When Edward Gorey started publishing his strange little books in the 1950s, booksellers didn’t quite know what to do with them. Superficially they looked like children’s books, but the dark subject matter and impenetrable plots didn’t seem intended for children. Nor was humor the books’ primary purpose, though they were often funny. So they typically ended up by the cash register, unclassifiable impulse buys.
Reading Mark Dery’s new Gorey biography Born to be Posthumous, we realize that the cultural history of the 20th century hasn’t really known what to do with Gorey either. He was so singular, there was no movement he could be clearly grouped with. The world he wove, in exhaustive strokes of black ink, was both deliberately dated and deliberately ambiguous.
While many of us have bumped up against Gorey, there aren’t a lot of paths leading directly to him — or away, since the artists Dery cites as Gorey’s biggest debtors (Tim Burton and Daniel Handler) create work that functions in very different ways, for much larger audiences.
Prior to cracking the book, I realized, I didn’t even have any concept of what Edward Gorey must have been like in person. I certainly wasn’t expecting the spectacle Dery describes from his 1983 bookstore encounter with the artist.
I was running down a book for a customer when a tall man with a beard worthy of Walt Whitman swept down the aisle. He was chattering away in a stage voice of almost self-parodic campiness, and his costume was equally outlandish, a traffic-stopping getup of Keds, rings on each finger, and clanking amulets, topped off with a floor-length fur coat dyed the radioactive yellow of Easter Peeps.
Gorey, who spent a lifetime exploring the aesthetics of Victorian and Edwardian England, was from Chicago. He never even visited England, unless you count a layover at Heathrow.
He’s long overdue for a full biography, and Dery’s book has been receiving plenty of due attention from the kinds of literary corners where Gorey was revered. Dery points out that a large proportion of Gorey’s sales have been at college bookstores, and undergraduates — with their taste for subversive erudition, lacking only something to do with it — may remain his most natural audience.
His own gifts and persona came into flower at Harvard, to which he demonstrated lifelong loyalty by wearing school scarves and inserting them into his books. Graduating in 1950, he soon settled in Manhattan, where he made a name designing and illustrating paperback books for Anchor.
It was not the most prestigious corner of the publishing industry — the idea that a soft cover could be a venue for serious literature was still novel — but as Dery notes, paperback books would become a cornerstone of popular culture for the second half of the century, and to this day there may be no more instantly recognizable paperback illustrator than Gorey.
Dery devotes welcome attention to this aspect of his career, and to the hidden-in-plain-sight queerness of Gorey’s work. As a biographer, Dery is acutely aware that his greatest challenge is addressing his subject’s sexuality. Gorey resisted any attempt to classify his sexual orientation, but as Dery points out, all his crushes were on men.
They were almost only ever crushes, because Edward Gorey seems to have died a virgin. He alluded to one or two episodes of physical intimacy that seemingly didn’t go too far, affecting utter boredom with the subject. He lived alone for his entire adult life, and never partnered. (There were a couple of intellectual soulmates who Gorey seems to have regarded as more than that, but not much more in any conventional sense of that concept.)
It may be that Gorey felt repressed — not uncommon for queer people of his generation — but Dery also acknowledges that Gorey may have been asexual, an orientation that’s only now starting to gain widespread recognition. It is possible to be a healthy human being, attracted to men or women or both, who simply does not desire sex. That’s essentially what Gorey said about himself. What exactly lay behind that, we’ll never know, but Dery is properly cautious of assuming it’s pathological.
The lack of romantic connections did free up lots of time, and Gorey used it. He produced around 100 books, most of them in a picture-book format that he wrote, illustrated, and designed. Starting in the early ’70s, his boutique books found far wider readership through four Amphigorey anthologies and through products like posters and mugs.
People under 40 may know Gorey simply as “the guy who drew dying children.” Children were indeed put in peril throughout his bibliography, but what people are most likely thinking of is The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a 1963 abecedarium (Gorey loved that word, and so does Dery) of rhyming couplets that dryly list ways in which 26 children meet their ends, with causes ranging from ennui to being “run through with an awl.”
Morbid, yes, but delightfully so. Gorey’s delight in offing these kids seemed to derive less from any childhood trauma of his own — although his childhood certainly wasn’t as unremarkable as he liked to say it was — than from a desire to lampoon Victorian morality plays.
Dery is also articulate in his explanation for why a book like Gashlycrumb comes across as only mildly scandalous, rather than truly tragic or deeply disturbing. A modernist taken with the absurd, Gorey saw associations (Olive, for example, with an awl) as ends in themselves. His characters don’t have inner lives, or histories: we see them in a single moment, or at best a succession of often disconnected moments. Olive, we hardly knew ye.
Gorey’s first creative products were plays, and in his final years he threw himself back into the theater, producing quirky community productions on Cape Cod, where he permanently relocated after George Balanchine died and there was no reason left to hang around in the city. (For a decade and a half, he saw virtually every performance by the New York City Ballet.)
His work never functioned as conventional narrative, though, which was precisely as he intended but kept his characters from being popularized like the Addams Family. Gorey and Charles Addams knew and liked each other, Dery notes, but neither cared to be lumped in with the other’s work. Dery’s own preference, of course, is clear: he finds Addams a little too ba-dum-dum compared to the deliberately inscrutable Gorey.
Gorey died in 2000 at age 75, having gone quickly and painlessly like he hoped. (Don’t we all?) Dery’s biography will go a long way towards properly shelving Gorey in the pantheon, but it’s also gratifyingly hesitant to peg its subject as any one thing. Individual, uncategorizable, unforgettable: not a bad epitaph, but Gorey also wrote his own.
The artist doesn’t have a tombstone (Dery explains why), but if he did, he said he’d want the inscription to read, “Oh, the of it all.” What does that even mean? Exactly.