In the spring of 1947, I was eleven and Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was fifteen. In those years before television, we lived in a city of legend and myth called New York. I lived in a tenement in Brooklyn. Doctorow was a resident of the distant Bronx. In our separate worlds, we shared the same myths. Most of the tales were oral, full of gangsters and ballplayers and occasional heroes. But our imaginations were also fed by the written word. By books, usually borrowed from the public library, and by newspapers.
Then one morning in March those newspapers gave us a brand new myth: the tale of the Collyer Brothers: Homer and Langley. On March 21, someone made a call to the police saying that there was a dead man in the four-story brownstone at 2078 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of 128th Street in Harlem. The cops knew the house for its two ancient inhabitants, its boarded-up windows, its vile summer stench. Neighbors knew the men as ghostly nocturnal figures.
To be sure, the brothers, like the house they lived in, were survivors from another time. In the late 19th century, Harlem was white and prosperous, a perfect setting for characters out of Edith Wharton’s splendid fictions. The Collyer brothers did not grow up rich; but they were “well-off.” Their father was a doctor. Their mother had ambitions to sing opera. The 1947 newspapers said that Homer was born in 1881 (the year that Henry James published The Portrait of a Lady and some other mythic Americans fought the gunfight at the O.K. Corral). His brother Langley arrived in 1885. They moved into the house in 1909 and stayed on after the parents died. In March 1947, when the cops started investigating the report of a death, the revelations burst from the front pages of newspapers. Thousands of New Yorkers started arriving in Harlem for a look.
Far away in Brooklyn, the emerging myth of the Collyer Brothers was made personal to us because one of our neighbors, a detective named Joe Whitmore, was assigned to the investigation. “You never seen anything like that place,” he told my father one morning, while I listened in awe. “It’s like a trip to Purgatory.” His eyewitness accounts of filth, rats, newspapers stacked to ceilings, pianos everywhere (fourteen of them), a Model T automobile, and narrow tunnels through the densely packed trash were verified by the newspaper stories. Or, rather, Joe Whitmore verified the newspaper stories.
The cops found Homer first. He was propped up in a chair, crippled and twisted by rheumatism, his hair wild and white, his beard falling below his chest. He wore only a tattered blue bathrobe. He had starved to death. They didn’t find Langley for another three weeks. Despite reports of sightings all over New York and as far away as Atlantic City, his body lay only eight feet away from Homer, crushed by thick walls of trash he had rigged as a booby trap. Rats had been dining on his aging flesh.
Within days of the first discoveries, the Collyer Brothers had entered the mythology of New York, while becoming part of the city’s language for at least two generations. Millions of New York mothers must have scolded their children with variations on the same lines: “Look at this room! You guys are like the Collyer Brothers!” In my own life, even today, I aim the same accusing words at myself, gazing at the thousands of books, magazines, newspapers that I’m so reluctant to throw away. I never call myself Homer, or Langley, but I often feel like a card-carrying member of the Collyer brotherhood.
Now, E.L. Doctorow has brought his extraordinary literary art to bear on this enduring New York story. The result is a wonderful novel. As in The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, The Waterworks, Billy Bathgate, and other fictions, Doctorow is here less concerned with factual truth than with imagining the lives within the myth. This is not unique to him. After all, Stephen Crane did not fight in the civil war. Leonardo Da Vinci was not present at the Last Supper.
For Doctorow, history is almost always the first draft of myth. But it is more than that too. In my reading, what distinguishes him from most other makers of historical fictions is that he approaches the subject matter like a musician. Sometimes directly — it was impossible for me to read Ragtime without hearing Scott Joplin. In this new novel, I hear John Coltrane, the great tenor sax player. The first line is certainly as direct as Coltrane.
“I’m Homer, the blind brother.”
The notes that matter are “blind” and “brother.” But the narration goes on as Homer explains how he realized in his late teens what was happening to him. He would stand near the lake in Central Park in winter when it was filled with ice skaters.
The houses over to Central Park West went first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn’t make them out, and then the trees began to lose their shape, and then finally, this was toward the end of the season, maybe it was late February of that very cold winter, and all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that last light, went gray and then altogether black, and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound though full of intention, a deeper tone than you’d expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut.
In this and other passages, Doctorow brilliantly gives us the sense of blindness in all its varieties, including its compensations. Homer Collyer learns to see through sound and smell and texture. In Doctorow’s version of the myth, Homer is also a trained musician, saying early that “my skill as a pianist rendered my blindness acceptable in the social world.” He goes to dinner parties with his older brother Langley and often plays for the guests and the young women. Langley goes off to World War One and comes back a changed, obsessive man. In “real” life, the musician was Langley, not Homer, and Homer was older than Langley by four years. Langley apparently did not serve in World War One (too old). This playing with the facts doesn’t truly matter, anymore than the true story of Frankie and Johnny matters, or the biography of Stagger Lee. What should matter in a work of imagined art is the imagination and the art.
Doctorow supplies both, in what is a story of a grand refusal of the world and its conventions. The brothers eventually ask nothing of the world. No charity. No acclaim. They want to be left alone. There is a brief time when servants provide the illusion of family, but eventually they leave. One, a young Irish girl, is the object of Homer’s affections, but she goes off to become a nun. Homer says at one point, about a girl he met at summer camp: “Is there any love purer than this, when you don’t even know what it is?” But the most enduring love story in Doctorow’s novel is the love of each brother for the other.
Homer always speaks with affection about Langley, even realizing that his brother’s habit of collecting things might be getting out of hand. Newspapers were a huge problem. Langley’s major project was “the collection of the daily papers with the ultimate aim of creating one day’s edition of a newspaper that could be read forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof.”
Across half a century, Langley’s first act every morning is to buy the newspapers. He never throws them away.
Langley’s project consisted of counting and filing news stories according to category: invasions, wars, mass murders, auto, train, and plane wrecks, love scandals, church scandals, robberies, murders, lynchings, rapes, political misdoings with a subhead of crooked elections, police misdeeds, gangland rubouts, investment scams, strikes, tenement fires, trials civil, trials criminal, and so on.
Eventually, “he would have enough statistical evidence to narrow his findings to the kinds of events that were, by their frequency, seminal human behavior.” And goes on: “He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.”
(In a 1977 panel at Harvard, Doctorow said: “If I could get Punch Sulzberger to agree to issue the paper as written in its entirety by me, on just one day, I would spend many, many years preparing that particular city edition. And I would consider it — it would be my life’s work.” The roads to art are often long and surprising.)
In the final forty pages of this novel, Doctorow makes another great leap of the imagination. The Collyer brothers don’t die in 1947. They live on, through the 1960s and after, trying to make sense of the violent and unjust world and their own lives. Homer goes deaf. He huddles in the labyrinth of the packed house, hungry, inert, with “only the touch of my brother’s hand to know that I am not alone.” In this lean, deep novel about time, memory, and love, neither is the reader.
Pete Hamill is the author of North River, Forever, Downtown, A Drinking Life, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction.