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Lives of the Poets Reader’s Guide

By E.L. Doctorow

Lives of the Poets by E.L. Doctorow


Questions and Topics for Discussion

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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