08.31.09

Doctorow's High-Society Hermits

E.L. Doctorow talks to Jane Ciabattari about his astounding new novel, Homer & Langley, and making New York’s strangest pair of brothers come alive.

E.L. Doctorow’s new novel, Homer & Langley, has the scandalous allure of a New York tabloid series. It’s based on two real-life brothers whose psychically conjoined existence in their parents’ upper Fifth Avenue mansion made headlines when their bodies were found buried under mountains of junk in 1947. Today they might be termed agoraphobic and/or obsessive compulsive, and dosed with a cocktail of meds. Then they were just considered nutty.

No surprise that these two would appeal to Doctorow. Over his decades-long career, he has been drawn repeatedly to reexamine mythic figures from America history—cowboys, mobsters, and celebrities of all stripes. And let’s not forget that with his 1975 novel Ragtime, Doctorow blew out the boundary between fact and fiction for other writers to follow. Ragtime’s glorious mélange of historic and fictional New York characters featured the real-life love triangle of Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and Harry Thaw. (The sexually charged “strange confrontation” between Harry Houdini and Thaw on Murderer’s Row in the Tombs is one of the novel’s clearly fabricated gems, as is the threat made by the majestically furious Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a black man outraged at injustice, to dynamite banker J.P. Morgan’s private library.)

   “As for their collecting, I think of them as curators of their life and times, their house as a museum of all our lives. Or say, if you want to be grim about it, that they are premature archaeologists.”    

Why the Collyer brothers? I asked Doctorow.

“They were instant folklore,” says Doctorow, who grew up in the 1930s, when the New York press began covering their weird exploits. “I was not the only teenager ever to hear his mother comment, as she looked into my room, ‘Migod, it’s the Collyer brothers.’”

What do the Collyers represent to him?

“I always felt there was some secret to them, something about them still to be discovered under the piles of things in their house—the bales of newspapers and the detritus of their life and times. Was it only that that they were junk-collecting eccentrics? You see that everyday in the streets of New York.”

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Homer & Langley: A Novel. By E.L. Doctorow. 224. Random House. $26. ()

But these were rich guys, with all the advantages of wealth.

“They had opted out—that was the primary fact,” he continued. “Coming of a well-to-do family, with every advantage, they had locked the door and closed the shutters and absented themselves from the life around them. A major move, as life-transforming as emigration. In fact it was a form of emigration, of leave taking. But where to? What country was within that house? What would have caused them to become the notorious recluses of Fifth Avenue?

“Writing the book was an act of breaking and entering just to see what may have been going on in there, which really meant getting inside two very interesting states of mind. And with the first sentence, ‘I’m Homer, the blind brother,’ I was in.”

And what did he find?

“I found that they lived in their imaginations and now they live in mine. In one sense the book is a record of their lifelong conversation, as if they are two people traveling together down a road and having adventures, though in fact they are housebound. It turns out that the world will not let them alone—others intrude on their privacy—society ladies, prostitutes, gangsters, musicians, city officials, police and firemen—as if it is the road running through them. As for their collecting, I think of them as curators of their life and times, their house as a museum of all our lives. Or say, if you want to be grim about it, that they are premature archaeologists. That is my idea of them, that is my reading of the Collyer mythology. They are crucial figures in American imaginative life. I make them to be two brothers who opted out of civilization and pulled the world in after them.”

Even though the real-life brothers died in 1947, Homer & Langley follows the Collyers through much of the last century, zooming in on events emblematic of each decade. The early part of the novel covers a highly fraught few years during which Homer grows blind, Langley is gassed in World War I, and their wealthy parents die in the 1918 flu pandemic. For the next several decades, the brothers’ lives illuminate Manhattan.

In the 1920s, Homer and Langley are regulars at various speakeasies. They are befriended by a gangster named Vincent, who sends a couple of prostitutes over to keep them company. In the Depression-era 1930s, the brothers throw weekly tea dances for cash in their mansion. Their enterprise falls apart when Langley refuses to pay off the beat cop, and they are hauled off to jail. From then on, the brothers become increasingly reclusive. And Langley is increasingly obsessive about collecting newspapers.

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The “historical” Langley is said to have saved newspapers so that Homer could read them if he regained his sight. Doctorow’s Langley plans to create the one "eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would need." I mentioned to Doctorow that I particularly enjoyed this fanciful invention on his part.

“Let’s not say fanciful,” Doctorow responded. “Langley here is a grimly observant sort of fellow who intends with his collection of newspapers over the years to sort out what events might from their recurrence be called seminal and therefore predictable. His attempt to cure Homer’s blindness comes into play only with his nutritional theories and with the tactile paintings he constructs and has Homer run his hands over.”

Years ago, Doctorow’s interweaving of fact and fiction drew sharp criticism along with excitement and honors (including the very first National Book Critics Circle fiction award and a nomination for a Nebula award for fantasy/science fiction for Ragtime). Now he’s in the pantheon of postmodernist fiction. Still, I ask him to consider the ways in which he toys with the facts.

Doctorow has a playful answer. “I am not now, and never have been, a journalist. The Collyers are American mythology. They demand interpretation. And I have obliged.”

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Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.