Literary Roommates

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I was sniffing around a rumor I’d heard about Saul Bellow and happened to come across this wonderful piece Bellow wrote about the time he and Ralph Ellison were roommates in a big old rambling mansion in upstate New York. To wit:

Ralph drove into Tivoli in his huge old Chrysler. He himself serviced it, coddled it, tuned it, and it ran as smoothly as it had when it came off the assembly line. The trunk, when it was opened, gave me my first hint of Ralph’s powers of organization. For hunting there were guns, there were decoy ducks; for fishing, rods, lures and a wicker-work creel; there were tools of every description. Ralph was able to repair radios and hi-fi equipment. I envied him his esoteric technical skills. Where I saw a frightening jumble of tubes, dials, condensers (I can’t even name the parts), he saw order. In my trunk I carried the spare wheel, the jack, a few rusty tire irons, rags and brown paper bags from the market. His trunk with its tools and weapons announced that he was prepared for any emergency, could meet every challenge to his autonomy.

Bellow gives the household’s daily routine, which began with carefully-brewed drip coffee and ended with strong martinis before dinner.

It all sounds very literary and elegant and far from my current low-ceilinged studio in Queens. I really think we in the modern era underrate the potential usefulness of literary communes in big, old, rambling, drafty houses in the middle of nowhere. Sort of like Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, but with more books and better food. And a reserve of big warm wooly socks and tea and a stockpile of everyone’s favorite variety of notebooks.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →