Lit

All the Dery Details—Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey—Book Review

Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey
by Mark Dery
Little, Brown and Company

If cartoonist Edward Gorey didn’t exist, we would have had to invent him. Fortunately he did it for us. 

Born in Chicago in 1925, Gorey crafted a persona and art style suggesting a 19th century gentleman with a lively mind, grim wit, and insane gift for crosshatching—hence the “posthumous” part of the title, since many thought Gorey long-dead in his own lifetime. Best known for illustrated books like The Gashlycrumb TiniesThe Doubtful Guest, and others, Gorey also pursued passions in ballet, theater, puppetry, and other milieus. Several Renaissance men in one, he’s prime material for a comprehensive biography. Yet, while it’s obvious author Mark Dery did the homework and legwork for the task, Born to Be Posthumous doesn’t quite get there.

In the best biographies, the writer introduces their subject then steps aside, gently providing anecdotes and context to place them at our elbow. Trickier still is handling a subject who’s a recluse or homebody, more interesting in their work than their daily life. Deborah Solomon fleshed out the virginal, barely verbal artist Joseph Cornell, who rarely left his Queens home, in Utopia Parkway. Likewise, Brad Gooch helped lupus-stricken Flannery O’Connor rise up and soar away from Andalusia Farm in Flannery: A Life, just as Ruth Franklin made the sedentary Shirley Jackson and her life of ersatz witchcraft, faculty cocktail parties, and domestic duties come alive. Gorey, while reserved, was never bland. Rather he was a brilliant artist and wordsmith, a wit, a polymath, and a human curiosity wearing a prophet’s beard, fur coat, and more rings than Saturn. Unfortunately, Born to Be Posthumous fails to resurrect him.

I recall a scene in compulsive director Woody Allen’s Celebrity, in which a refined literary type pontificates to Allen’s surrogate (Kenneth Branagh) that Irwin Shaw’s short story title, The Girls in Their Summer Dresses is grander than anything else in modern fiction, to which Branagh swiftly and obsequiously concurs. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it’s a moment of uncomfortable pretension and possessive criticism. Dery has his biggest summer dresses moment with a single panel from Gorey’s The Object Lesson:

“On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella, disengaged itself  from the shrubbery, causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood.” 

Not bad, but Dery stakes out this phrase and its undeniably pretty illustration as “one of the most beautifully wrought lines of gothic-surrealist poetry Gorey ever wrote,” and spends several paragraphs explaining why. His prerogative, of course, though it feels like a lit professor declaring what it all means to a classroom of dubious freshmen. He speculates that the panel and the book The Object Lesson hints at several levels of Gorey’s subconscious and past: “the father figure, loveless and unloveable” the “miseries of childhood,” and his grandmother’s committal to an insane asylum. Well, if he says so, but where’s the proof? Such sections reveal less about Gorey than what Dery thinks of Gorey. That’s what you’re in for here, and it grows deeper the further you wade.

Many biographers have a bad habit of looking for Rosetta Stones—the person, place, or thing that cracks their subject’s code. Generally, the author avoids simplistic conclusions, but that also works against him. It feels like he fears defining the great man, or even summarizing him, else he’ll lose his alleged “mystery”. Speaking for him is another matter.

Dery affects a familiarity with a man he never met, calling him “Ted” like the handful of surviving Gorey friends he interviewed. Furthermore, he has a persistent habit of channeling him. More than once he ventriloquizes Gorey groans over being misinterpreted or—quelle horreur!—hearing the term Goreyesque to describe his inimitable work. As if becoming an beloved eponym was a curse.

Yet, despite speaking about, through, and for him and the title’s implied promise to reveal the supposed “mystery” of Edward Gorey, Born to Be Posthumous turns up little that’s mysterious. For much of the first half he provides a serviceable retelling of the atypical though not so unusual circumstances of Gorey’s life. The rest is ornate window dressing for an interesting, uncommon, but mostly standard existence.

Ignoring Dery’s Gorey groans, why was Gorey so Goryesque? We don’t know. Gorey the man, by silence and omission, made a hash of that, though the many interviews and the relationships he left behind gave better clues than Born to Be Posthumous wants to share. It strikes me that Dery wishes to be the Gorey authority. He does a dutiful job of recording the fleeting echoes of a life, from birth to death, but spends one too many chapters dissecting the man’s booklets and pastimes, offering fair to interesting takes, but, nevertheless, his takes. Born to Be Posthumous’s Gorey is trapped in amber, displayed in a vitrine, and labeled as Dery sees fit—and in this he’s a bit imperial. Unless I missed an instance, he never uses the C-word—cartoonist—to describe Gorey. He doesn’t fully refer to him as an illustrator either, or specifically a children’s book author, or even a humorist. Repeatedly, Born to Be Posthumous suggests that yes, Gorey was X, Y, and Z, but he was so much more than that, switching and editing the cabinet description cards to ensure his mysterious subject remains molto misterioso. It becomes distracting.

Ultimately, I think Dery is more comfortable critiquing the work then defining the man. Several glimpses of the inner Gorey pop up, and we learn the raconteur and balletomane who walked swiftly between the raindrops of social interaction was too human. Beneath the quirky Wildean veneer was a strain of melancholy and a lack of confidence belied by his witty exterior. But we’re only given brief looks behind the curtain.

Dery hammers at one particular point: what was Gorey’s sexual identity? Even by today’s expanded menu, it’s hard to tell. He does his damnedest, trying to make Gorey into a gay icon who never had sex. Gorey himself knew he signaled “gay”, and according to observers and in his own words, he played a gay, yet asexual, but aromantic role. However, to further complicate things, Dery provides Gorey’s claims of a string of crushes both one-sided and subsurface. Does it really matter what Gorey was? Speaking correctly, no, but for a biography it’s hazy to the point of distraction.

Dery is thorough. Very. His footnotes and sources seem to bear this out. Still, he has a habit of throwing up a dead end sign when the trail goes cold. Examples:

“Whether Edward Leo’s [reviewer’s note: Gorey’s father] passing had much of an effect on Ted, and whether he made his peace with his father before he died, is, like so many intimate matters in Gorey’s life, shrouded in mystery, as they say.”

They do? Says who?

In light of Gorey teaching two sessions of “Advanced Children’s Book Illustration” at the School of Visual Arts:

“…what course he taught, or whether he just guest-lectured, we don’t know.”

At times Dery ponders what Gorey did with his days off, but pooh-poohs his own suggestions according to his tastes.

“Did Gorey, who had made the rounds on the Third Avenue bird circuit and visited the odd gay bar in the Village in the early ‘50s, ever wander down to Christopher Street? It’s hard to imagine him in the louche milieu of the Stonewall Inn.”

If you say so, but again why?

On Gorey’s—who never married but experienced multiple infatuations—possible “last, great crush”:

“(Gorey was forty-nine; Fitzharris, twenty-eight. Where and when they met we don’t know.)”

Years ago, I wrote about an infamous martial artist who owned a pet lion. The editor insisted I back up that factoid, despite photographic evidence, with several separate sources. I’m surprised Dery’s editor at Little, Brown and Company let these and similar lacunas in Gorey’s history slide. What was the deal with the fur coats and rings? Maybe, suggests Dery, it was an homage to Ronald Firbank and Oscar Wilde. Maybe. Why was he averse to, or at least uncomfortable with, the children for whom he wrote books? It’s unclear. Gorey, along with Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, and a handful of his fellow children’s book authors railed against mediocrity, mawkishness, and talking down to kids, but he fails to explore it as a movement with any detail, and even slags classic authors like Margaret Wise Brown (who, in her way, could give Gorey a bizarre run for his money). And there’s that one particular itch Dery longs to scratch: whether he was gay, asexual, aromantic, all or none of the above? Maybe not, but then again, maybe. Gorey liked to provoke uncertainty and contradiction in his interviews and work, but a biographer needn’t perpetuate the affectation.

Other times, the book shares pronouncements that don’t bear out. We’re given what-the-hell? statements like: “Gorey’s passion for the ballet is too aesthetically complex, his appreciation of Balanchine’s genius and the artistry of dancers likes Diana Adams too profound to be squeezed into a queer-theory pigeon-hole.” Or peculiar declarations such as: “The idea of animal rights wouldn’t enter the public conversation until 1975, when the philosopher Peter Singer published Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. Well in advance of social trends, Gorey reveals a deep sympathy for nonhuman beings.” Not only is half that statement utter piffle (the concept of animal rights has existed since ancient times), but, as Dery indicates, Gorey was commissioned to design 30 or so fur coats by New York furrier Ben Kahn Furs. Furs for men, to add insult to four-legged injury. Furthermore, the sundry raccoons, sables, minks, and other critters that helped become Gorey’s legend most could not be reached for comment. Note: Later in life, Gorey admirably ditched his furry finery.

In some instances Dery sounds like he’s winging it where his knowledge of a subject ends. In his New York Times Book Review review of Born to Be Posthumous, Robert Gottlieb suggests Dery’s takes on ballet and silent film—two favorite Gorey subjects—are only “received wisdom at best”.  I’ll add that while I have no clue about his background in comics, it seems scant. He never  explores the Victorian artists who illustrated 19th century penny dreadfuls and the National Police Gazette to which Gorey clearly owes an inspirational debt. Elsewhere, he mentions Gorey beside black humor cartoonist contemporaries like Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson, ignores Wilson thereon, then makes a tenuous argument about the superiority of Gorey’s renderings and gallows humor over Addams’. Addams and Gorey knew and respected each other. While Dery doesn’t turn up Addams’ opinion of Gorey—its nonexistence seems unlikely—he provides a paragraph in which Gorey said neither man cared for the comparison, and agreed they were doing different things (though Gorey declared the Addams Family characters were more about “role reversal”, whatever that might mean). Dery runs with this saying “Perversely funny as his single-panel gags can be, [Addams’] brand of black humor only sneaks a peek at the darkness Gorey peers deep into. The Addams family, for all its creepiness and kookiness, is a close-knit, mutual supportive unit, more Heimlich than Unheimlich.” Here pretension collides with cluelessness, suggesting Dery’s familiarity with Addams’ work is informed by the 60s show or, more likely, the 90s movies. Comparing the two, Gorey’s sometimes more bare-faced about violence and the like, portraying (but, like Addams, mostly suggesting) death, infanticide, sexual deviance, rape, and other unsavory topics. But his is still a genteel playing about in the mud, guised in Victorian/Edwardian tropes. Addams’ more contemporary style and setting displayed a sinister yet hilarious commentary on the nastiness bubbling under modern society’s square veneer. Apples and oranges, but with a homogeneous rot.

Similarly strange is the failure to mention Gorey’s fellow National Lampoon artist Rick Geary, a descendant in motif, who has rendered several graphic novels based on old-time murders. I was surprised Dery spoke to Johnny Ryan, whose seeping, oozing comics ride the modern underground comics subway with everyone from Mike Diana to Josh Simmons (whose work often has a forced unpleasantness, yet echoes Gorey in the more detailed panels of his graphic novel House—which is, heh, occasionally gory). Ryan actually knew Gorey, turning up on his doorstep and maintaining a polite acquaintanceship. I wish Dery had better plumbed his and other cartoonists’ memories and opinions for a fresher, professional take. But I wonder if Dery’s one of those folks who doesn’t truck with comics, or has only a slight splicing with the cartooning The New Yorker elite one must know, such as Ware, Spiegelman, and Bechdel (who offers a blurb on the back page in her voluble Are You My Mother? way). I repeat, I stress, his inability to describe Gorey as a cartoonist is telling.

Another, more acidic aspect to Born to Be Posthumous: it feels like Dery wishes to be the final arbiter of all things Gorey with a self-appointed courtier’s tone. When Gorey associate Andreas Brown suggests “His work is an exploration of the existence of God, of man’s attempt to try to locate and define God”—admittedly a reach—Dery proposes yet another “mortified groan.” Most of the people Dery spoke to said that Gorey, while reserved, was rarely chilly. Yet, Dery is dismissive of the Goth kids and other fans who adored and sought out their idol, and in some cases created works and worlds of their own. He seems incapable of citing any of Gorey’s more notable aesthetic heirs without an evaluation of their worth to him. Filmmaker Tim Burton is assessed as having humor that is “broader, and often more grisly” (say, whatever happened to the darkness Gorey “peers deep into”?) while describing his general aesthetic as “twee-goth” that’s “un-Goreyish in its weakness for B-movie camp and Boomer irony” (never mind that Gorey made a career of mimicking/parodying silent film melodrama). Gorey himself had impeccable and high-flown tastes, but also delighted in pop cultural cotton candy. How often did he groan while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Golden Girls? Dery provides no tally.

Despite its 415 pages, Born to Be Posthumous doesn’t come close to solving Gorey’s “mystery”. But what does “mystery” mean in his case? He’s not the human equivalent of Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a mystery only because Dickens died before crafting a solution. Gorey left behind a long life, observed and recorded in his own time. He was a private fellow, given to melancholia, but nevertheless a gracious soul who clearly loved life. Where’s the mystery in that?

Two moments stand out for me about deciphering—as if you can transliterate a human soul—Gorey’s personality and Weltanschauung. The first, sadder instance: when a fissure emerged in the elegant fellow’s demeanor as Gorey, accompanied by a friend to meet a new publisher for drinks, broke down in tears. Asked by his friend what was bothering him, Gorey confessed “I can only draw in one way.” A genius frustrated his genius had limits, or perhaps a undercurrent of imposter syndrome? This is not pursued. Like the publisher who ended the meeting quickly and rushed Gorey and friend into taxi cabs, Dery assures us Gorey’s “creative energies, in any event, were undiminished.” Less so Dery’s empathy.

On the other hand, one field of weird sunlight in Gorey’s supposedly glum grey life stands out. Leaving New York in the 80s, Gorey set up permanently in the Cape Cod town of Yarmouth Port. Dery gives over a couple of pages to the fact that Gorey found a happy place amongst the normal folks at Jack’s Outback, a local restaurant, having his own coffee cup there, ringing up orders, and chatting with anyone he found interesting. We are swiftly rushed away from Jack’s, to stories of how Gorey ditched comics and illustration to spend his last years as a creator and director of avant-garde puppet shows and experimental plays.  I find it curious that Dery never—outside of Gorey’s occasional Morrisseyesque moping about love, sex, and romance—reveals Gorey struggling or failing at anything. As if his life was an ever-rising slope of artistic triumphs, and his infrequent sorrow an aberration. To the author’s credit, I’ve often wondered why I’ve never read a single biography that describes its subject buying groceries. Here, at least, we see Gorey’s itemized breakfast and lunch orders at Jack’s Outback.

Born to Be Posthumous is not a bad book; some parts are very well done, and Dery has put much thought into his thoughts. But it’s not as great as it could have been. The casual reader will learn more about Edward Gorey than they might gain elsewhere, but they won’t really get to know the man. Mostly they’ll learn what Mark Dery thinks about Gorey. Why did he feel the need to impress this upon us? One of life’s mysteries, I guess.

Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey is available at the Little, Brown and Company site and most bookstores.

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