A New Biography Takes on Edward Gorey, a Stubborn Enigma and Master of the Comic Macabre
Posted November 28, 2018 5:13 p.m. EST
Writers are supposed to have a hard time killing their darlings, but there are a few who apparently thrill to the task. In “Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey,” cultural critic Mark Dery explains how Gorey was always looking to pare things down. Right up until his death from a heart attack in 2000, at 75, he was relentlessly productive — staging plays, producing puppet shows, illustrating books and publishing a hundred or so little volumes of drawings paired with arch, taciturn texts — while taking care to keep it all “very brief,” as Gorey put it, in pursuit of what Dery calls “an almost haiku-like narrative compression.”
But it was by murdering other kinds of darlings on the page that Gorey earned his reputation for the comic macabre. Poisoned husbands, heartbroken suicides, gaunt innocents so consumed by illness that they wander into the street and get run over by a car: Gorey depicted their grisly deaths, and often their hollow-eyed ghosts, in meticulously crosshatched tableaux that resembled Victorian engravings. He even created an alphabet book, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” that dispatched 26 wee ones with matter-of-fact equanimity. (“I is for Ida who drowned in a lake / J is for James who took lye by mistake.”) Dead children became such a Gorey signature that The New Yorker asked him why so many of his victims were young, to which Gorey replied: “It’s just so obvious. They’re the easiest targets.”
Gorey, however, isn’t the easiest target for a biographer, as Dery himself admits. Part of this has to do with what seems to be the enormous gap — or the yawning crevasse, to put it in high-flown Goreyland terms — between art and artist. Even some of Gorey’s most ardent fans assumed he had to be British and long deceased. Such intricate, gothic scenes were supposed to unfurl from the pen of a wan, wraithlike neurasthenic holed up in a garret — not some towering Midwesterner partial to floor-length fur coats and busy days attending the New York City Ballet. There’s only so much biographical material Dery can wrest from the work.
And the outsize persona was in some ways a red herring. Other than his memorable attire and committed balletomania, Gorey’s life was, as Dery says, “disappointingly normal.” A cousin recalled that a typical Gorey evening involved “watching ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ with a bunch of cats hanging on his shoulders and maybe reading a book at the same time or doing a crossword puzzle.” Gorey, who lived alone, insisted on routines, saying he would “go to pieces” without them; every day for breakfast and lunch he went to Jack’s Outback, a Cape Cod restaurant close to his house, and unvaryingly ordered some combination of two eggs, white toast and a fruit cup.
Faced with so much ordinariness, Dery does his best, which proves to be more than enough. “Born to Be Posthumous” is an entertaining account of an artist who liked to be coy with anybody who dared to write about him. “Part of me is genuinely eccentric,” Gorey once said. “Part of me is a bit of a put-on.”
At least the melodramatic name was real. Edward St. John Gorey was born in 1925, the only child of a newspaperman turned publicist for fancy hotels and a mother who bragged about her son’s spectacular IQ to anyone willing to listen. His family moved around Chicago a lot, for what Gorey said was no discernible reason, and his parents divorced sometime around 1937 — only to get back together a decade-and-a-half later.
About any emotional turbulence, Gorey would always remain tight-lipped. Asked by an interviewer in 1991 about his parents’ divorce, he said, “I don’t think I had even noticed they parted.” He was similarly mum in his childhood diary, which was largely filled with entries about cats.
Dery briskly recounts the key points in Gorey’s coming-of-age. Drafted into the Army during World War II, Gorey served as a clerk in Utah before enrolling at Harvard, where poet Frank O’Hara became a roommate and a close friend. Even though Gorey was “securely closeted at Harvard,” Dery writes, most of his college friends were gay and believed he was too. But aside from one source who says that Gorey made oblique mention of a sexual experience as a teenager, nobody could recall his having any romantic relationships that amounted to more than one of his unrequited “infatuations.”
For the rest of his life, Dery says, Gorey would speak of sex with either “Swiftian disdain” or “Victorian mortification.” “I am fortunate in that I am apparently reasonably undersexed or something,” he told a reporter in 1980. “Every now and then someone will say my books are seething with repressed sexuality,” he said — and that, according to Gorey, was that.
As for those books, Dery is observant, appreciative and thorough in the extreme. The art criticism can drag, as Dery expends too many words of analysis. (Gorey loved to write nonsense, and Dery repeatedly dissects in minute detail the pointlessness of it all.) More illuminating are Dery’s descriptions of the dominant cultural context of the 1950s, when the young Gorey felt squeezed between a chipper consumerism on the one hand and the bullying masculinity of artists like Norman Mailer on the other. Gorey found inspiration in surrealism as he honed his “sinister-slash-cozy” aesthetic. He was fond of absurd juxtapositions, not just in his drawings but in his titles, too: “The Haunted Tea-Cosy,” “The Deadly Blotter,” “The Galoshes of Remorse.”
Minimalist deadpan can’t abide too much theorizing, and Dery’s portentous vow in his introduction to “use the tools of psychobiography” almost gave me the fantods (a favorite Gorey word). But Dery also knows that a stubborn enigma was essential to his subject’s charm, and by the end of his book, he relents: For all his desire to parse every symbol and clarify every joke, he has to let Gorey be. “Explaining something makes it go away,” Gorey once said, and like the revenants in his pictures, he planned to stay a while. “To catch and keep the public’s gaze / One must have lots of little ways.”
‘Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey’
By Mark Dery
Illustrated. 503 pages. Little, Brown and Co. $35.