How E.L. Doctorow Does It

On the release of his new novel Homer & Langley, Eric Alterman talks to the great novelist about how he travels back in time and slips into the imaginations of his characters.

Donatella Giagnori, EIDON / Newscom

Some writers enjoy talking about works-in-progress, but most do not. Other writers tend to understand this, but others oftentimes perceive this reticence to be rudeness. Ed Doctorow is an extremely polite fellow but also a private one. He solved this problem deftly, however. Ask Edgar what he’s working on and he’ll usually say, “It’s a play about a prince in Denmark who has a lot of trouble making up his mind….”

“It was a matter of breaking into that house, breaking into their minds, and their imagination became my imagination,” Doctorow said. He added, “I’ve been doing it a long time.”

Last year over dinner, however, I finally got a new response when I inquired about said prince. Edgar said he had finished a new novel about the Collyer brothers. I disappointed him (yet again) by never having heard of them. Edgar could not believe this. Didn’t your mother demand that you clean your room, lest it “turned into the Collyer brothers in there?”

Well, I was a neat child, so no. But I know who they are now, as Edgar, who Jess Walter, writing in The Boston Globe, calls our “our laureate of historical fiction,” and Joyce Carol Oates, writing in The New Yorker, terms “our great chronicler of American mythology,” has finally published said novel, and called it Homer & Langley. For the book is inspired by their incredibly odd lives, but quickly loses sight of the facts of the case and goes on a journey of, um, boundless imagination. As Edgar explains over coffee and a shared muffin at the bright new cafe outside Alice Tully Hall—that’ll be $10, Tina—he did no research. “This is an American myth, and a myth has to be interpreted, not researched.”

I learn from Bloomberg News that the genuinely historical Collyer brothers “became famous in 1947, when they were found dead in their Harlem mansion. They weren’t easy to extract: The entrance hall was choked with gargantuan piles of junk and old newspapers. The police got in through the second story, eventually excavating their way to Homer’s corpse. The house was so clogged with detritus that it took an additional two and a half weeks to locate Langley under a stack of toppled debris. He probably had tripped a wire and been clobbered by one of his own booby traps; Homer, blind and utterly dependent, had starved to death.”

From their story, Doctorow has created a mythic portrait of too many things to describe in one sentence—or even one paragraph—but to me it is first and foremost a museum of American consumption, which is to say American-ness. As Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda says of Homer and Langley, “They seem, at once, symbols of both American materialism and of American loneliness. Think of Melville's ‘isolatoes,’ or of all those forlorn men in shirt sleeves and the dispirited women of Edward Hopper's paintings, or of Hank Williams singing ‘I'm so lonesome I could cry.’"

The late Alfred Kazin once complained to me that the great failing of my generation of writers was our lack of historical imagination, and I am forced to agree. The intensity of focus that it demands is beyond the capabilities of what might properly be called the first of the ADD generations. What is most impressive about Doctorow’s work, aside from the beauty of its frequently poetical prose, is its almost unimaginable intensity. In person, he is an enormously relaxed, even avuncular fellow. Ask him about his work habits and he jokes that he’s “at my desk at the stroke of 10:30… make that 9:45,” and “if it’s a good day if you can do 500 words, and not throw them out the next day.” But the recreation/imagination of Homer’s mind strikes me as nearly superhuman. I asked him if he feels himself becoming Homer, as a kind of Vulcan mind-meld, when he writes, or does he do it strictly as an observer. At first he tries to avoid the question. “Hemingway,” he tells me, “was a great psychologist of writers and he said never write when you’re not writing.” Intrepid investigator that I am, I press on. “Yes, you’re in the guy’s mind, you are both him and you simultaneously.”

The idea for the book occurred to Doctorow when he noticed that after the city tore down the mess the Collyers left in their ruined mansion, the city named a small park after them where it had been. This pissed people off as their neighbors hated them and considered them to be literally a blight on humanity. “I thought, ‘How many people get parks named after them? Not even Olmstead? Well, George Washington, but that’s some company…’”

Any of it true, I wonder? “Well, Langley did insist that Homer eat oranges and he did drag in pieces of the Model T Ford into the living room,” he explains, “but there was so much stuff in that place, you can make up anything you want that you scavenged and you’d be right.” Still, to focus on “truth” of the book is to miss both its essence and its power. “There are two kinds of existence, historical and mythical and sometimes they touch,” Edgar continues. “These guys opted out, that’s what happened, they retreated into the house, close the door, close the shutters, and it was a form of emigration. They had emigrated to another country, and like all acts of emigration it was momentous. They are not pack rats, they are aggregators like Google—curators of American civilization. But it turns out in the book, the world follows them in there. As I wrote it, I began to think of it as a kind of road novel, but the road follows them inspired a bit by Jacques the Fatalist and His Master by Diderot, and by Don Quixote and Sancho. … It was a matter of breaking into that house, breaking into their minds, and their imagination became my imagination. I’ve done it before. … I’ve been doing it a long time.”

Indeed, Doctorow has long been doing just this for a long time. He used first-person narrators in The Book of Daniel, Billy Bathgate, Welcome to Hard Times, and World’s Fair. “It’s always seemed an immense advantage to have someone who is in the book telling the story,” he explains. “After all, all these guys are weird, but so am I.”

I wondered why, with Doctorow’s passionate distaste for George W., he put next to no politics in the book. He reminds me of perhaps my favorite sentence in the work, in which Homer asks Langley what “sort of radical” he has just met. “Who knows?” comes the reply. “She’s some kind of socialist-anarchist-anarcho-syndicalist-communist. Unless you’re one of them you can’t tell exactly what any of them are. When they’re not throwing bombs they’re busy splitting into factions.” (I should note at this point that Edgar and I have both had long, relatively happy associations with America’s oldest continuously publishing weekly magazine.)

Let’s end on a joke of Homer’s: “Someone dying asks if there is life after death. Yes, comes the answer, only not yours.’’ In another, more-metafictional novel, he might have answered, “Yes, in books like this one.”

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Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.