Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey
Mark Dery
Little, Brown and Company, $35 (cloth)

In his small books, Edward Gorey mastered the art of false nostalgia, evoking in the reader a mood at once fearsome, absurd, unsettling, and comic. In the first of Gorey’s published books, The Unstrung Harp (1953), the character of Mr. C. F. Earbrass, “the noted novelist,” begins in some trepidation his new book, to be titled (like the book that contains him) The Unstrung Harp. Begun while Gorey was still an undergraduate at Harvard, it is nevertheless the best book ever made about the awful pains and fleeting pleasures of writing a novel. The Unstrung Harp has quite a lot of prose, but in subsequent projects, Gorey whittled down his texts to the slivers of scintillating ambiguity that would become a hallmark of his style: The Listing Attic (1954), limericks; The Doubtful Guest (1957), couplets; The Object-Lesson (1958), obscure scraps of prose narration. By 1962 he had published ten of his little books. The Willowdale Handcar appeared that year, and it would be my introduction to his work. I bought it as a gift for my sister, not knowing that with it I (and she) had begun a life of loving Gorey.

Gorey had a deceptively simple theory of art: the effects, large and small, of pictures and stories are a matter of leaving things out.

In 1965 I became a New Yorker, transplanted there, like Gorey, from the Midwest. I was seeking work as a photographer, or a photographer’s assistant—it was all the skill I had to sell—and in the course of this search I met a portrait photographer who worked out of his apartment (the kitchen was his darkroom; as did Gorey at that time, the photographer ate entirely out.) We became friends for many reasons, but one was the discovery that we were both enthralled with Gorey’s work. It seems odd now, but Gorey was then a special taste, the little books not easy to find, come upon by chance in corner bookstores, treasured among a small though growing circle.

It occurred to us one night that, since Gorey lived in New York, he might be listed in the Manhattan phone book, and he was: on East Thirty-Eighth Street in Murray Hill, not ten blocks away. Did we dare call him? We did, my friend doing the dialing. But on hearing hello, my friend hung up, overcome by a spasm of terror and delight. Assuming (mistakenly) that the man was an eccentric loner, and that his interior self was the model for his books (mostly it was not), we thought our aborted call must have given him a touch of the fantods. I’ll never know.

That same year, the New York Film Society included in its fall festival a newly recovered print of the 1915 serial French thriller Les Vampires, directed by Louis Feuillade. I was in the audience of the Lincoln Center screening, which began at 5:00 and ran until midnight—“a Spartan test of endurance for even the most ardent movie buff,” the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it. I cannot find in Mark Dery’s compendious new biography—nor in Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin’s much shorter The World of Edward Gorey (1996)—evidence that Gorey attended the screening, though Dery reports that Gorey saw some of the episodes at a private film club in the 1950s. I will continue to believe he was there, though, enthralled by the closest thing in film to his own art. Almost all of the action takes place in small box sets, three walls and a door or two, shot straight on by a static camera. The rich blacks, the obscure wallpapers, the false beards, the slow-moving plot, the entrancing kohl-eyed and bat-winged burglar-anarchist Irma Vep played by Musidora—all seem to have been not an inspiration for Gorey’s books but to have been created by them. Making it all the more Goreyesque, the intertitles had been lost, meaning much of the inscrutable storyline could only be guessed: at one point, a basket is brought into a police station, some urgent talk and arm-waving happens, and the basket is opened to reveal a severed head.

It is strange: Gorey’s work is ubiquitous and instantly recognizable, yet it is in fact very hard to characterize. Almost all the descriptive tags commonly applied are wrong and those who apply them likely know it, but there is no recourse. The works are not Gothic in any useful sense; they are not parody or satire; they seem to be about sins and tragic errors but they have no moral force; they are funny but not jokey; they have auras and locales but no roots, or the roots are pretense (Victorian gloom, laughable griefs, imaginary children in peril). The more they are described, the farther they recede.

This elusive quality is integral to Gorey’s deceptively simple theory of art: the effects, large and small, of pictures and stories are a matter of leaving things out. Art in this conception is an ongoing collaboration between viewer or reader and artist or writer. The audience may never know exactly what has been left out, but the suggestion of the presence of absent things haunts nonetheless. Silent films, Japanese prints, anonymous dead people in funerary photographs, and the scratchy drawings of Edward Lear were less influences than instances of what Gorey discovered for himself, a principle that pervades almost all his work.

The difficulty with a Gorey biography is that the artist was always circumspect about his deepest feelings, mostly preferring allusion and concealment. He was a leaver-out in life as in art.

Dery, of course, cannot follow this practice. The role of a biographer is not to leave things out but to put them in, things large and small, things for readers to ponder and things to shrug at, analyses and speculation about the why of it all, from childhood trauma to sexual confusion to fights for love and glory. In an early Harvard literature paper on Henry James, who exasperated him endlessly, Gorey described “James’s favoured method of unfolding an action”: to have it revealed “slowly, bit by bit, through inexhaustible questionings, probings, pryings. . . . If anyone ever literally died of curiosity I am certain it must have been a Jamesian character.” Or a biographer.

Dery cheerfully plumbs the events of a life, seeking the feelings that they gave rise to, or that gave rise to them. Gorey was a middle-class Chicago boy who was reading Dumas at eight years old. When he was in middle school, his father ran off with “a singer of Spanish-flavored torch songs” who appeared briefly in Casablanca (1942), and he was subsequently raised by his mother, who doted on him despite being convinced, as the pop psychology of the day had it, that this excess of maternal attention was probably feminizing her son. It is hard to assess the effect of all of this on young Ted, as Gorey was privately called by friends and family, though Dery studies the available letters and other evidence for traces. The difficulty is that, all his life, Gorey was circumspect about his deepest feelings, mostly preferring allusion and concealment. He was a sort of leaver-out in life as in art, and Dery is often exasperated with him for how unwilling he was to seek love and romance—sex, indeed—and can’t entirely credit Gorey’s assertions that he was basically asexual and satisfied with it. Maybe Dery is even right to be skeptical—but it seems to be Dery’s own disappointment, rather than Gorey’s, when the book laments, for example, how Gorey passed up a chance to be involved with a nice man.

Eschewing romantic entanglements, Gorey instead was a constant and indefatigable laborer. The little books we cherish now were a small part of the productive career that Dery chronicles. Gorey worked for years doing covers for the newly invented “trade” paperbacks that Anchor began publishing in the 1950s, many of them reissues of lesser classics; he illustrated children’s books written by others; he sat up through the night with his ink and his fine-point pens endlessly crosshatching, drawing repetitive wallpaper patterns, and making tiny letters in what at first appears to be a printer’s font but isn’t. In 2011 the Boston Athenaeum held a Gorey exhibit that included originals of pages from the early books. When I compared them to the published versions displayed alongside, I realized that the original drawings were actually smaller than the printed ones. This goes against all common practice: for ease of creation, most illustrators make their pictures larger than they are intended to be in print, and have them reduced for the page. You could only marvel at such exquisite and unnecessary miniaturization, or laugh in delight.

Gorey was indeed private, lived alone, went out to the ballet and the movies and home again. But he always had commercial collaborators, cultivated camaraderie with fellow artists such as Maurice Sendak (a sort of anti-Gorey), and had long-time close friends who included the novelist Alison Lurie. The height of his success (some consider it the beginning of his decline) came with his production designs for the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula. Soon there were Gorey toy theaters, mugs, greeting cards, an unstoppable march through the gift shops and bookstores of the nation.

By 1985 Gorey had left the little apartment in Murray Hill and moved for good to Cape Cod. It is a cliché of biography that those whose works are the gloomiest tend to be cheerful and satisfied in life, and mostly Gorey seems to have been. On the Cape he met and befriended Peter Neumeyer, a Yale professor with whom he collaborated and for a year or so corresponded, more intimately than was easy for him. “Having got into bed and turned out the light,” he writes to Neumeyer, “I quietly burst into tears because I am not a good person.” Bursting quietly into tears seems a thing that one of the constrained and pitiable figures in his work might do.

Would it be possible to write a biography of Gorey that uses only the artist’s own methods, leaving out more than is put in? Or has he already done it himself? Read aloud the long list of Gorey’s titles and see if the man doesn’t arise before you “in his habit as he lived” (large beard, round spectacles, long fur coat, tennis shoes, tall and thin—“attenuated,” as his favored Edwardian authors would put it). You can’t exactly see inside him, but then he wouldn’t want you to.