Cultural Memory and the Collyer Brothers

Cecil Torr was a Cambridge don who wrote a still standard work on ancient ships. He lived in a village called Moreton, in Devon. In the three volumes of his  Small Talk at Wreyland he recorded events and thoughts triggered by his country life, which was quite separate from his academic one. For him, village life was vast, in time if not in space. I was struck when I read the book by the long chain of memory he could construct from his own time, roughly before the First World War. By the oldest woman in the village remembering things told her by the oldest woman she had known as a little girl, and so on, he was taken back hundreds of  years.

When I was small the cultural memory of the world I was immersed in still included much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Names of people no longer active or long dead were insinuated into popular consciousness, especially if their person or conduct had been emblematic of beauty, brawn, or luck, good or bad. One grew up knowing these names, if not much about the people themselves or what they had done. Irish fighters like John L. Sullivan and Gene Tunney, Sally Rand, the fan dancer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Judge Crater, who disappeared off a city street and was never seen again, the actress Lillian Russell, lived on in New York City speech. A big spender could still be compared to Diamond Jim Brady, and someone with no sense of direction was a Wrong Way Corrigan.

In such a way, a typical expression for the household of someone who never threw anything away was called a Collyer Brothers mansion. Recently, the Times did an article on the brothers. I was surprised to learn the story was of much more recent date - the late 1940's - than I had imagined. The Collyers were two reclusive brothers whose bodies had been found, covered by debris, in the Harlem brownstone they owned. While the world changed around them, the brothers ingested into their house newspapers, food containers, and all manner of the garbage that civilization produces, and there between their walls it sat. When their bodies were found - one brother had died first and the other, blind and incapacitated, had starved to death - the police had to tunnel into the house to get them out.

In the course of my book buying, I have been in a couple of Collyer homes, or at any rate apartments. The Collyer Brothers, even if I had only a vague idea of their story, were always on my mind as I dragged yet another lot of books into our apartment, de-Collyerizing one space at the expense of another. I keep much more than I should, but so much is interesting. When in a minimalist mood, I imagine distilling everything into a book like Cecil Torr's. I could get a nice set of notebooks, maybe, to start off with.

At any rate, the Times article was illustrated with photographs taken when the mansion was entered. I was struck by the picture of a bookshelf. It looked like a rack of standard steel shelving, on which some books were lined up. I looked more closely. The books did not appear to be double-shelved. No books were lying flat to use up the extra inches on top of  the vertically standing ones. What's more, the picture had been taken from feet away, in a different part of the room. You could actually see the books (they looked like pretty good books, too). Even more shocking, some of the books were leaning, taking up precious fractions of an inch into which some thinner books could have been shoved. The Collyer Brothers were, I was devastated to learn, pikers.

Now the first thing I did when I saw this article - and this is absolutely true - was to write "KEEP" in the margin. Okay, I though it would make for good material. But still . . .