In 1947, police in New York City received an anonymous tip about a dead body in a brownstone on Fifth Avenue. Responding to the call, they found a house so packed with junk that they had to dig through piles of old newspapers and other boxes before they came upon the body of Homer Collyer.
Collyer, a blind, bedridden hermit, had died of malnutrition and heart failure. Weeks later, after excavating more than 100 tons of rubbish, police found Homer's brother, Langley, who had also died in the house after accidentally crushing himself with a booby trap he had set to capture intruders.
The brothers' story of privilege and eccentricity captured the imagination of New Yorkers — including the young E.L. Doctorow. Now the author of other novels full of real-life characters — such as Ragtime and Billy Bathgate — Doctorow re-imagines the lives of the two brothers in Homer & Langley.
"[The Collyer brothers] were always on my mind," Doctorow tells Melissa Block. "Somehow the fact that they had come from a well-to-do family and had more-or-less opted out was the real mystery of them."
The sons of a wealthy physician, the brothers had attended Columbia University before deciding to shut themselves off in the family's mansion on Fifth Avenue. It was there that they gradually retreated from the world and became collectors of everything, including pianos, bowling balls, books and tapestries.
"To me the key thing was not that they were aggregators," says Doctorow. "The really interesting thing was why they had closed the door and the shutters and retreated into this house."
He likens their decision to "emigration," saying: "They were leaving this country and going into the country of their home."
Doctorow says that writing a fictional account of the Collyers' existence required figuring out how to "break into that house" and see what was going on and why. He says that he didn't do much research for his novel; he felt that the brothers required "interpretation, not research."
Doctorow tells his story from Homer's point of view, a character who he describes as "a very compassionate, sensitive fellow."
"The issue for [Homer] is to create meaning out of their lives in this peculiar eccentric decision that they've made," explains Doctorow.
As for the author, he believes that the Collyers represent, in extreme form, our tendency towards archiving and collecting. He says he likes to think of the Collyers as "curators of their life and times, and their house is a kind of museum of American civilization."