Now in its 11th year, the New Student Reading Project at Cornell University selection for 2011 is Homer & Langley; the New York Times bestselling novel by E.L. Doctorow (2009 Random House). Like every first year Cornell student in Ithaca, I just finished reading this compelling historical novel. In celebration of this community reading, Tompkins County Public Library sponsors a workshop on writing historical fiction I’ll be leading on Wednesday evenings through the month of September. Reading good historical fiction is a good place to start to learn how to write good historical fiction. And Doctorow offers many lessons of narrative craft and form.
“I’m Homer, the blind brother.” The opening sentence pulls the reader in as a listener; one who can see what happened from Homer’s point of view. Based on the lives of the Collyer brothers, whose story became urban legend, the novel is a fictionalized redaction of the reclusive figures of Fifth Avenue. Homer and Langley’s parents die in the Flu Pandemic of 1918 while Langley is away at war. When Langley returns from Europe, he finds Homer orphaned living in the family mansion and nurses his own wounds of war and the vestiges of mustard gas. So begins a long, slow descent into a sweet madness.
Doctorow writes fiction and the narrative liberties he takes yields a larger truth. Those who have read his novel about the Civil War, March, recognize his talents in providing a compassionate narrative of humans and their faults. Doctorow strays far from the facts in telling the story of the Collyer brothers. The real Homer and Langley died in the late 1940s but Doctorow keeps their story alive until the 1970s. In this sense, the real life story is only a premise, a writing probe, and not an exercise in journalism. Doctorow takes you inside the mind of characters whose lives you could never otherwise fathom without prejudice or reason.
After reading the book, I don’t understand Homer fully. But I do understand how Homer might have seen himself and explained his circumstances. Doctorow is a master in creating empathy for characters; some of whom we might otherwise find quite despicable. Living with roaches, and rats, and vagrants coming and going; Doctorow doesn’t ask for pity for poor Homer. Instead Homer is transformed into a romantic hero; whose story like that of the 7th century namesake considered a divinely inspired reservoir of all literature. The character of Langley, Homer’s older brother, is possessed by his newspaper for all times; he worked his whole life towards the single edition. Like the intellectual debates over whether Homer was a man or the name ascribed to this ancient collection of writings, so Langley plays this foil in Doctorow’s literary trope.
It isn’t just freshmen who read a book like this and get inspired. It’s September and the smell of school is in the air. For the love of books, Homer & Langley is a joy to read.