The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture

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University of Chicago Press, Nov 9, 2014 - History - 185 pages
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It's not unlikely that you grew up in a neighborhood where there was a "haunted house,” a place in advanced disrepair inhabited by an eccentric you rarely ever saw. Scott Herring relates his own childhood fascination with just such a spooky "mansion,” owned by a pack rat no one ever saw. The grounds were covered with litter, neighbors fantasized about the squalor inside. Herring later came to realize that he aimed his childhood terror at someone many today would consider a compulsive hoarder. He (and other kids) had turned this pack rat into a one-man freak show. We now know that hoarding can hurt, that hoarders can be anxious, grief-stricken, depressed, and that their emotional difficulties and piles of stuff can lead to stress on loved ones and neighbors. But Herring wants to explore what other things there may be for us to know about hoarders. How did our cultural understanding of hoarders and their hardship (knowledge you had about them as a child, or your understanding of them as an adult) come to be? It’s hard to understand hoarders without appreciating the larger cultural systems that aid their identification, but the real interest starts with the world of hoarders, how they make sense of their worlds. Given the popular attention hoarders receive on cable tv and the tabloid press, it’s time to reassess our knowledge of pack rats, extreme accumulators, and clutter addicts. Herring’s task, then, is to tell us stories about hoarders, and he does it brilliantly and very fetchingly in a series of case studies. The Collyer Brothers is the first case, about two hoarders living in a Harlem townhouse with a 100 tons of stuff; Andy Warhol is another, equally fascinating case, with his addiction to collecting everything from perfume bottles to deco tschotskes to porn to furniture to toys to mummified feet to various unmentionables, an accumulation that can’t be dubbed either pathological or normal; a third case is Sandra Felton, the evangelical campaigner against clutter (a nearly religious focus on hygiene allows for the coinage of "clutterology”); the last case is the Beales, of Grey Gardens fame (subject of a spectacular film about the place in the Hamptons owned by a mother-daughter pair, cousins to Jackie Kennedy), which Herring turns into a brilliant study of deviant old age, enacted in the figure of the "senile recluse.” In the end, Herring’s stories force us to rethink conventional understandings of hoarding as illness. There is no other serious book on hoarding. This one gives us a nonpathological perspective of hoarding as "material deviance” in addition to weaving some riveting tales of eccentric individuals.

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

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About the author (2014)

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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