Edward Gorey, mischievous artist, droll mirror of Life

Updated, 2018-12-05

I’m a fan of Edward Gorey’s work and life story. There is, today, a profile of Edward Gorey and his life by Joan Acocella at and of The New Yorker.

I’m a member of the House, and just visited it with Claire. See photos below.

The Gorey Store has a lot of exquisite items for sale for the holidays, sure to bring a smile.

And I think most of them are great for kids. See, for evidence, the Jones and Ponton Killing Monsters.

My relation with Gorey’s work began in sophomore year of high school, 1968, 50 years ago, when I came across a small work of drawings on one of those crowded shelves in a bookstore in Harvard Square. I got the notion of getting a copy for my teacher of literature and debating coach. I did. He seemed delighted. Mr Gorey’s book reminded me of him.


Update, 2018-12-04

I, of course, have no direct experience of Edward Gorey, even to make a first impression. Docents at the Gorey House suggest Mr Gorey was shy or, if not shy, someone who thought “Why would anyone want to know me?” For comparison to Dery’s biography, there is the slim volume by Mr Gorey’s good friend, Alexander Theroux for comparison. (The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, Alexander Theroux.) I have little reason to doubt Ms Acocella’s remarks about the inconsistencies of Dery’s analysis of Mr Gorey. A senior docent at the Gorey House, which sells Mr Dery’s book in their gift shop, implied there were shortcomings, but was nevertheless appreciative that there was, at last, some biography.

While Ms Acocella’s review of Dery’s attempt might show a fondness for Mr Gorey, shortcomings are present in her treatment, too. She doesn’t mention Theroux at all. She doesn’t mention the existence of the Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, even less giving it a plug. And she’s incomplete in her assessment of Mr Gorey’s bequests, for example, to “animal-welfare societies” and she chooses to highlight Bat Conservation International. (That was too cute.) It was in The New Yorker and she’s a major writer for them, so I presume Ms Acocella did have room to mention the contrast between Mr Gorey’s animal welfare interests and cats, and his (early?) fondness for raccoon coats. (I know, “It was another time ….”) A list of such societies is presented in the photo below, from the House.

I also disagree with Ms Acocella’s ready agreement that Mr Gorey had somehow “lost his talent”. Gorey continued to produce, to struggle to find expression, to be himself. Note the remark he made upon ink and papers:

I think it remiss, too, to omit that, as minor as it might be, Mr Gorey has a small, quiet, cultish following, of which I consider myself a part. No doubt he’ll eventually be mythologized, like Tolkien, as any regalers of any life are bound to do. It’s inevitable since most records about it are not in the record. But it’s a way to continue Mr Gorey’s joy.


Update, 2018-12-05

The curator of the Edward Gorey House kindly recommended to me another review of Dery’s biography, this one by Evan Kindley at The New Republic. (I would gladly credit the curator’s name, but I haven’t asked permission, so so don’t want to presume.) I had a read.

It’s author has offered many interesting columns. I was drawn to his profile of Kurt Vonnegut’s years at General Electric, during the time Vonnegut wrote science fiction. While I respect Mr Vonnegut’s books and ideas (but not, I think, as much as my wife, Claire, does), the important thing is to know who is writing a review of a biography. Mr Edward Gorey was, to me, a vastly more important artist than, say, Mr Vonnegut. I’ll say why before the end. Kindley picked for his choice of review another’s book on Mr Vonnegut’s time at GE. It’s clear he thought that connection both curious, even exotic, given Mr Vonnegut’s later views, and formative. Accordingly, there is a notion of some homonuclear model at work in Kindley’s head, perhaps of a preformatory artist. That’s relevant.

I like the Kindley review. It feels more honest, committed in some ways, than the view-from-afar of Acocella. But:

You can feel him pushing the limits of his chosen mediu — the illustrated book — just as Stein and Queneau pushed the novel, Beckett the play, or Duchamp the painting … He is at once essentially limited and infinitely ambitious.

I don’t buy it. That’s a major puzzler-solver being described. Mr Gorey, and again I am no expert, seems more to me the essence of the genius, which is the child forever at play, walking down a beach, picking up a shell and getting all excited about it. Then, in an hour, or a day, becoming bored with it, and moving on. I think he’s more someone who erects a frame, builds a building, and tears the frame away — and, incidentally, some of the building — leaving it stable, but barely so, and also leaving its admirers wondering how does it stand up?

I think Mr Kindley’s analysis of the Dery Gorey-was-gay proposition is spot on. I see it as a statistician: How can someone legitimately infer Mr Gorey’s interests there by simple association of friends? I’d wager the circles he encountered had a higher-than-average propensity of declared same-gender-preferring people, and, so, if he picked friends at random, that’s what he’d get. Or bisexual. Or queer. I think Mr Gorey’s own characterization should suffice. What did he really have to gain by suppressing such?

There are also minor quibbles:

  • What’s this No. 37 Penpoint thing? Is it a metaphor? Mr Gorey reported what he used: Hunt #204.
  • And regarding “Gorey’s characters often strike balletic poses and tend to stand with their feet turned out, in ballet positions”, which is actually a quote from Mr Dery’s biography, but Kindley seems to heartily agree, well, it’s (a) a stable way to stand, and (b) it is arguably a more interesting pose for a viewer to see a character, including leaving the character’s body language more open.

Why is Mr Gorey an important artist to me?

One of the poets my sophomore literature teacher (the Gorey booklet recipient) introduced was one Wallace Stevens. This would be a life-changing introduction, and Mr Stevens has always coupled me into thought and feeling closer than nearly any formal religion. I was brought up Catholic, including a thorough Catholic education. I turned pantheist, then agnostic, then converted to Judaism. I dwelt there for years, raising two sons in the tradition. I was intrigued by Buddhism, practiced being a Jew-Bu, and then I blasted out to where I felt most at home, an atheist, nay, physical materialist. It’s not that, for instance, Catholicism or Judaism were “wrong”. It is a path. I’m (now) happily affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Needham, Massachusetts. (You need to know who’s writing this, too.)

A singular excerpt from one of Mr Stevens’ poems (The Idea of Order at Key West) goes:

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Now those are words to live by. And, I think at core, Kindley didn’t miss this about Gorey when he observed about what readers and viewers might think:

He put all that work into this?

It’s true, my guidewords hew closer to those of Milton who, while being fully critical, not praising, wrote (Paradise Lost):

… or if they list to try
Conjecture, he his Fabric of the Heav’ns
Hath left to thir disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at thir quaint Opinions wide
Hereafter, when they come to model Heav’n
And calculate the Starrs …

In one way or another, those words, and to some extent, Stevens’ Idea, are the story of my personal life.

So, Ms Acocella quotes Edward Gorey near the start of her review, and Mr Kindley underscores in his:

I’m beginning to feel that if you create something, you’re killing a lot of other things. And the way I write, since I do leave out most of the connections, and very little is pinned down, I feel that I am doing a minimum of damage to other possibilities that might arise in a reader’s mind.

And that’s it. Vonnegut is less a lover of ambiguity. He doesn’t let it flow. His stories have a point. That’s a problem.

In the end, ambiguity is all we have. Whether it’s what’s left out in a story, or what a scientific calculation implies but does not say, or is Mr Stevens a poet or an insurance company executive, was Mr Gorey a goth or not, these are unanswerable. (Well, nearly so: Gorey referred to the gothic as a costume, like his raccoon coat, as quoted by Mr Kindley.) No, not that. They should not be answered. For, art is, if anything, as the comic Gilda Radner said in a famous quote:

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.

Delicious Ambiguity.

So Mr Gorey reminds us with every page of sketches, every attempt at play. And we badly need reminding. It is for me, at least, a refuge, and a source of meaning.



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