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The WORLD of LANGLEY COLLYER

by Howard Fast

SO LANGLEY COLLYER is dead, and all over this mighty nation, this nation of nations, this Queen of the Western World, people will be able to sleep a little better, a little less perplexedly for knowing that what the rats had left is being decently buried.
The Far Eastern coolie of today, as well as the historian of tomorrow, might, however, express a note of bewilderment. The coolie, for instance, considers the day fortunate which includes a tolerable bowl of rice. As often as not, he goes without it, and when the great hunger stalks through his land--whether his land be India, China or elsewhere--striking down the thousands and the millions too, when the belly pinches and the ribs show like the strings of a harp, he will perhaps, in his fevered dreams, call up a picture of the colossus of colossi, the land where no one wants for anything evenwashingmachines.
Doubtless, though, Langley Collyer would puzzle this representative of the lesser and darker races.
"Who killed Langley Collyer?" he might ask.
"Property killed him."
It would surprise you how readily even the lower orders grasp philosophical concepts, but I'm sure our coolie's brows would knit in desperation when you went on to explain that the answer was literal, not figurative.
"Property fell on him and squashed him like a bug. He was crawling among the property, and it got him. If he didn't die at once, he very likely starved to death. And it could be that the rats began to eat him even while he remained conscious."
Our coolie knows about rats, and with tears of sympathy welling into his eyes, he might very well say, "The poor man--the poor, poor man!"
"Not at all. Hardly poor. In property and cash, he and his brother were worth well over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
"How many pice is that?" our coolie asks, being an ignorant man, of course, and able to think of money only in terms of his own native coin.
"Oh--about forty-five million pice.But neither he nor his brother could spend it. They lived as a coolie lives--even worse, perhaps. They never saw the sunlight or heard the sweet laughter of children. Their house was like a cave, and they trembled there. Fear was the dominant note of their lives--terrible, terrible fear that never left them. They feared starvation, insecurity, poverty; they feared their own kind; they feared the whole world.

Let us leave the coolie who considers himself fortunate when his rice bowl is full. What else could be said to him, or to a coal miner, or to a packinghouse worker, or to a turret lathe operator, other than: "Verily, and this man was as wealthy as a king, yet it availed him not."
Easier, I think, to deal with the historian of tomorrow, a half-century or a century from now, who brings that fine, detached perspective to bear. He too writes of that queen of nations who says to other nations, "You shall be free or slave as it pleases me." But he sits on the easy height of time, where puzzles have been unraveled and he can recall:
During 1947, when the American Doctrine was laid out by Harry Truman, when people trembled at the thought of atomic war, when the Thomas-Rankin Un-American Committee became the modern inquisition, two brothers died in a house in Harlem and the American people damn near forgot everything else, and every time they opened their papers it was to get the latest on Langley Collyer, so much so that even Leo Durocher was pushed off page one.
"Now that is something I have to understand," our historian, says, "because in that particular country at that particular time, you could have anything, evenawashingmachine."
So he riddles himself the curious case of Collyer, and because he has the world perspective-- even as you and I have today when we consider the age of Napoleon--he draws some interesting conclusions. He starts with the specific:
1. The Collyer brothers, wealthy, entitled to the generous relaxation of old age.
2. They do not spend their wealth, except for the bare necessities of subsistence.
3. They live in an ancient house in a poor section of the city. All beyond the walls of their house threatens them.
4. They are the inheritors, the rentiers, the apex, the culmination of the economic system which produced them and their civilization, yet it destroys them. Of all civilizations, theirs put the highest premium on security, yet made it most difficult to attain. In a sense, they are the stereotype of their fellow man; deep in their hearts, they know there is no security in what they have.
5. But they barricade themselves with possessions, tons and tons of possessions, yet it avails them not. And at last the possessions fall on Langley Collyer and squash him like a bug.
So, our historian--who is also a philosopher--puts one and two and three and also four and five together, and be tries to find in the bedlam both reason and definition. He rereads the Truman Doctrine, and he becomes most thoughtful, for was not that the nation where you could have anything evenawashingmachine, the wealthiest of the wealthy? Was it not entitled to the generous fulfilment of its long nurtured dreams? Was it not the most secure yet the most frightened?
"But thank God," our historian sighs, "that there were people in twentieth century America, as well as Langley Collyers." Yet he could not cleanse from his nostrils the dry stink of fear and terror that his excursion into the past and into a house in Harlem had evoked.