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Pursuing the essence of dwelling and ‘the soul of shelter’

Home life


How do we dwell, in the fullest sense of the word, in our homes? What does the freestanding house, which Americans have elevated to near-sacred status, mean to us? The literature on this subject goes back a long way, but it’s been booming of late.

A growing shelf of books try to explain the central role that housing played in the recent near-collapse of the economy: "The Great Housing Bubble," "The Great American Housing Bubble," "The Housing Boom and Bust," "Behind the Housing Crash," "Subprime Nation," "The Big Short," "Plunder and Blunder," and many more.

Another body of work plumbs our cultural, rather than financial, investment in our homes. A powerful recent book of this kind is "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century," a handsome anthropological study of 32 middle-class households in Southern California by Jeanne E. Arnold and three coauthors. In the accompanying photographs, an avalanche of clothes, toys, gadgets, and processed food overspills storage areas and colonizes floor and wall space, squeezing family life into the centers of rooms and into the margins of an overstuffed, overscheduled existence.


This literature now also has a wholly original meditation, sui generis but deeply indebted to Emerson and Thoreau, to put the other works in perspective: Howard Mansfield's "Dwelling in Possibility." Mansfield pursues the essence of dwelling and "the soul of shelter" in a book-length essay that's part observation of the contemporary built environment, part cultural history, part philosophical account, and at times something like a Whitmanian poetic survey.

Mansfield begins with his own hunt for a house to buy, then an ice storm and a power failure, and from there, having gotten the scent of his prey, he follows it all over the place. The search takes him to topics ranging from the Age of Clutter to house-makeover shows to the tenacity of our attachment to a home even when it no longer provides shelter, revealed by a post-Katrina visit to the Gulf Coast and a fascinating extended account of people's responses to systematic "dehousing" by strategic bombing during World War II.

Also, as both house hunter and census taker, Mansfield takes the measure of other people's dwellings: "Houses that smell of feet, or vaguely like diapers, even though the children are in high school" and "Houses that spill out toys and bikes and cars and tools and projects, sometimes right to the line of their neighbor's land" and "Houses where everything seems to be right. Husband loves wife, cat loves dog, tree loves house, house loves view."


There's also a celebration of that noble New England architectural form, the shed. For Mansfield, who lives in New Hampshire, almost everything's a shed: houses, barns, churches, workplaces, ice-fishing shelters, covered bridges, the A-frame, the Quonset hut, a whole landscape of commonplace forms that add up to what he calls "the exalted ordinary."

But the book, for all its upholding of tradition and skepticism about our current habits of life, is not a jeremiad. "I don't want to be the Judge Judy of houses," the author told me in a recent phone conversation. Nor is Mansfield antimodern, as he demonstrates in his eye-opening account of Frank Lloyd Wright's Zimmerman House in Manchester, N.H. The owners, who felt as if they were privileged to live in a great work of art, loved the place. But others assumed they were miserable. Americans, whose idea of dwelling features a lot of forward and upward momentum, don't trust a house that's entirely finished, improvement-proof, a done deal precluding expansion.

"Dwelling in Possibility" invites the reader to break that momentum for a moment to consider how we dwell in our homes. As Mansfield put it to me, "I'm mostly asking the reader to exhale, live a little deliberately, take a little time and step back and think." There's a clutter-clearing quality to his thinking as he sorts through a tangle of impulses associated with our homes — to accumulate goods, trade up, display status, and otherwise pursue what he described to me as "domestic manifest destiny." It was that tangle of impulses, in fact, that made American homeowners especially vulnerable to the bad deals and skulduggery that pumped up the housing bubble and brought on the resulting crisis.


Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is "Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.''