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Spring Cleaning with Hemingway

The sentiments and solidarity of a clutterbug
The storefront opposite the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

I fire up my apartment vacuum and push myself to spring-clean (toss) the empty boxes that have suddenly started to pile up in the traumatic wake of the November 2016 election. Accumulating and hanging onto things, I’ll note, is a common clutterbug and hoarder response to trauma. I could note further, if so inclined, that judging from photos, the new president appears to have a thing for clutter himself in his Manhattan tower office. But I choose not to note.

It’s spring-cleaning time once again. For me, the activity carries an extra resonance—and not just as a polite metaphor for what needs to be done with all the crap enthroned at our new orange White House. Simply, it’s because I’m someone who wrote a memoir about his struggles to declutter his over-burdened apartment. And since the book appeared a year and a half ago, my attitude toward clutter and clutterbugs, and decluttering, has changed.

With increasing boldness, I’ve come to regard clutter as essentially a matter of personal style. Some people just really like objects, of all sorts, for all sorts of reasons, and like having lots more around than other people do—from stacks of old Playbill’s to VCR players for tinkering with to chintzy cat ornaments massed everywhere. Some people can tolerate disorder more, are intensely sentimental about possessions, can pardon their dust. They like to hang onto stuff. Such applies to very sentimental me, and in particular my DIY wonder cabinet of touristic bits and pieces (that marvelous word, ephemera) from the traveling I do with my girlfriend—even if I do consider my apartment “good-enough” decluttered (to borrow a psychologist’s term for adequate mothering), thanks to my efforts for my book. The piled boxes and plastic grocery bags of yore are gone or tamed.      

But, please, I’m not an apostle of clutter for everybody. Not a fundamentalist; not a messianic messy anti-Marie Kondo. If you like your place to be a spic-and-span minimalist sanctum, fine by me, my friend.

Indeed, I’ve grown increasingly less interested in any how-to of decluttering. Should circumstances demand such—threat of eviction for hoarding, say, or a despair that the clutter has gotten all too much—I’d just suggest seeking out a peer group, one where you can comment and interact (which you can’t do at a twelve-step meeting); or a sympathetic pro declutterer or a shrink. (I do commend Ms. Kondo’s tactic of little ceremonial adieus to things, to help with the pain of parting; photos help too. Note a crucial difference between clutterbugs and hoarders: the ability ultimately to let go.)

Myself, more and more, I’ve become fascinated with collectors and collections . . . and the shadowy, idiosyncratic zones between collecting and clutter, even hoarding, where the fondness for objects becomes (so often) unruly. My girlfriend and I have a little apartment in Istanbul that lies near novelist Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. To my taste, Pamuk’s vitrines and displays there of objects related to his same-name novel of obsessive love and nostalgia are a bit too curated and “house-broken.” After visiting his museum I like to cross over to an antique shop called The Works “Objects of Desire” (the neighborhood, Çukurcuma, is the antiques quarter), and edge through the sprawling over-abundant pell-mell shelves, the crowded floor. Here a browser encounters all sorts of surprising little clots of arranging in the flood of items. (No wonder the Surrealists loved flea markets.) The whole is full of life: like an English garden, not a French one.

This “over-curated” tameness, if you will, was for me a flaw in the New Museum’s recent blockbuster show, “The Keeper,” about collecting and hoarding. That felt like a walk through a menagerie or zoo, rather than a wild forest or a jungle. Sure, there was a bravura double-room of framed teddy images lining the walls ad infinitum. But where was the messiness, the overflowing into space? I wondered.

Any raising of the topic of decluttering seemed preposterous, like bringing up Strunk & White to Walt Whitman.

I found one such splendid mess, after I’d done my book, when I called on the English naturalist and author of harrowingly comic adventures, Redmond O’Hanlon, at Pelican House, his home outside Oxford. Pelican House was notorious for its clutter—deservedly, I found. Every dim half-yard of space and wall inside seemed either crammed with books and zoological booty, or covered with posters, mid-jungle photographs (O’Hanlon is a long-ardent photographer), postcards, art prints, bird illustrations, maps. A stuffed pelican in a glass case guarded the kitchen. A dark dead turtle paused (forever) on a crowded wall under a Botticelli signorina. I wondered if O’Hanlon’s style ever crossed over into just a crammed hoarder-like mush of stuff; yes, some rooms in the rear suggested so. But again this was his style—for me, Pelican House’s lode was a bit oppressive; but that was my taste, not O’Hanlon’s. Any raising of the topic of decluttering seemed preposterous, like bringing up Strunk & White to Walt Whitman. I did take the liberty of asking if I might peek into O’Hanlon’s famous “fetish room,” where he kept certain personally totemic objects, including the charred foot of a college friend who had burned himself alive (the foot is stored in a coffee jar). No no, not possible, the amiable mutton-chopped naturalist informed me. That area of possessions was for him alone.

Last October I visited Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), the house museum of Hemingway’s old home outside Havana for twenty years, which he and his fourth wife Mary effectively abandoned when they left Cuba in July 1960. You can see much of what Hemingway left behind, apart from some books and documents Mary retrieved in 1961 after his suicide, as you circle the heroically restored, airy, and pleasant premises, peering through the big open windows—you can’t go inside—at the 8,000 or so books, the dozen paintings by Picasso, Miro, and Klee, and (most striking as adornments) the mounted trophy heads of the many animals Hemingway slaughtered. The showstopper among these is a jutting, balefully horned, looming black head and neck of a Cape Buffalo. Supposedly the house looks just as it did when Hemingway lived here. Except not quite. Because the macho master of pared down prose was, we’ve learned, a packrat—a hoarder of paper items of every kind. A sentimental cluttered old coot was he, who hung on to Christmas cards, pamphlets, hunting licenses. George Plimpton, a guest in the fifties, said the cluttered bedroom where Hemingway did his writing indicated “an owner who is basically neat but cannot bear to throw anything away—especially if sentimental value is attached.” On her visit back in 1961, Mary Hemingway supervised a bonfire of his old Spanish bullfighting magazines by the wheelbarrowful, plus mountains of British, French, and American magazines and newspapers. “Ernest,” she wrote in her 1976 memoir, How It Was, “had stuffed to its brim almost every drawer of the Finca. . . .  His bedroom and study held piles and drawerfuls of papers.” This other, cluttered, “Hemingway style”—which included the scores of beloved cats roaming the premises—was a companion to the commonly celebrated literary “Hemingway style.”

As for Mary herself, she collected seashells by the “thousands.”

Not quite as many, though, as Ernest’s fellow Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda, down in Chile. His seashell collection, a true passion, ran to 9,000.