by Robert WeibezahlSeptember 2009
Retracing the lives of two packrats
E.L. Doctorow has a singular way of reshaping our national mythology to tell us something new about ourselves. Most recently, his Pulitzer Prize finalist and NBCC Award-winning novel, The March, swept readers along on General Sherman’s relentless drive to the sea, putting a human face on that darkest of Civil War episodes. In his latest, Homer & Langley, this dean of American storytellers takes unexpected liberties with history, playing fast and loose with many facts in retelling the story of the Collyer Brothers, arguably the world’s most famous packrats. But as readers will come to appreciate, Doctorow has his reasons.
Real-life figures Homer and Langley Collyer, the sons of a prominent New York City gynecologist and an opera singer, grew up in a palatial townhouse on upper Fifth Avenue. After their parents’ deaths, they inherited the house and lived there as virtual recluses for the rest of their lives. Homer eventually went blind and relied on Langley for his care. For his part, Langley was something of a “mad scientist,” fascinated by any discarded object’s potential usefulness. Thus, he filled every inch of the mansion with stuff—pianos, the chassis of a Model T, dressmaking dummies—even formaldehyde- preserved specimens from his father’s medical practice. And newspapers: thousands of newspapers bundled and stacked to create narrow walkways through the house. Eventually, Homer was found dead, having starved. Nine days later, Langley’s partially decomposed body was retrieved by rescue workers—just 10 feet away. He had been crushed to death by a suitcase and some bundles of newspapers. Apparently, New York City firemen still refer to an emergency call to an over-cluttered apartment as a “Collyer.”
Doctorow tells his version of the Collyers’ story through the first-person narration of Homer, who proves a charming and engaging tour guide through the junk-filled labyrinth his brother has created. Doctorow pushes the action forward about two decades, and this change allows him to link Langley’s madness to time served in the trenches of World War I. Shell shock and mustard gas, therefore, become the tangible, if fictional, culprits behind Langley’s mental descent. The time-shift positions the story in the 1960s (the real Collyers died in 1947). For less clear reasons, the novelist switches the brothers’ ages, making Langley the elder; changes some of the circumstances of Homer’s ailments; and makes Homer, rather than his brother, a pianist.
But altered facts aside, Doctorow works his usual magic in bringing history to life and larding it with disturbing implications. As Homer shares the brothers’ peculiar story, they become witnesses to a century of American progress and cyclical retrenchment, from Jazz Age prosperity to the Great Depression; from wars in Europe, Korea and Vietnam to the Summer of Love. Their reclusive world is breached by gangsters, hippies, the occasional woman (one can’t really call these women “love interests”), Japanese-American political refugees and a former servant girl who becomes a martyred missionary nun. Through it all, Langley grows more and more “self-reliant.” But one by one the utilities are cut off, their living space shrinks to claustrophobic proportions and the brothers grow thin from an insubstantial diet. Their ugly end, preordained by history, is nonetheless heart wrenching.
Homer, as narrator and arguably the saner of the two brothers, wins our hearts. Langley remains a more enigmatic figure, though, the sources of his paranoid eccentricities filtered through Homer’s loving perceptions. Langley’s major project is “the collection of daily players with the ultimate aim of creating one day’s edition of a newspaper that could be read forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof.” This speaks to his visionary lunacy, but we still never fully understand it.
Are we meant to see the Collyer brothers as geniuses? Or merely willing inmates in a bedlam of their own making? In this fictional rendering, they can clearly be both. As with much of Doctorow’s masterful fiction, Homer & Langley turns the American dream on its ear, offering us a glimpse of the dark side of our national—and personal—eccentricities.