The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture

The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture

by Scott Herring

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The verb “declutter” has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, but its ever-increasing usage suggests that it’s only a matter of time. Articles containing tips and tricks on how to get organized cover magazine pages and pop up in TV programs and commercials, while clutter professionals and specialists referred to as “clutterologists” are just a phone call away. Everywhere the sentiment is the same: clutter is bad.

In The Hoarders, Scott Herring provides an in-depth examination of how modern hoarders came into being, from their onset in the late 1930s to the present day. He finds that both the idea of organization and the role of the clutterologist are deeply ingrained in our culture, and that there is a fine line between clutter and deviance in America. Herring introduces us to Jill, whose countertops are piled high with decaying food and whose cabinets are overrun with purchases, while the fly strips hanging from her ceiling are arguably more fly than strip. When Jill spots a decomposing pumpkin about to be jettisoned, she stops, seeing in the rotting, squalid vegetable a special treasure. “I’ve never seen one quite like this before,” she says, and looks to see if any seeds remain. It is from moments like these that Herring builds his questions: What counts as an acceptable material life—and who decides? Is hoarding some sort of inherent deviation of the mind, or a recent historical phenomenon grounded in changing material cultures? Herring opts for the latter, explaining that hoarders attract attention not because they are mentally ill but because they challenge normal modes of material relations. Piled high with detailed and, at times, disturbing descriptions of uncleanliness, The Hoarders delivers a sweeping and fascinating history of hoarding that will cause us all to reconsider how we view these accumulators of clutter.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226171852
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/09/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 13 MB
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About the Author

Scott Herring is associate professor in the Department of English at Indiana University. He is the author of Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism and Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History, also published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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The Hoarders

Material Deviance in Modern American Culture

By Scott Herring

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17185-2



It is the stuff of legend and the legend of stuff. With a front-page headline trumpeting "Homer Collyer, Harlem Recluse, Found Dead at 70," the New York Times reported on March 22, 1947, that "the circumstances surrounding the death of 70-year-old Homer, blind as the poet he was named for, were as mysterious as the life the two eccentric brothers lived on the unfashionable upper reaches of Fifth Avenue, in the middle of Harlem." Tipped off by a phone call, police had found Collyer's wasted corpse in his Harlem brownstone located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. Days later, officers located the rotting body of his brother, Langley, lying several feet from where Homer had died. Langley had been buried alive by fallen stacks of bundled newspapers, one of the many booby traps that he had rigged to ward off priers. Their bodies included, over one hundred tons of material ranging from several grand pianos to scads of pinup posters were excavated from the mansion. Deemed unsafe by the city's public administrator, the house was razed, the lot later dedicated as the Collyer Brothers Park (figure 1.1).

This sensational tale of two elderly white men living and dying in a predominantly black neighborhood has sparked fascination from the mid-1930s to the twenty-first century, and this chapter argues that the Collyers enabled a cultural shift in a curious identity category—the hoarder—that proved inextricable from their "mysterious" household effects as well as from the "unfashionable" district of Harlem. I detail these unlikely confluences in a few pages. For now I note that these two men have also lent their names to Collyer Brothers syndrome, a psychological disorder that would evolve into what is today known as hoarding disorder (HD). In a less than obvious debt, they have likewise contributed to the diagnosis of chronic disorganization, a "euphemism" that functions as both a synonym and a descriptor for those now identified as hoarders. Prior to the 2013 release of DSM-5, for instance, a New York Times journalist noted a half-decade earlier that "at its most extreme, chronic disorganization is called hoarding, a condition many experts believe is a mental illness in its own right, although psychiatrists have yet to formally recognize it." In one of their many successful attempts to standardize inappropriate accumulating into HD, Randy Frost, a psychologist, and Gail Steketee, a social worker, likewise maintained that "clutter in the homes of people with hoarding problems is extremely disorganized; valuable objects (and sometimes money) are commonly mixed in with trash. Even in cases where the volume of possessions is not large, considerable dysfunction can result from the gross disorganization." Disorganized goods, we might say, are but one hallmark of hoarding as a psychopathology, and even DSM-5 finds that hoarders have "objects piled together in a disorganized fashion." The Collyers and their possessions prove no exception to this classificatory rule. In fact, they helped conceive it.

It will take me several moves to support the claims of the last paragraph above, so let's start by noting that Steketee and Frost's reference to "valuable objects (and sometimes money)" signals how markedly different contemporary descriptions of hoarding are from earlier historical formations. Before the twentieth century, hoarding referred primarily to the accumulation of wealth rather than trash. Dismayed at "tight-fisted" clergy, Dante Alighieri assigned hoarders to the fourth circle of Hell in his fourteenth-century The Divine Comedy. Citing Shakespeare's late-sixteenth-century play Henry VI, Part 3, the Oxford English Dictionary defines hoarding "in modern use" as "the accumulation and hiding of money." Silas Marner, a Victorian protohoarder, stockpiled bags of guineas in George Eliot's 1861 novel of the same name. Signaling this definitional fault, one recent medical expert writes that "unfortunately, Langley Collyer lived in an era when problems such as compulsive hoarding were regarded as eccentricities; something to be laughed at or ridiculed." Casting hoarders as "public nuisances or even health risks," his description is revealing because it foregrounds a cultural break in how hoarders have been historically perceived. While previous centuries viewed the act as a sign of financial greed, it now functions as a psychopathological diagnosis that treats someone like the Collyers and their attachment to goods as suffering from a mental aberration.

Such being the case, late modern accounts of Collyer Brothers syndrome, chronic disorganization, and HD are far removed from fictive accounts of Silas Marner in the 1860s, even as many scientists insist upon transhistorical continuity. Yet in so doing, their accounts represent "problems such as compulsive hoarding" not as questionable constructions under strain but as kinks of gray matter that lead to "considerable dysfunction" beyond a well-stocked house. Quoted in "The Genetics of Compulsive Hoarding," one psychiatrist claims that hoarders harbor "distinct susceptibility genes," in a report that also finds that hoarders "have a different pattern of glucose metabolism in the brain." Another psychologist improbably states that "something at chromosome 14 may be associated with hoarding." Yet another stresses that unchecked hoarding results in sanitation crises and a "substantial social burden," including "lower rates of marriage and higher rates of divorce" and what is vaguely listed as "social, marital, and recreational impairment." Here hoarding is not just a quirk of genetic code or the disintegration of a particular household but a societal pathology of the brain as well.

In several instances, these findings shore up their claims with references that date back to psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, Karl Abraham, and Ernest Jones—even though these early-twentieth-century thinkers refuted causal links between disorganization and accumulation. In his "Anal-Erotic Character Traits" (1918), Jones stresses that "all collectors are anal-erotics, and the objects collected are nearly always typical copro-symbols: thus, money, coins (apart from current ones), stamps, eggs, butterflies—these two being associated with the idea of babies—books, even worthless things like pins, old newspapers, etc." But Jones also insists that these individuals express "intolerance for disorder." Freud earlier noted in his "Character and Anal Eroticism" (1908) that "the people I am about to describe are noteworthy for a regular combination of the three following characteristics. They are especially orderly, parsimonious and obstinate." Emphasizing that "dirt is matter in the wrong place" for such tidy persons, he, like Jones, approaches individuals who accumulate things as too clean, not too messy.

But if glucose, poor genetics, and a nod to some founders of Western psychoanalysis fail to make sense out of those who really, really, really like their possessions, then what does? Perhaps another allusion to Freud—that by Mary Douglas—can be of some help. As noted in this book's introduction, Douglas's famous formulation of "dirt as matter out of place" alerts us that mental and material disorganization comes from somewhere other than timeless brain fluid, and it returns us to the importance that a place like, say, Harlem plays in defining dirt. Her useful theory lets us consider the historical confluences that enabled one aspect of hoarding syndrome to emerge in the twentieth century as a disorder about disorganization, an aspect that recent medical experts elide when they present hoarding as a neurobiological ill. What follows thus refutes the notion of the disease as a biochemical imbalance and instead treats stories about hoarding as one chapter in the unfinished cultural history of disorder and "gross disorganization." Taking a cue from cultural critic Jani Scandura, who argues that "in the late 1930s, when the Collyer brothers gained notoriety in newspapers, they seemed to embody a threat more culturally resonant than what might be dismissed as individual eccentricity," I detail how and why the dangerous Collyers and their disorderly matter-out-of-place resonated in midcentury Harlem and the decades thereafter.

This is a brief history, then, of how a few truckloads of stuff and the two people who owned them became deviant. My genealogy of Collyer Brothers syndrome argues that representations of the Collyers facilitated a paradigm shift in hoarding as a curious abnormality—a shift that helped make chronic the gradual psychopathology of gross disorganization. While there were others whose object relations had sparked suspicion before them (I have in mind the "mentally deranged persons" whose "hoarding is usually directed to money; but it also includes almost anything besides" in a volume of William James's 1890 The Principles of Psychology), discourses of the Collyers were nevertheless elemental to the dissemination of hoarding as a mental illness across the nation and, eventually, the globe.

To support these claims, I first turn to their mansion and explore how Harlem and its residents became stand-ins for a social disordering that the Collyers would personify in the press. I then look inside the brownstone to track how this narrative of disorganization converged with complementary tales that cast the Collyers and their personal belongings as oddities. I finally address the afterlife of this curiosa as these two interlocking narratives further aligned and as the brothers became synonymous with a narrative of insane hoarding. Throughout, this chapter contends that representations of these men shifted from eccentric and reclusive New Yorkers to pathological hoarders. In essence, depictions of the two reconfigured anxieties of social and material disorganization that, for far too long, wound not around the strands of DNA but rather a few streets north of Central Park.


It is, following Douglas, difficult to understand the emergence of the modern hoarder without entertaining the role that place plays in accounts of chronic disorganization. Given the frequent emphasis on "unfashionable" Harlem in accounts of the Collyers, it is equally difficult not to attend to the role played by race. As much as these two men are now linked to the psychopathology of compulsive hoarding, they were once wedded to the supposed social and racial pathologies of Harlem. While connections between the neighborhood, the brothers, and their eponymous disorder are not transparent, this section teases out these relationships since they are a neglected link in the history of chronic disorganization as a mental disorder.

We grasp a few of these connections in a 2006 online newspaper that ponders why the brothers "descended into madness" and diagnoses them with the unfortunate neologism "Harlemitis":

Homer and Langley Collyer were written about in medical journals and even had a disease (Collyer Brothers Syndrome) named in their honor to account for this neurotic inability to dispose of things. Perhaps there should be a corollary to this disease as it applies to their stubborn refusal to leave Harlem, even as it descended into an entropic urban wasteland. Perhaps we can call it Harlemitis.

With these two hesitant "perhaps" es, the journalist acknowledges the significant role Harlem played in the Collyers' history, yet the pat formula raises some questions. First, why would a white body take ill for holding on to some things in black Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s? Second, why is the Collyers' desire to stay in this neighborhood a "stubborn refusal" or, ratcheting up the rhetoric, an act of madness? Third, why is Harlem an "entropic urban wasteland"?

The answer to these questions lies in the journalist's derogatory juxtaposition of "Harlem" and the suffix -itis, the latter translated as an inflammatory disease of a bodily organ. While it may be difficult to trace the Collyers and their attachment to personal property as a symptomatic dysfunction, it is too easy to find representations of twentieth-century Harlem (the district, the houses, the apartments, its working-class residents) as a descent into pathology: sociologists, historians, and journalists did so for several decades prior to the Collyers' demise. Originally a haven for middleclass and upper-class whites such as the Collyer family in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Harlem witnessed surges of black migration that spiked in the 1920s and continued well into the 1930s and 1940s. Following panicked white counter migrations into the suburbs as a response to this population shift, the neighborhood became a largely black vicinity that many derided as an "entropic urban wasteland," a slum replete with "deteriorating" houses and "immoral" bodies.

Presenting the district, its properties, and its working-class inhabitants as a locus of psychic, moral, and material impairment, these disease tropes painted parts of black Harlem as sites of social decay, and such skewed portraits were often inseparable from what was referred to as "urban maladjustment." The sociologist Robert E. Park, for example, stressed in 1925 that "disturbances in metabolism" and "abnormalities in social metabolism" coincided with "the great influx of southern Negroes into northern cities since the war." Other sociologists in the 1930s and 1940s traced the "disturbed social relationships" and "the growth of definitely anti-social attitudes" in metropolitan "race colonies," "disorganized Negro districts" such as Harlem, and the slum, which "has always been known as the breeding-place for vice, crime, and demoralization of all kinds." Yet another stated in 1939 that "disorganization and apparent lack of direction" defined Harlem's denizens. For these experts, the neighborhood brimmed with "social and economic disorders," immorality, and anomaly. The district was, to rephrase Douglas, a deviant outbreak of city-based social pollution, a prime instance of metropolitan matter out of place.

Harlem, stated otherwise, was cast as chronically disorganized throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and as two quotes from the previous paragraph typify, these modern tropes of urban pathology were frequently referred to as social disorganization, a term coined around the same time that the neighborhood witnessed initial waves of black migration. Similar in kind, if not degree, to earlier conflations of African American populations and urban disorder, the term was advanced by sociologists William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki in their five-volume The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918 –20), and while this term did not originally signify pathologized African Americans or the Collyers, it soon would. Thomas and Znaniecki—both affiliated with the University of Chicago's School of Sociology—studied the cultural flux prompted by the migration of millions from the Old World to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Across their fourth volume, Disorganization and Reorganization in Poland, and their fifth, Organization and Disorganization in America, they characterized the moral disruptions caused by these transnational relocations as social disorganization, a term that originally referred to the waning of marriages between first-generation immigrants. "We can define social disorganization briefly," Thomas and Znaniecki write, "as a decrease of the influence of existing social rules of behavior upon individual members of the group. This decrease may present innumerable degrees, ranging from a single break of some particular rule by one individual up to a general decay of all the institutions of the group." In shelves of case studies, subsequent sociologists and other thinkers adopted this influential concept of social disorganization and applied it to the seemingly foreign bodies—other immigrant and black populations—in towns and cities across America.

Despite its objective-seeming approach to ethnic immigration, that is to say, The Polish Peasant also theorized social disorganization as an urban maladjustment wedded to nonwhite bodies, as a moral panic that advanced marital, familial, and social pathologies. While Thomas and Znaniecki intended social disorganization to be "a neutral term that could lead toward greater individual autonomy [and] new forms of the family," it signified a deviance that was soon applied to urban "abnormalities," including places such as Harlem. With their passing reference to general decay, for example, the sociologists embedded themes of moral decline that overshadowed their original definition. The Polish Peasant deemed social disorganization a "social evil" (192) and suggested that "demoralization is the decay of the personal life organization of an individual member of a social group" (256). As much as the book used sociological science to rationalize the plights of working-class Poles at a moment of national insecurity regarding Eastern European immigrations, it thus helped render disorganization both deviance and disease. Academics, artists, and laypeople soon embraced the term to disparage Harlem as an abnormal "breeding-place" for "disorganized" and usually working-class black bodies.


Excerpted from The Hoarders by Scott Herring. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1          Collyer Curiosa
2          Pathological Collectibles
3          Clutterology
4          Old Rubbish
Note on Method

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