Iconic Note:
Edward Gorey
12 November 2018

¶ I’ll be the first to admit that what was so cool about Edward Gorey, way back when, was his obscurity. He was probably never nearly as “unknown” as young fans like me thought he was — he was the art director at Anchor Books for years before I came across his work, at the age of fourteen or so — but for a long time, there was no such word as “Goreyesque.” I was in law school when Dracula was a Broadway hit, with Frank Langella, in the title role, ever so slightly upstaged by Gorey’s sets and costumes, but when Mystery! began running on PBS, I knew that the jig was up: Everybody in my neighborhood (viz educated people) knew something about him, and maybe even owned a few of his little books. Everybody

Gorey’s obscurity was important because his books were so palpably obscure. On the surface, they were about nothing — nothing but the overpowering suggestion that they might be about something hidden beneath the surface. The detail of his small drawings was so intense that you could never be sure that you had noticed all of it. Perhaps, somewhere in that detail, was the key to the whole thing — which would be nothing less than the key to existence itself. The existence of Edward Gorey himself seemed contingent on this mystery. As Mark Dery writes at the beginning of his new biography, Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, “most people” assumed that he was British, Victorian, and dead. I never thought he was dead (until he died, that is), but I was very surprised to learn that he was Chicago-born. For a long time, I could have done without that bit of information. 

By now, of course, there wasn’t much about Edward Gorey that I didn’t know, at least in broad outline. Which made Dery’s book by turns engrossing and exasperating. While it was very agreeable to have the biographical material laid out in order, Dery’s harping on Gorey’s sexuality became more than a little annoying. Analyzing the drawings for evidence of repressed desires is, it seems to me, the least interesting way of looking at them. (And, in any case, the desires seem fairly obvious, whatever Gorey made of them in his own life.) Sex is jut one of the perils that menace our existence, and by no means the worst of them. Terrible things are depicted in Gorey’s pictures, but it’s the text that mocks the very idea of safety. Concern about sexual orientation is almost trivial in the larger context of Gorey’s infernal machines. 

On more certain ground, Gorey emerges from Dery’s book as indisputably industrious. I feel that I have done nothing with my life in comparison.

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