On Writers, Hoarders, and Their Clutter
From Auden to Mitchell: Messy Life, Brilliant Mind?
I’m a fiction writer, trafficking mostly in brief, quirky, not to say oddball stories. I work in a small one-bedroom in Queens. Halfway along the 15 years I’ve been here, my apartment turned into a cluttered mess—plastic grocery bags like tumbleweed in my dining area; “useful” liquor-store boxes waiting (and waiting) to be used; tourist souvenirs from my travels with my globe-trotting food-critic girlfriend—postcards, museum brochures, out-dated calendars from Madrid, Rome, Amsterdam—layered less and less charmingly, more and more dustily, atop slumps of books and magazines. The long-unused exercise machine in the slovenly bedroom was hung with clothes.
One afternoon in 2010, my girlfriend, who lives nearby, rang my door bell. She’d left her keys at home. She hadn’t been over in years; I didn’t want her here. So she had no idea what lay behind my door. From shame now, I refused to let her in. But she caught a shocked glimpse past my shoulder. This led to an ultimatum, and then, fitfully, and with much struggling, a project to declutter my apartment, and my “act,” too, while I was at it. I chronicled the experience in a memoir called Mess. My first confession unprotected by a fictional mask.
Extreme clutter and hoarding affect between six and possibly fifteen million Americans. The roots are complex, but ultimately the inability to face the pain of letting go lies central. And not just of things, but emotions, memories. What’s more, the accumulations of stuff often serve as a buffer against emotional wounds. Hoarders seem more liable to trauma than other people.
But they also possess a heightened sensitivity to the allure of objects, a kind of artistic temperament. I came to believe that some people, myself included, just like having lots of things of all kinds around, are more sentimental than other folk, can tolerate more disorder and even a touch of dust.
During the long haul of my “functional” decluttering, as I call it, I became curious about which other writers had issues with hoarding—a literary fellowship of clutterbugs. Some might argue that my interest was just one more way of stalling, of trying to fend off the hard dull realities of my project—the papery slushes till facing me from all my horizontal surfaces—with the gaudy shine of associative glamour. Sort of like, “Sure, I’m a heavy drinker—and so was Dylan Thomas!”
Be that as it may, I recalled first up a passage in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs. I checked it. My heart leapt. “When I stay in a hotel room…” wrote Kapuscinski (he was in Tehran covering the Khomeini revolution), “I like the room to be a mess…” Yes—and the “worst chaos” was on the main table: “photos of various sizes, cassettes, 8-mm film, newsletters , photocopies of leaflets—all piled, mixed up together, helter-skelter, like a flea market.”
Much how my dining table had looked for several years. Not to mention the rest of my place.
But Kapuscinski operated messily in hotel rooms “because then the ambience has the illusion of some kind of life, a substitute warmth and intimacy…” Was this his way, too, when back at home?
I contacted Artur Domoslavski, a Polish journalist and great friend and admirer of Kaspuscinski’s, who’d just brought out a controversial biography wherein he’d unhappily concluded, among other things, that Kaspuscinski, grand maestro of literary journalism, had played fast and loose with his facts.
Sort of, was the biographer’s answer. Yes, Kapuscinski’s Warsaw home writing studio was messy, too, but more like “organized chaos” or “chaotic order.” Yes, it was always “crowded”—a windowsill crammed with boyish objects brought back from afar; everywhere tacked-up quotations from poetry and prose, photos, postcards, clippings form newspapers—“but at the same time clean.” And RK could easily find what he was looking for.
As for the rest of his apartment, his wife, Alicja, kept it always “sort of clean and orderly.”
I’d assembled a gallery of lurid “before” photos from when I’d started my decluttering. I’d taken to hauling it out for people of various stripes to rate my mess. My therapist, for instance, a dignified, full-bore Lacanian, surprisingly found my gallery just suggested someone in the throes of working—which I found slightly perverse.
How did my clutter (at its worst), I now asked Domoslawski, eagerly, compare to the great Kapuscinski’s?
“The disorder shown at the photos you have sent me,” he replied, “is much much bigger than at Kapuscinski’s studio.” I could see the alarmed exclamation point he’d politely demurred from using. “As I said before, it was much cleaner and more organized.”
I assured him hurriedly my place was improved considerably—was much cleaner. I’d bought a new bright yellow vacuum.
Prowling on for more fellowship, I remembered seeing somewhere that W.H. Auden was notoriously slovenly. And indeed so: when Auden moved back to England from his longtime pad on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, the Salvation Army refused the sofa he tried to unload on them on account of its wine stains and cigarette burns and generally deplorable condition. Auden’s literary executor is Professor Edward Mendelson of Columbia University; as a young man he’d known the great poet. In pure kismet Mendelson’s wife turned out to be Cheryl Mendelson, a novelist, philosopher, lawyer—and author of the bestselling housekeeping bible, Home Comforts, which I’d been fitfully consulting in my project.
But Edward Mendelson informed me, when I over-excitedly approached him, that his wife was no longer commenting on housekeeping matters. (No doubt not wishing to be pegged forever as just the cleaning expert; I sympathized). And no, he didn’t care to look at my “before pictures.”
“No one’s living space is comparable to anyone else’s,” he wrote to me, “and I can’t imagine that it would make sense to say that one image was more or less cluttered than Auden’s flat.”
But he did describe the St. Mark’s flat. I inserted my own comparisons:
The desk and tables were covered with disordered books and papers [ditto!] except for the dining-room table, which was pristine and had a fruit bowl in the middle. [semi-ditto?] The ashtrays were overflowing. [Ugh, non-ditto.] The bookshelves were cluttered and disordered. [Big ditto!] The books themselves were stained with cigarette-ash. [Ugh, non-ditto!] The kitchen counters were cluttered. [Non-ditto, proudly, fingers crossed.] But the chairs and sofas were perfectly orderly and comfortable, though shabby. [Semi-ditto?] Auden was highly selective about what he wanted to keep clean and neat and what he didn’t care about. [Non-ditto] Very fastidious people (like Vera Stravinsky) were clearly appalled. [Ditto ditto] To less fastidious people . . . his flat and house were cozy and comfortable. [Um . . . semi-ditto?]
That was Auden’s and my fellowship.
Janet Malcolm did agree to look at my clutter gallery. Not that she herself shared any such problem. I contacted her after discovering in her biography of Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman, that the last person to see the poet alive, Plath’s downstairs neighbor, a painter and museum administrator named Trevor Thomas, became in later years a bona fide hoarder. Malcolm visited him in his little house an hour by train outside London: “on every surface,” she reported, “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of objects were piled, as if the place were a second hand shop into which the contents of ten other second-hand shops had been crammed…” And all coated with dust “overlaid with dust.” A scene worthy of the epic hoarding Collyer brothers of Harlem.
Malcolm began at the New Yorker writing about interiors and design. I noticed she had a habit of briskly and tartly registering the state of furnishings and spaces throughout her oeuvre: the “ill-defined” mound-clumped loft of the artist John Coplans; the “huge, unbelievably disorderly” desk of psychoanalyst K.R. Eissler—“on which papers, books, journals, newspapers, letters were strewn like an adolescents clothing.”’
Would she assess my “before” gallery as more like that of Coplans and Eissler or more like the engulfing shambles of Thomas the hoarder?
“Definitely more like Thomas’s house,” she replied, briskly.
I felt compelled to offer another hurried assurance that my place had much improved.
I never got further showing my “before” gallery to other writers. But I still kept a literary clutter eye peeled. And it lighted finally (while I was finishing up my book) on the case of Joseph Mitchell. Here, new to me, was another fellow clutterbug. Or so I thought, after reading in Thomas Kunkel’s just-published biography, and elsewhere online, that the chronicler of New York’s singular byways and characters would come home from rambling the streets with shopping bags loaded with the stuff worthy, it seemed, of Langley Collyer’s famous nighttime trawls: old bricks from abandoned buildings, bent nails, bottles, colored glass electric insulators, spoons, forks, nails, posters. Artifacts of a fading city landscape. Somehow he stashed it all in the little Greenwich Village apartment where he lived with his wife and two young daughters. “We were probably the only people in New York to have a skyscraper under the bed,” Nora Mitchell Sanborn, the writer’s older daughter, remembers her mother—the “long suffering and patient” Theresa—joking.
I had the image of Mitchell, especially when he was for so long unable anymore to construct the city he loved on the page—the published page, at least—reconstructing it physically, as it were, by hauling it home in bits and pieces. Relentlessly stocking a forlorn, evocative reliquarium. An activity, and a figure, ripe for the pages of Borges, perhaps.
And suddenly I decided that Mitchell’s celebrated writing echoed a hoarder’s pell-mell gathering. There were those list sprawls of his, such as the one, for just one stray example, from “Street Life,” an excerpt from his unfinished memoir, in which a passage piles up ten types of stone architectural ornament, one after another after another, and then seven cast-iron ones, and then moves on, looking for more.
But not so. “Please don’t call him a hoarder,” Nora Sanborn corrected me, when I contacted her by email. “He wasn’t at all. He was a collector.” A subtle and passionate species of eccentric archivist.
Fastidiously—according to Kunkel he was a very fastidious man who donned a fedora even to throw out the trash—Mitchell noted the provenance of what he brought home, be it ever so humble. Some of these scribbled notations are on display among photographs by Steve Featherstone, part of a larger project documenting Mitchell’s haul of some 3,100 objects, including some 250 pickle spoons his daughters split between them after he died.
“We never even knew the extent of his collecting,” Sanborn went on, “until we emptied the apartment that he had lived in from when he was 30 until he died at 86 and where we grew up. Two tiny bedrooms, living room, bathroom and kitchen. Four closets. We knew of his interest in many, many things—New York hotel cutlery, menus, china, silver plate tea sets, etc. (bought in flea markets, mainly). Anything to do with the Fulton Fish Market—billheads, ads, stationery, those big blue books where people used to keep their accounts, which he picked up in buildings under demolition to make way for the World Trade Center, and abandoned grillwork, stone work etc., which he liberated with crow bars from the same sites. Papers, papers papers. Many books in many categories. None of it was displayed (except for some of the stone and ironwork and, of course, the books) but packed neatly in Brooks Brother boxes (he collected them, as well) or Harry and David boxes, and stored under beds, in corners, in closets etc. Everything labeled and tied, including coins he would pick up on the street and put in old marmalade jars. We knew about his interests and his jaunts but nothing ever was obvious or messy and we were thrilled with the incredible things (302 restaurant oyster forks) that passed on to us.”
Sanborn would know the difference between a collector and a hoarder. “Hoarding and collecting are my favorite subjects,” she replied when I mentioned the book I’d written. “The Collyer brothers were my husband’s cousins!”
My eyes went very wide. By any chance, I asked, panning for bigger kismet, for a closer linking of these two strands of mid-century New York culture—by any chance did her father ever talk about the Collyer brothers?
“Yes,” Sanborn answered, “we all talked about the Collyer brothers and I remember looking out of the train windows when we went through Harlem to Connecticut, looking for traces after the fact. My husband’s uncle was a second cousin; it was a large, substantial family. I remember him (Uncle Bob) talking to my father about them and he gave my father a couple of books that belonged to Langley or Homer.”
The thought of Joseph Mitchell there in his little apartment amid his hauls of scrounged remnants discreetly packed about everywhere, handling books that belong to the great hoarders of the day, struck me as sublime; something, again, for Borges.
“I can’t remember what my father said or thought about them,” Sanborn added, “but he would have been interested and compassionate, placing them in one chapter or other of the human tragedy.”
This was such a graceful and humane assessment that I forbore sending Sanborn my “before” gallery, and left things at that.