by William Kennedy

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The questions, exercises, and assignments on these pages are designed to guide students' reading of the literary work and to provide suggestions for exploring the implications of the story through discussions, research, and writing. Most of the items can be handled individually, but small group and whole class discussions will enhance comprehension. The Response Journal should provide students with a means, first, for recording their ideas, feelings, and concerns, and then for reflecting these thoughts in their writing assignments and class discussions. These sheets may be duplicated, but teachers should select and modify items according to the needs and abilities of their students.


Ironweed is an unusual novel which William Kennedy found difficult to get published. Although his three previous novels had been highly praised, eleven major publishing companies rejected Ironweed. The Viking Press finally agreed to publish Ironweed in 1983 along with Kennedy's two previous novels, which are, like Ironweed, set in Albany, New York. Not only were the reviews enthusiastic, but the novel was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize and then the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. Like James Joyce's novels which made a literary legend of the streets of Dublin, Ireland, William Kennedy's novels have brought unprecedented attention to Albany, New York, for they immortalize the life of that capital city in the 1930's. Kennedy has also produced a collection of tales and remembrances in O Albany! that celebrates Albany's colorful past and Kennedy's Irish-American boyhood.

But Ironweed is only secondarily a novel about Albany. It is primarily a novel about survival – about an ordinary man, a bum by his own admission, whose extraordinarily bad luck has brought him to rock bottom but also to the discovery, within himself, of an inner strength that he cannot understand.

  1. Before the novel begins, there is a description of the flower named Ironweed. Knowing that this flower is wild and that it has a characteristically tough stem, what can you anticipate about the qualities of the main character of the novel?
  2. The story takes place in Albany in 1938. Review what was going on in the world at that time. What were living conditions like for most people?
  3. As you read the novel, stop occasionally to record your thoughts, reactions, and concerns in a Response Journal. Your journal may be a separate notebook, or it may be individual sheets which you clip together and keep in a folder. Include statements about the characters – what you learn about them, how they affect you – and about the key issues and events which the book explores. Also, jot down questions you have about events or statements in the book which you do not understand. Your Response Journal will come in handy when you discuss the novel in class, write a paper, or explore a related topic that interests you. Because this novel contains a number of sophisticated words (e.g., erubescent and contumacious), you may want to keep a list of some of those words and their meanings in your journal.

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