The Novel as History: An essay on the book Homer and Langley by E L Doctorow

The novel Homer and Langley is part history and part fiction: a distinction without a difference within its pages. Doctorow has gained a reputation for taking considerable liberties with recorded history, for frequently transgressing the boundaries between fact and fiction. For him, all purely historical explanations of the past have proved inadequate, as they do not account for the particular character of the present and therefore, the past must be considered beyond a single, chronological narrative. He does not write his fiction merely to awaken doubts and skepticism about existing historical versions but rather, his primary project is to investigate the function of his chosen form of expression, the novel, as an instrument that augments, critiques and revises the formal historical record.

Homer and Langley, also known as the Collyer Brothers, were obsessive hoarders who lived reclusive lives in their 5th Avenue, Manhattan mansion. When, in 1947, the police broke into their home and discovered their bodies, they were surrounded by over 140 tons of urban junk. It took two hours of crawling among the rubbish to locate Homer and a further three weeks of searching to discover Langley – a mere ten feet from his brother – under an avalanche of newspaper.

A frenzied media that, for weeks, afforded front-page space to the story laid the foundation for the historical record. Concurrent to this conventional form of history making there also grew, informally, a mythology that cast the Collyers among golems and bogeymen: the material of bedtime tales.

There are numerous fictive versions of the lives of the Collyers. The Emmy-Award-winning playwright Mark Saltzman wrote Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out. Richard Finkelstein, a Manhattan painter, exhibited 17 black and white drawings titled Love and Squalor on 128th Street. The period piece The Dazzle, by another playwright, Richard Greenberg, adds to the canon of works that reimagine the lives of Homer and Langley. These artistes, untroubled by the question of historical accuracy, push the sparse facts at their disposal through the surface of imagination to create humanized versions of these otherwise ridiculed individuals. The book Ghostly Men by Franz Lidz is considered the most authoritative biographical account of the brothers.

In Doctorow’s novel, there are two types of history present: the personal history of the Collyers and the 20th century history of the United States. But, it is the history of the nation that is being commented on, and the Collyer narrative is a means of observing the progression of American history and – more importantly – of suggesting how the novel form can augment the extant record of these events. It is unsurprising then to find a historical sweep of key moments such as the Great War, World War II, the Depression, the Cold War, the advent of hippie culture and Richard Nixon. The events and individuals mentioned in the text incarnate key ideas and shifts in 20th century American society. To achieve this, the fictional lives of the Collyers have been extended by up to three decades. The book takes note of the deterministic influences, vested interests and conventions that tend to shape a historical text: concerning movies produced to keep the American public apprised of the ongoing war, it states, “Of course we knew there was a powerful propaganda machine behind all of this …” and of censorship, “How is it that those old men who knocked on our door knew more than the news organizations?”

Doctorow intentionally fictionalizes the lives of the Collyers by contradicting historical certitudes concerning them. If, in real life, Homer was the elder brother, in the novel he is the younger. The real Homer lost his eyesight in middle age, while the fictional one becomes blind as a teenager. The pianist was Langley, though the novel states otherwise, and the circumstances of their parents’ deaths have also been altered. Inserting these – predominantly – fictional characters into actual events and places, he is in a position to demonstrate how the fictive – the novel – can contribute to understanding the real past.

Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
The historical novel, traditionally, has as its main characters those who are exceptional and shape history or are typically ordinary citizens shaped by the historical moments described. Against this background, the selection of the Collyers is unusual. They certainly do not shape history and are atypical citizens not immersed in but rather on the margins of society, and are only impacted by historical events at a remove. They are observers who see the progression of history through the lives of the people they come in contact with: the figure of the artist – or novelist as in this case – as outsider, the one who stands in the margins peering through the windows of a culture.

The decision to advance the blindness of the narrator, Homer – by almost four decades – at first appears curious and has few literary precedents. Cyrus Spitama, the narrator of Gore Vidal’s novel Creation, comes to mind, but he loses his sight in late middle age. In the literature, blindness has conferred upon those it has afflicted the virtue of wisdom: the status of a prophetic seer. While Cyrus Spitama is such an example, the mythological blindness of the atomist philosopher Democritus is possibly the most famous. According to Aulus Gellius’ Nocta Atticae, he deliberately blinded himself in order to gain better spiritual insight. Though, in Doctorow’s version, Homer Collyer does not attain to the high position of a wise, prophetic seer he, crucially, gains an alternate perception and assimilates information in new ways.

“[M]oving on in my mind to other capacities like my exceptional hearing, which I trained to a degree of alertness that was almost visual.”

“I feel shapes as they push the air away, or I feel heat from things, you can turn me around till I am dizzy, but I can tell where the air is filled with something solid.”

In this way, blindness becomes a useful vehicle to suggest new ways of accessing the past. When Homer is denied the ability to automatically visualize the world, he becomes, metaphorically, unhinged from what Robbe-Grillet – in developing his theory of description – calls the “tyranny of signification.” He no longer shares a stock of images with the rest and therefore does not, unthinkingly, subscribe to the meanings, values and narratives imposed by society. For the reader, too, automatic visualization is hindered and he must therefore, along with the narrator, hear and feel and rebuild the image in the imagination.

Though Homer employs his ‘other’ senses to a heightened degree, the faculty on which he relies, ultimately, is the imagination. The narrator’s imagination is ultimately an analogue for the artistic imagination of the novelist. This artistic imagination renders the novel autonomous and gives creative distance to the work from the deterministic forces – such as censorship due to political and economic considerations – that influence the conventional methods of recording history. In this manner, the novel is poised to assimilate information that is discarded or resists integration to the scientific disciplines.

“So far, all that has given color to existence still lacks a history” – so wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1882 Die fro ̈hliche Wissenschaft, most often known in English as The Gay Science. The novel form, Doctorow will argue, is well positioned to perform this function of being a more vivid, more probing and emotional form of history making. A strategy he employs to achieve these affects is to people the narrative with a substantial supporting cast of fictional characters: a concession not granted the historian. The Hoshiyamas (the Japanese couple taken to a concentration camp by the FBI), Harold Robileaux (the black soldier who died on the battlefield), his grieving grandmother, the hippies, the gangsters, are examples of those who add color and insight to the narrative. In this way, another facet of the novel – unavailable to the historian – becomes evident: access into the mind of a character even in the absence of a supporting historical document.

Aside from these features that assign a unique position to the novel among the historiographical disciplines, there is one other that is perhaps paramount to the novelist seeking to engage with the historical discourse. The political and historical novelist Gore Vidal points to this in his paraphrase of Alfred North Whitehead’s principle “The best way to understand a culture is to consider the things that it never says about itself.” It is the novel, cloaked as a fiction and employing the numerous techniques at its disposal – such as magic realism – that is particularly adept at expressing what is prohibited. As if to assert this fact, there are many descriptions of culturally awkward events in Homer and Langley. Temporal distance and cultural transformations within American society permit Doctorow to reference many of these events directly. One such lesser-known event of the Second World War given attention to in Homer and Langley concerns the concentration camps in which America detained its own citizens of Japanese origin. The decision to portray the Hoshiyamas in endearing terms and then juxtapose their good intentions to the harsh treatment meted out to them by the public and the FBI makes it difficult not to read this episode as an indictment of this wartime American attitude.

Of particular interest in this context is Langley’s Theory of Replacements, the “idea of the repetition or recurrence of life events, the same things over and over…” This idea is not original: it has been in existence for centuries. The notion of Eternal Return – also known as Eternal Recurrence – can be traced to classical antiquity and to ancient Indian religions. More recently, thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Louis Auguste Blanqin, Soren Kierkegaard and Stephen Hawking have grappled with the concept. Perhaps the most famous instance of preoccupation with eternal recurrence is that of Friedrich Nietzsche, with his most exhaustive work on the topic titled Notes on Eternal Recurrence. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the animals say to Nietzsche’s philosopher-mystic, “Look, we know what you teach: that all things return forever, and we along with them, and that we have already been here an infinite number of times, and all things along with us.” For Milan Kundera, this “myth” is a ploy by Nietzsche to ensure that we have regard for the gravity of life’s events. If an event could return over and over, we would need to take note of it even if it were seemingly remote. And yet, considering the premise of Homer and Langley, if history cannot be known accurately, how can we learn from it or achieve a proper recognition of it when it returns? It is unsurprising then, that Langley’s project is unsuccessful. The novel, Doctorow will argue, makes history less incomplete.

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