December 2013

Colleen Mondor


Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield

Earlier this year, a friend and I discussed the viability of a drinking game involving HGTV, where every mention of the words "granite countertops" or "double sinks" or "perfect for entertaining," would result in a shot. We figured it would only take a single thirty-minute episode of House Hunters to intoxicate the average person; if it was a showing of Property Virgins, the person wouldn't get through the first house. (As my friend put it, "No one ever talks about a room that's perfect for eating ice cream alone in front of the TV.")

Howard Mansfield has written several books that discuss different facets of history, architecture, and preservation, often with an eye toward his New England roots, including The Same Ax Twice, and Bones of the Earth. His most recent title, Dwelling in Possibility, is an exploration of the nature of home and more specifically, how we have distanced ourselves from the concept of dwelling. "We have shelter from the rain and snow and sun," he writes, "but our houses aren't sheltering our souls."

For a population of rabid HGTV watchers, Mansfield's conclusions about clutter, space, and useful design will be both familiar and reassuring (and often quite funny as well). But there is much more to this title then wryly noting our national designer addictions. Dwelling in Possibility exhorts readers to consider why building houses, as opposed to building homes, has become a national past time.

In three separate sections Mansfield considers "Dwelling in the Ordinary," "Dwelling in Destruction," and "Dwelling in Possibility." In the early chapters his witty sense of humor is on full display, most especially when considering the power of clutter to control our daily lives. It's hard not to laugh (and agree) when reading a rant like this one:

We have poured our concerns about clutter into almost every shape we know: self-help, recovery support groups (Messies Anonymous, Clutter Diet), meet-up groups, Let Go of Clutter Retreats, Feng Shui, vague Zen aspirations ("Do More With Less in Your Zen Bathroom"), decluttering online in the Second Life world, and television shows where you can watch people throw out junk. There's Clutter Awareness Week (the third week in March), a Clutter Hoarding Scale, newspaper stories ready to pronounce a national epidemic ("Stuff Robbed Dee Wallace of Love"), and a tsunami of books soon to be at a flea market near you. "I own several organizing books and this is my favorite," said one reader at Amazon. Another woman, who had surrendered to a professional organizer, confessed to squirreling away boxes of her favorite "decluttering" magazine articles.

Fair enough. Mansfield has us on our endless desire to remove stuff from our lives and our acute inability to apparently accomplish that without buying more stuff to "do it right." What the author does that is unexpected, however, is take all this humor about modern living and pivot in a wholly different direction in the book's stark second section. In these chapters, he writes of the twentieth-century cities, towns, and villages that have suffered "de-housing" through the tactics of war, and shows how our inherent yearning for home has all too often been used as way to destroy civilian populations.

Sadly, there are all too many examples of military destruction that Mansfield can point to, but as he takes readers on this grim historical tour he cannot resist teasing out the many complicated stories that linger behind the factual records. While recalling the infamous initial report of U.S. Marines torching huts in Vietnam as a way to punish the populace, he shares the powerful threats brought against reporter Morley Safer for revealing the dark side of the American occupation to the public.

In Vietnam, like everywhere else in Asia, property, a home, is everything. A man lives with his family on ancestral land. His parents are buried nearby. These spirits are part of his holdings," says Safer.

The images of the Zippo lighters setting fire to a grass roof while families huddled nearby was deemed so damaging to the war effort that the Pentagon tried to ruin Safer's reputation; President Johnson was certain Safer had bribed a Marine to set a fire.

"Burning down a house is a transgression," writes Mansfield, "It's an obvious sin..."

Through the bombings of London, Tokyo, and Hamburg, the author pores over the words of the men who ordered the attacks and those who dutifully followed through, while also considering their ultimate failure. The houses were destroyed, but the people, without exception, remained determined to rebuild, and no one surrendered because a city was lost. In the end he notes how house destruction became a policy that stubbornly held on in the face of all evidence, suggesting it was not a worthwhile use of money or men. "These things develop their own momentum," he writes. We bombed cities day in and day out simply because we kept getting better at hitting them.

It seems impossible that a title could include discussions of the significance of useful footpaths to a community, the allure of California Closets to cure what ails us, and also the profound despair left in the wake of Tokyo's burning. Yet Mansfield's light touch, whether engaged in humor or sympathy, never wavers from his intent to fully understand his overall subject. He is fascinated by what we need from a home and how confusing our relationship with that concept has become. As he always does, Mansfield quotes from all manner of writers, architects, and historians throughout the text, but mostly it is his own voice that shines through. As he writes of house hunting with his wife in the earliest pages, you can imagine him walking through countless doors, his curiosity endlessly piqued as he surveys the rooms around him. He can't stop looking; he can't stop noticing:

Houses that smell of feet, or vaguely like diapers, even though the children are in high school.

Houses that are worn and comfortable, like an old fielder's mitt, like the sweatshirt and jeans the commuting executive wears on Saturdays.

Houses that are walled in with photos of children, grandchildren, nieces, and grandnieces. The walls of diplomas like battle ribbons.

Houses in which nothing has happened, and that seems terrible...where boredom sticks to the walls, yellows the walls like grease from ten thousand meals.

Howard Mansfield has seen it all, stood there, collected his thoughts, and now shares his conclusions. In elegant, careful prose he ushers readers far beyond the peeks we are accustomed to having through our television shows and shelter magazines. This is an author who is endlessly patient while pursuing his subjects, and delightfully capable of sharing his journeys with the rest of us. As a cultural historian, there can be few more determined to understand the modern human condition. Dwelling in Possibility is thus quite extraordinary in its quiet message about how we live, and certainly a triumph for this brilliant author.

Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield
ISBN: 978-0872331679
240 pages