Edward Gorey: A Highly Conjectural Man

When asked if there was “anything people don’t understand” about him, Gorey responded: “Yes. No. Yes. No.” A new biography by Mark Dery attempts to sort myth from reality.

Bridey Heing | Longreads | January 2019 | 8 minutes (2,151 words)

 

Edward Gorey’s small illustrated books, many of which are collected in his Amphigorey anthologies, are seemingly quite simple and often morbid. Children are befallen by terrible fates. Parents disappear and reappear too late. Danger lurks nearby, as dusk makes its way across the moors. All of this sinister mischief is told in black and white pen-and-ink drawings, with occasional color highlights thrown in (which somehow only serve to make the image more dreary and doom-laden). The characters differ little in appearance, and the prose — when there is any — is often a few rhyming lines near the bottom of the page. Looking closer, one can see the intricacy of the cross-hatching, the careful etching-like strokes that, alongside Gorey’s fragile humor, underpin the darkness.

Edward Gorey, like his art, was at once mercurial and precise. His interests, hobbies, dislikes, and habits are well documented, from his late-in-life love for TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer,to his devotion to George Balanchine’s work with the New York City Ballet, to his undying love for the cats with which he lived. His physical appearance — over six feet tall, with close-cropped hair and a long beard, draped in a huge fur coat, with rings on multiple fingers and scuffed up white sneakers on his feet — is as much part of the lore of Gorey’s work as the nonsensical creatures who populate his illustrations.

His longtime collaborator, Peter Neumeyer, described the ‘real’ Gorey as ‘highly conjectural.’

These facts about Gorey capture the eccentricity that defined him and the humor and wit that delighted those around him, but not the fundamental mysteriousness of his life. Gorey is in many ways unknownable, or at least unknown; he rarely spoke of himself in a meaningful way, and his friends have described him as someone who always seemed to keep something held back. A common sentiment among those who knew him, such as Maurice Sendak, was that they never felt they were his closest friends. His longtime collaborator, Peter Neumeyer, described the “real” Gorey as “highly conjectural” despite the numerous personal letters the two exchanged. He was famous for his faux-refusals to give interviews, replying to requests with “On pain of death,” or “Absolutely not,” before  agreeing to grant the interview in the end. When he did, he was often hesitant to talk about himself or his work at length beyond discussing his varied interests. Tobi Tobias ends a 1974 Dance Magazine profile by noting, “I am trying to reconcile this charming man’s obvious achievement in his strange, brilliant work with the odd passivity of this dreamer-Gorey.” He could be taciturn; a transcript of his 1977 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, published in Karen Wilkins’ interview collection Ascending Peculiarity, shows him at his most closed off, resisting Cavett’s efforts to bring him out of his shell with questions and jokes. Much like Gorey’s illustrations and stories, there are too many gaps in the narrative to make complete sense.

Filling in those gaps is what Mark Dery seeks to do in his biography Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey. Dery casts a wide net, pulling in scholarship and popular culture in a way that challenges dominant conceptions of Gorey, including those the man himself put out in the world. Gorey is here framed as part of a generation that redefined culture on numerous fronts, with Gorey himself taking part in that revolution. After all, this was someone who roomed with Frank O’Hara and watched old movies with Susan Sontag. Drawing on ideas of masculinity, fin-de-siecle representations of queerness, Surrealism and nonsense verse, the evolution of children’s literature, post-World War II cultural upheaval, and aesthetics, Dery makes a compelling case that Gorey should be thought of not as an isolated genius — despite the undertone of isolation that defined, in some ways, his personal life — but as one of our modern culture’s foundational figures.

Gorey’s career spanned from the 1950s to 2000, when he passed away from a heart attack. Beginning with book jackets for paperbacks and moving on to publishing his own work, Gorey carved out a space for himself as the foremost craftsman of literature that doubles as momento mori. Taking a deadpan tone, many of his short stories hinge on minimalist prose and illustrations that hint at doom to come. His most famous work, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, is one of several abecedaria that explore the dark corners of Gorey’s imagination; it features twenty-six children coming to untimely ends in various, sometimes absurd ways. Basil, who looks over his shoulder wearily, is eaten by a bear. Neville, who peeks over the edge of a windowsill, is done in by ennui. The West Wing, one of his books without text, is menacing without being specific about its lurking threats. Each illustration is haunted by a feeling of otherworldly unrest, even though nothing truly happens and there is no seemingly linear plot. It captures, in a sense, how Gorey described life: “…intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any moment the floor may open up. Of course it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.”

Gorey described the facts of his life as “tedious” to one would-be interviewer according to Dery, with a bit of the self-deprecating waving-off of inquiries that is shown throughout the book to be Gorey’s typical response to those who would pry. But for those among us who are titillated by the tedious, what Dery relates is the following: Edward St. John Gorey was born in Chicago in 1925, and spent his youth jumping between homes there and in Florida, where he was sometimes sent to live with family. When Gorey was young, his parents divorced, and his father was briefly married to Corinna Mura, an actress and musician who had a role in Casablanca. It was when he was young that Gorey’s interests began accumulating; as a child he read with staggering breadth, and as a teenager became infatuated with ballet. His parents, including his largely absent father, were and would remain throughout their lives some of his greatest encouragers, never stifling the growing eccentricity of their son and speaking well of his work even if they didn’t quite get it.

After all, this was someone who roomed with Frank O’Hara and watched old movies with Susan Sontag… Dery makes a compelling case that Gorey should not be thought of as an isolated genius.

At thirteen, having skipped a few grades, Gorey enrolled in ninth grade at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, where he was taught by Malcolm Hackett, the first teacher to take an interest in his budding artistic passion. Hackett would be the first of many people who championed Gorey, who at Parker worked on murals and artist projects for the school paper. It’s with Hackett that we begin to see a defining element of Gorey’s career: the willingness of others to embrace Gorey’s weirdo style. Although Dery doesn’t draw attention to it, many of the turns of Gorey’s life and career are based on his ability to forge relationships with people who genuinely wish to see him and his vision succeed. As he entered adulthood — graduating from high school, serving in a clerical role in World War II, studying at Harvard, and beginning his career in illustration — there always seemed to be someone who got it, who understood his genius and appreciated it. And a good thing, too, because while he was prolific and adventurous in the projects he took on, he described himself as lacking in ambition; it’s hard to say how Gorey would have fared without the support of others, such as the Gotham Book Mart, a Manhattan bookstore that was the first to carry his books and later helped publish his Amphigorey anthologies, which collected his standalone books (by that time already collector’s items) into a more affordable format. Editors, bookstore owners, publishers, friends, directors, producers — Gorey’s life is littered with those who created opportunities for him.

Equally illuminating is the sense of celebrity Dery evokes when writing about Gorey’s rise to fame in the 1970s. Part of the magic of Edward Gorey is that his work is still so unique that, when you come across a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies for the very first time, it’s impossible not to feel as if you’ve discovered something entirely new. But as Dery makes clear, Gorey was unfathomably popular, particularly in New York. The breadth of the projects he was involved in, from creating merchandise to set designs to television show openings to window displays to a rumored fashion collaboration to his own prolific body of literary work, is simply dizzying. He even found time to write movie reviews for a while, one of which referred to Al Pacino as “the name of a local hole in space.” In 1978, he won a Tony for his costume design in Dracula; he didn’t attend the ceremony, telling interviewers later that he was likely at a movie that night. Dery makes the case that Gorey was less a man out of time than a man of his time — that the socially permissive, post-Boomer upheaval of the 1970s was, incredibly, the perfect moment for Gorey’s style of deadpan Victorian-Surrealist meditation on life’s absurd futility.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


In his drive to get at something like a complete picture, Dery makes an attempt at understanding Gorey’s sexuality, mainly by drawing on his correspondence as well as the impressions of friends, which can at times feel uncomfortable given Gorey’s own lack of willingness to speak publicly about it. When asked outright in a 1980 interview what his “sexual preferences” were, Gorey responded, “Well, I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly…I never said that I was gay and I’ve never said that I wasn’t.” However, Dery’s exploration of queer themes and imagery in Gorey’s work is interesting, and throws a light on the intricate ways Gorey would craft not just his illustrations but also the references in his prose. Dery addresses Gorey’s influences, including Oscar Wilde and Ivy Compton-Burnett, and the ways in which the pseudo Victorian and Edwardian worlds Gorey created juxtaposed interestingly against other facets of LGBT culture in the mid-and-late 20th century. Ronald Firbank, an Edwardian satirist, was an early influence on Gorey, shaping his voice as well as “his habit of taking serious subjects frivolously and frivolous matters seriously” and “carefully cultivated ennui”; yet Dery points out that Firbank’s camp style was part of a larger literary language that communicated gay subtexts in the mid-twentieth century. Dery argues that Gorey’s place as a queer artist and writer is often obscured in mainstream discussions of his work. As Dery says of Thomas Garvey’s essay “Edward Gorey and the Glass Closet: A Moral Fable,” the “point is that the gay imagery in Gorey’s work, and the gay sensibility encoded in his ironic wit, his flamboyant style, and his pantheon of canonically gay tastes…urge us to consider his art and life in relation to gay culture.”

Even if he was hesitant to talk at length about what his books were, Gorey certainly made clear what he felt they were not. He resisted categorizing his work as macabre or gothic, despite the best efforts of others to label it as such; “I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s not that,” he told one interviewer in 1977. He rejected the idea that his work and Charles Addams’ The Addams Family were of a kind, instead seeing them as entirely unique from one another. Ascending Peculiarity paints a fascinating picture of how the world wanted to and still wants to see Edward Gorey; interviewers refer to him in the third person, try to dredge out hidden secrets that would explain the darker edges of his stories, and seem unable to handle his love of pop culture. When questioned on whether or not his books are a reflection of reality or fantasy, he responded, “No one ever lets me explain what I mean about the reality of my books! Everyone always thinks, ‘Isn’t that amusing that this is his idea of reality!’” Dery, in his attempt to get at that reality, travels to meet Gorey where he was most comfortable: out of the limelight, mysteriously half-present, observing from the edges — the place he is most commonly to be found in his own illustrations. Skeptical of the way he and his work were seen but hesitant to go into detail himself, Gorey left gaps that allowed for his life and work to be conflated in ways that obscured the real man behind the myth. He was not Victorian, or British, or, as Dick Cavett insistently asked, lured into alleys as a child. When asked in 1980 if there was “anything people don’t understand” about him, Gorey responded in typical fashion, “Yes. No. Yes. No.”

* * *

Bridey Heing is a writer focusing on world literature and culture. She is an editorial adviser at The London Magazine and a contributing editor at World Literature Today. She has written for web and print publications in the US and the UK, including The Washington PostPacific StandardThe Daily BeastThe EconomistThe Times Literary Supplement, and Bust.

Editor: Dana Snitzky