Homer & Langley, the sweet, funny and often heartbreaking novel by E. L. Doctorow, is inspired by the true story of the famous Collyer Brothers, Homer & Langley, reclusive siblings shuttered behind the doors of their Fifth Avenue mansion in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan in the early decades of the twentieth century. The shocking discovery of their deaths in March 1947, the police finding their bodies amidst an extraordinary amount of useless hoarded debris and clutter, raised profound questions about the lives of these two particularly eccentric brothers. The inventory of the clutter alone raised questions about the motive and purpose for the clutter - dozens of pianos of every type (Homer is the musician), a Model T Ford, their doctor father's jars of human specimen parts, tens of thousands of newspapers stacked from floor to ceiling, eight feral cats, sewing machine parts, a baby carriage and more. By imagining their story through the eyes of Homer, the blind brother, picking up clues from the inventory of what they left behind, Doctorow restores dignity to the poor fraternal souls.
At the outset of the story Homer and Langley live the typical privileged life of Gilded Age New Yorkers, sons of a prominent physician and his wife. After the flu epidemic claims their parents, Homer comes to depend more on Langley, a man who mind is damaged by mustard gas while fighting in World War I. As the Jazz Age unfolds, they continue to enjoy the world at large and employ a company of rotating housekeepers, though they stumble in their relationships with women. The Great Depression brings new challenges, but they're agile in adapting creatively to each decade. Hearing about the famous "rent parties" popular with their neighbors, they decide to host tea parties in their mansion. Yet, troubles start to accumulate, so the speak, as Langley brings home odds and ends as well as every single edition of the daily newspaper. Homer can only hope for the best with his clearly deranged sibling.
Unlike their real counterparts, these fictional brothers live beyond the late 1940s and through the 1960s, long enough for a band of hippies to discover and embrace them. They meet one another at an anti-war rally in Central Park. To the counterculture the long-haired brothers in their old fatigues and dungarees looked attractive as alternatives to bourgeois culture:
"And when these children-there were five who peeled off from the larger group and walked up the steps into our house, two males and three females-saw of what a warehouse of precious acquisitions it was comprised, they were moved beyond measure. I listened to their silence and it seemed to me churchlike."
While Doctorow clearly has fun weaving events of American history in and out of the story of the Collyer brothers, especially when hippies and Prohibition gangsters are involved, he nevertheless gently handles his sympathetic narrator, our blind storyteller Homer. As he begins to lose his precious hearing also, the story lifts out of the circumstances of the Collyers to reflect on the nature of consciousness itself. All of us may be shuttered in our mansions, in one way or another.
Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. The Collyer Brothers mansion at 2078 Fifth Avenue (corner of 128th Street) was torn down as a fire hazard. The vacant lot was turned into a vest-pocket park that is now operated by New York Parks. See more about the real-life Collyers at the Parks' website for the historical sign.