
  • Danielle Sochaczevski ’15 is from Montreal, Canada. She is in the College of Arts and Sciences and her dream is to write for National Geographic Magazine.
  • Lauren Avery is from Weston, MA and is currently a freshman at Cornell University in the College of Arts and Sciences, where she is an undecided major. She loves nearly all academic subjects and has a very wide range of interests, but is particularly interested in foreign languages and astronomical sciences. Outside of the classroom, she enjoys traveling, skiing, and trying new foods.
  • Rachel Harmon is studying Industrial Labor Relations. She is from Champaign, Illinois, but spent the past year working in the Mississippi Delta as a reading tutor. Rachel hopes to one day return to the Mississippi Delta to work in the field of educational reform and/or community development.
  • Caroline Quaglieri is a sophomore transfer studying Biology & Society and French in the College of Arts and Sciences. She hopes to become a genetic counselor. Caroline lives in Old Orchard Beach, Maine with her family.
  • Edbert Cheng is a freshman student at Cornell, currently seeking a Bachelor of Architecture. He enjoys writing, drawing, and traveling in his free time. Born in Hong Kong, China, he currently resides in Saint Louis, Missouri.
  • When not preventing his dorm room from looking too similar to the Collyer residence, Raphael Agundez is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, he is currently enjoying the change of pace and seasons offered at Cornell. Although undecided at the moment, he is exploring his interests in the fields of philosophy, history, and film.
  • Sarah Fiskin is from Los Angeles, CA and since she is currently very undecided about a major, she is taking a wide array of classes that appeal to her including biology, several languages, psychology, and law.
  • Emma Rabin Court is from New York City, and she’s studying Industrial and Labor Relations here at Cornell. A member of the Cornell Forensics Society and a writer for the Cornell Daily Sun, Emma plans to go into public policy or government when she graduates.

The Essay Questions

  1. Find pictures on the web of the day the police broke into the real Homer and Langley’s house on Fifth Avenue and the sequence of photos of the removal of its contents. Describe the crowd that we see in these photos. As an outsider looking in, consider how the house and the brothers were viewed by those New Yorkers at the time. Is this how Doctorow views Homer and Langley? Travel back in time to the 1940’s!
  2. In enabling us to understand Homer, Doctorow explores his love of music. How does music define Homer’s character and connect him with others outside the house (for instance, Mary Elizabeth Riordan, Harold Robileaux)? Master the classics!
  3. Find a photo of the newspapers that filled the rooms of the real Collyer house. How does Doctorow interpret this image? Why does Langley’s “Theory of Replacements” (p. 48) cause him to collect all the daily papers? Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
  4. Find and listen to the song “Me and My Shadow.” In their conversation when they are in jail for holding the tea dances, Homer asks Langley “Am I your shadow?” (p. 74). In what ways could this song be the theme song for Homer’s story of the brothers’ lives together? All alone and feeling blue?
  5. The real Collyers lost their telephone service in 1917, and then their electricity, water, and gas in 1928. In Doctorow’s novel, Homer describes his and Langley’s lives as a battle with “the Health and Fire Departments, the Bank, the utilities, and everyone else” (p. 175). What do the brothers do to enable themselves to survive without these necessities? Do you think individuals today could separate themselves entirely from the world around them? Find out how to survive the elements!
  6. In Doctorow’s story, many characters from outside Homer and Langley’s home pass through their house and lives, including Mary Elizabeth Riordan, Vincent the gangster, the Hoshiyamas, Harold Robileaux, and Lissy the flower child, for example. What do the “outsiders” share with Langley and Homer? How do they connect the brothers with the world and the history around them? Find out what you can learn from others.
  7. Describe some of the women in Homer’s life, from Julia to Jacqueline Roux. Which of his female companions do you think, in the end, is most important to Homer? Why does he love her? All you need is love!
  8. When Langley comes back from the war, Homer puts Langley’s Springfield rifle on the fireplace mantel, saying that this object represents “almost the first piece in the collection of artifacts from our American life” (p. 24). Find three or four other objects from the real Collyer’s house that symbolize their “American” life. What makes these objects “American”? What makes Homer and Langley an American novel? What ties Americans together?
  9. Homer’s last words in the novel are “my brother” and his first are “I’m Homer, the blind brother.” In this novel, how is brotherhood defined? Is this a conventional or a unique definition of what it means to be brothers? You don’t need a brother to understand brotherhood!
  10. Find images of the real Homer’s funeral, and describe the scene. Do you think Doctorow’s novel could be understood as a “real” memorial to Homer? How would Doctorow want Homer to be remembered? Leave a legacy!