U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Some Thoughts about Creepy Stuff that Happens in Empty Houses

More than a few people have noticed that historians tend to write alone. A philosopher friend of mine recently pitched the idea that we write something together somewhere down the line. That sounded like a great idea, but it got me thinking some about the phenomenon of writing alone in an empty house. I mean, we wouldn’t actually write together, right? I generally don’t like writing in my office, so I find myself hauling books now and again from there to home. I don’t want to be interrupted, of course, but there’s something charming about knowing that no one else can see you writing. I sometimes imagine being surveilled while writing alone at home, but the imagining stops once I realize that anyone watching would be pretty disappointed for having peeked in.

There’s a sense of ownership of the space. Between bouts of writing at home, I can do pretty much whatever I want within reason, yet I tend to act as if someone were watching anyway. The work at home has a kind of ethical pull, not dissimilar from that moment early in The Republic when Socrates and his friends talk about Gyges ring, which allows the wearer to be invisible at will. They wonder if a person would be just if others could not see them. Writing always happens for most of us when others can’t see what we’re doing. This is probably why many of us talk about how, when, and where we write. It’s also why I suspect many of us would like to know where our favorite thinkers did their writing. It’s a perfectly acceptable, boring version of voyeurism. I want to imagine what it looked like when they made those words!

This got me to thinking about people in empty houses, say, James Agee’s weird, pretty much erotic obsession with the Gudger house in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but especially one piece of writing, Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner” (1908).[1] James describes a character, Spencer Brydon, who returns, after an extended absence abroad, to his childhood home in New York. He owns the house and has kept it vacant and unfurnished. It’s the story of encountering a self that might have been in an empty house full of memories.

Hunting the Self-That-Might-Have-Been


Every so often, I teach an intellectual history course called “The U.S. Viewed from Abroad,” which is a kind of survey of what mostly European thinkers have thought about the U.S. (Among others, Tocqueville, Dickens, Marx, Bryce, James, Max Weber, de Beauvoir, Arendt, Adorno, etc.) This year, I plan to pair “The Jolly Corner” with James’ chapter “New York Revisited” from his travelogue The American Scene (1907). That book was James’s impressionistic account of his return to the U.S. in 1905 after having been in Europe for over two decades. (He had last visited in 1882-1883, but even by then was living permanently in Europe.) “The Jolly Corner” forms a really nice companion piece to James’ more forthright thoughts in The American Scene. In Scene, he was horrified by the architecture in New York, especially skyscrapers; the crush of immigrants offended him, but on the whole what Weber called the “immense cosmos” of modern industrial capitalism disgusted him most: its tastelessness, its disregard for the past, all of those kinds of things.

In the beginning of “Jolly Corner,” Spencer Brydon talks with his friend Alice Staverton (she who largely staves off the pecuniary avalanche around her) about his properties in New York. He owns two of them, one is crumbling but sits on a desirable spot, and other is his childhood home. (James’ actual childhood home in New York was gone when he returned in 1905, which he lamented with some subtlety in the American Scene. It’s easy to miss. The story served as something of a fictional replacement for that loss.)

Brydon funds his life in Europe off the rent from the two properties. The other one, “not quite so ‘good’” he has decided to completely renovate, and he supervises the building of a “tall mass of flats” (266).

Brydon is more than a little disturbed by the process. A kind of gentrifier avant le lettre, “he scarce knew what to make of this lively stir, in a compartment of his mind never yet penetrated, of a capacity for business, and a sense for construction”(267). This feeling leads him to explore ever deeper a gnawing impulse that eventually becomes an obsession. What would he have been like had he stayed in America? The story gets even more interesting once Brydon, with a slight push from Alice, comes to think that this person-who-might-have-been is actually hiding somewhere in his now long vacant childhood home, in that place where certain family members had lived and died.

Mrs. Muldoon, an Irish housekeeper in his employ, keeps the place up for him. She only sweeps up and tends to the house during the day. She tells Alice that she won’t come over at night because who knows what she might see, “craping up to thim top storeys in the ayvil hours.” Brydon becomes obsessed with this possible other self, and so he does just that, visiting the house at night: “He had begun some time since to ‘crape’” (270). So he creeps and he’s kind of a creep. He hunts this other self like great game until he ultimately confronts it. Along the way he makes tests for himself by walking further and further away from his light, hanging around in shadows hoping to catch his other self unawares, stalking it. David L. Sweet, in the introduction to my copy, describes Brydon’s creeping about as having “an almost masturbatory aura” (xxiii). This is a fair assessment.

The kicks in the story come in the lead-up to Brydon’s direct encounter with his self-that-might-have-been. The arrangement of the space brings it on. Being older construction, some rooms in the house can only be accessed through doors from other rooms. Brydon notes that modern construction tends more toward opening of spaces. The charm of the place, its being out of date, ratchets up the suspense. Upstairs, we find out, “The door between the rooms was open, and from the second another door opened to a third. These rooms as he remembered, gave all three upon a common corridor as well, but there was a fourth, beyond them, without issue save through the preceding” (283-4).

He had been walking around in those rooms on the climactic evening like he had for many nights, but now turning back, he notices that the fourth door was now closed. Brydon was sure that he had left it open. Someone else must have closed it. What should he do? He knows for certain that he left it open. It had been an intentional practice of his to leave that door open during his creeping around at night. He had always been mindful, because he’s a kinky dude like that. Should he open the door to be certain or not? He now feels sure that the self-that-might-have-been is there with him. It’s worth quoting James at length here:

It [the door] stared, it glared back at him with that challenge; it put to him the two alternatives: should he just push it open or not?  Oh to have this consciousness was to think—and to think, Brydon knew, as he stood there, was, with the lapsing moments, not to have acted!  Not to have acted—that was the misery and the pang—was even still not to act; was in fact all to feel the thing in another, in a new and terrible way.  How long did he pause and how long did he debate?  There was presently nothing to measure it; for his vibration had already changed—as just by the effect of its intensity.  Shut up there, at bay, defiant, and with the prodigy of the thing palpably proveably done, thus giving notice like some stark signboard—under that accession of accent the situation itself had turned; and Brydon at last remarkably made up his mind on what it had turned to. (285)

The tenses here are typically mind-bending late James stuff. “To think, Brydon knew, as he stood there, was, with the lapsing moments, not to have acted!” The narrator confuses things a little by setting Spencer Brydon in the past, describing in some phenomenological detail Brydon’s feeling of present consciousness “with the lapsing moments,” as Brydon considers—thinks about—the decision to open the door or not, which is expressed in some weird perfect active infinitive, “was…not to have acted.” James’ italics–“to think”—suggest that “to think” means thinking itself, that to have this particular consciousness of some other possible self being present, distills thinking, which is “not to have acted.” “Not to have acted,” by virtue of being in the perfect tense, let us know that the action—or rather non-action—is already completed. As Brydon ponders whether or not to open the door, he knows that by thinking about it in the first place, he has already not acted because “the thing is palpably proveably done.”

He ultimately doesn’t need to act because he comes to know that his other self is there. He feels it after all: “it was in fact all to feel the thing in another, new and terrible way.” This is what it means to think in this case. He doesn’t make up his mind on what to do just then, rather “he made up his mind on what it [this state of consciousness] had turned to.”

His only choice at that point involves whether he wants to see the self-that-might-have-been. He can’t do it. He doesn’t open the door. He instead creeps up to next to the door knowing that he won’t touch it: “he would only just wait there a little, to show, to prove, that he wouldn’t” (286).

This is one of the kinkiest ghost stories ever. I like to think of Brydon crouched next to the door, panting. Time accelerates for Brydon: “He looked again at his watch, saw what had become of his time-values (he had taken hours for minutes—not, as in other tense situations, minutes for hours)” (287) Time sure flies when you’re having fun with your other self-that-might-have-been.

The fact that Brydon books it down the stairs only to come upon the specter of the self-that-might-have-been in the vestibule of the house is anticlimactic in the story, even despite the fact that Brydon passes out as the figure approaches. The guy that Brydon sees covers his face with his hands. One of the hands is missing two fingers, “stumps, as if accidentally shot away[.]” When the specter removes the hands Brydon sees a monstrous thing, “evil, odious, blatant, vulgar” (291). It was a stranger to him. The description of it returns the reader to James and Brydon’s dismay at the crass materialism that now dominated New York. The other self was a bill of goods that he had been “sold.” So much for his enjoyment in the gentrification game:

 He had been ‘sold’ he inwardly moaned, stalking such game as this: the presence before him was a presence, the horror within him a horror, but the waste of his nights had been only grotesque and the success of his adventure an irony. Such an identity fitted his at no point, made its alternative monstrous. A thousand times yes, as it came upon him nearer now—the face was the face of a stranger. (291)

We might question whether or not Brydon actually saw the self-that-might-have-been had Henry James not brought Alice Staverton back into the story to confirm it. Brydon wakes up with his head in her lap. They talk about what happened. We know already from earlier in the story that Alice had seen Brydon’s other self in dreams. This time around she had seen the other self simultaneously with Brydon’s experiences of that evening, all the way down to the missing digits on the hand.

What does this have to do with writing alone in an empty house? Not much really, but the mind wanders into these weird corridors sometimes. There is the persistent thread of thinking “how the hell did I end up here doing this?” Or more recently, “who is the writing self that might have been had I not taken up so much teaching?” At the very least, writing in an empty house sure beats real estate.

[1] Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, and Two Stories (Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003). Succeeding references in parentheses.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As usual, love these random posts of yours, Pete!

    It struck me how much you took it for granted that the vast majority of historians write alone in their home. So, is it really weird that I usually do not write at home? I usually write in a cafe filled with strangers. I find it’s too easy to get distracted at home, and only write there at night when all cafes are closed. I know at least a few colleagues who are the same, but I wouldn’t say it’s common enough to be a generational difference. Then again, I prefer not to go to said cafe with someone I know if I plan to get a lot of (importantish) writing done. So in that sense I am still alone, so, maybe not so different?

    • Thanks Robin. Good point. I guess I did take it for granted. I think it must depend upon the community that you’re a part of too, if there’s a cafe culture, that kind of thing. The biggest difference might be the feeling in an empty house that others can’t see what you’re doing. Yet, as you say, you’re alone with your thoughts in a cafe, so there’s something hidden there too that makes the experience private in its way, a self-awareness that may be even more intense with others around. So, if I’m alone in an empty house, I’m aware of others not being there. If I’m alone with my thoughts in a cafe I’m intermittently aware of the presence of others. Hell, I may try it to see how it works out.

  2. Peter, I very much enjoyed this detailed excursion into “The Jolly Corner,” a story I love for many reasons, not least of which is the reason you mention: “who is the writing self that might have been had I not taken up so much teaching?” I dare not peek at what lies on the other side of that door.

    You may know this already, but this concern for the physical spaces of writing has been explored in some detail in Diana Fuss’s short book, _The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them_ (on Dickinson, Freud, Keller, Proust).


    • Patrick, Thanks so much. I didn’t know about that book, but now I plan to read it. And like you and Spencer Brydon, I dare not peek either.

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