It’s on the House
“It takes a heap of living to make a house a home” is probably the best-remembered line of Edgar Guest – even though – as I’ve often found when my own work is (mis-) quoted – that isn’t exactly what he wrote. The public has an ability to improve upon things it likes, often by shortening them. My best-known epigram, the title of my first book, was copyrighted as “I May Not Be Totally Perfect, But Parts of Me Are Excellent.” But the public didn’t see the need for that “Totally,” and often left it out. And who am I to quarrel with the public?
There are people who earn their livings as critics and reviewers of other people’s work. This may in part be another case of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, criticize.” But the fact is that even the most gifted creative artists can often benefit from the opinions of other people. Some such artists have married their admirers. The cases of Robert Browning and John Steinbeck come to mind. The acquired spouse may then serve as editor and proof-reader, or (as in my own case) financial manager. My late wife was one of the few people I’ve ever known – in fact, the only one – who actually enjoyed all the paperwork involved in paying taxes.
But, getting back to that “heap of living” – in 1953, Polly Adler published a book called A House is Not a Home. It was about her career as a “Madam,” which of course made the “House” in the title into a House of Prostitution. Edgar Guest, we may surmise, had no such double entendre in mind in his own versified homily – even though the patrons of Polly Adler’s New York establishments were often (no doubt by pure coincidence) referred to as “Guests.”
Of course, other writers have had their own ideas about their preferred houses, and the locations thereof. In 1893, a New Hampshire poet named Sam Walter Foss wrote what became one of the most popular poems of its time. Contrasting himself with those who might choose to live far away from the jostle of their fellow creatures, Foss declared,
Let me live in a house by the side of a road, and be a friend to man.
I must admit that even as a child, when I first heard these sentiments expressed, something about them did not ring true. Why would anyone want to live by the side of a road, with all the traffic rushing by? Of course, mine was a different generation, with roadside noise becoming one of the great plagues of urban life. Today, I need hardly tell you, it is far worse, to the extent that people living in houses beside freeways petition for special walls to diminish the decibels to which, day and night, they are exposed.
Be that as it may, I missed all the metaphorical significance of being “a friend to man.” Today, if you truly want to be a friend to man, you won’t sit in your roadside house, waiting for people in need to come along, but will go out and join some group devoted to the interests of the indigent, or the infirm, or to the welfare of animals, woodlands, or wilderness.
In any case, the modern house has become, in the perhaps unintentionally prophetic words of the great French architectural pioneer, Le Corbusier, “a machine for living in.” If he were writing today, he might wish to substitute the word “computer” for “machine.” With so many of us spending so much less time in our houses, and, even when “in residence” communing so frequently, through various wired and unwired devices with others near and far, we may fairly be said to live on a road which runs through our house.
And where do igloos and wigwams, grass shacks and sampans, log cabins and tin-roofed shanties, fit into the grand scheme of housing as we have seen it develop on our planet? The one most common feature seems to be shelter – protection from the elements, from intruders and other malevolent forces. In Sam Foss’s neighborhood, it was shelter from loneliness. In Edgar Guest’s domicile, it was not the structure that mattered, but everything that happened within it over time.
But, when you come right down to it, Polly Adler had the right idea: a house is not a home until you can get the police to leave you alone – and if possible, become your clients.