Bearded men in overcoats: Edward Gorey

Gorey-Avedon

(Photograph by Richard Avedon, via The New Yorker
© The Richard Avedon Foundation)

‘Gorey’, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport in 1962. ‘I have tracked down THE CURIOUS SOFA, THE FATAL LOZENGE, THE WILLOWDALE EXPRESS [i.e., The Willowdale Handcar], and THE HAPLESS CHILD. No others seem to be available. One is especially curious about THE DOUBTFUL GUEST and ($1,000,000 prize title) THE LISTING ATTIC. Are any sources of supply known to you?’

The following Spring, breathing down the neck of Pound-Joyce-Ruskin references that will emerge in different form a dozen years later in ‘The House That Jack Built’, is this Davenport remark: ‘All the bearded men in overcoats in Gorey are Gorey.’[1]

Doubtful-Guest

‘At times it would tear out whole chapters from books,
Or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks.’[2]

Some of the attractions for Davenport are fairly obvious: a wide and varied taste in books (Gorey owned upwards of 25000), cats—and the hospitality offered to other living creatures—virtuosic graphic work, an extraordinary range of interests and knowledge, a productive eccentricity and a distinctly individual stance towards the world.

Edward St John Gorey was born 22 February 1925 (and died in 2000). He published more than a hundred of his own works, beginning with The Unstrung Harp in 1953, and illustrated the works of scores of other writers, poets and critics, from Dickens, Edward Lear, H. G. Wells and Samuel Beckett to Saki, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf and the wonderful Treehorn books by Florence Parry Heide.

Treehorn

‘The next morning Treehorn was so small he had to jump out of bed. On the floor under the bed was a game he’d pushed under there and forgotten about. He walked under the bed to look at it.’[3]

Moving around our house, I find Gorey items in a surprising number of places: small hardbacks and larger paperbacks, postcards, a jigsaw, even a toy theatre, Edward Gorey’s Dracula, a Christmas present to the Librarian some years back.

Gorey-Dracula

There are some irresistible moments in the interview of Gorey by Clifford Ross:

CR: What about your working day?
EG: I usually wake up and think, “Oh, I really must do something today.” But then quite often many things come up before I can start doing them.
CR: Do you work each day?
EG: I try and do something each day. Work might not be exactly the word for it.

Elsewhere, ‘But I do collect postcards of dead babies.’ And, in response to the question about what sort of art he collects—Balthus, Burchfield, Albert York, Vuillard, Bonnard—‘And I have one Munch lithograph, I think.’ Ross asks which one and Gorey tells him: ‘Omega and the Bear. I couldn’t resist it. It’s this back of a naked lady and she’s got her arms around a big bear. I think it has some significance. I’m not sure what.’

Karen Wilkin, in her absorbing essay, lists some of the inhabitants—‘Mustachioed men in ankle-length overcoats; elegant matrons with high-piled hair; athletic hearties in thick turtlenecks; imposing patriarchs in sumptuous dressing-gowns; kohl-eyed wantons with alarming décolletages and nodding plumes’—of what she terms ‘an utterly unreal but wholly believable universe instantly recognizable, at least to initiates, as the world of Edward Gorey.’ It is, it is. She details the influence of theatre and, particularly, dance on Gorey’s art. He rarely missed a performance of the New York Ballet for thirty years and his ‘knowledge and understanding’ of the choreography of George Balanchine was ‘profound’.[4]

McDermott-Elephant-House

(© Kevin McDermott, photograph facing chapter heading ‘The Living Room’)

Kevin McDermot, in his book about Gorey’s Cape Cod house, illustrated with his own superb photographs, quotes a Vanity Fair interview with Gorey from October 1997:

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
“Cats.”
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
“A stone.”
What is your favourite journey?
“Looking out the window.”[5]

Accept no substitutes.

Gorey’s home is now a museum, dedicated to his life and work, open from April to December each year. The Edward Gorey House: http://www.edwardgoreyhouse.org/

 
References

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 167, 286.

[2] Edward Gorey, The Doubtful Guest (1957), in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[3] Florence Parry Heide, The Shrinking of Treehorn, in The Treehorn Trilogy, drawings by Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 2006), unpaginated.

[4] Clifford Ross, ‘Interview with Edward Gorey’, in Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin, The World of Edward Gorey (New York: Abrams, 1996), 19; Karen Wilkins, ‘Mr. Earbrass Jots Down a Few Visual Notes: The World of Edward Gorey’, 45, 86.

[5] Kevin McDermot, Elephant House, or, The Home of Edward Gorey (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003), unpaginated.

 

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