Simanaitis Says

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GOREY’S SPOOKY PEN AND INK

EDWARD GOREY’S WHIMSICALLY spooky credits for PBS’s Masterpiece series have entertained me for years. And Rosemary Hill’s recent “How Peculiar It Is,” London Review of Books, June 3, 2021, adds to my appreciation and understanding of this illustrator. Hill reviews Mark Dery’s wonderfully titled Gorey biography, Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey.

Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, by Mark Dery, William Collins, 2020.

Author Dery has taught at Yale and NYU, and is a culture critic with specialities in pop culture, the media, and mythologies of American life. Rosemary Hill is a Contributing Editor and one of my favorite authors at London Review of Books. Here are tidbits from Hill’s celebration of Edward Gorey. 

An American Anglo? I’m not alone in having thought Gorey was English, though he was Chicago-born, Harvard-educated (though not to excess), and NYC- and Cape Cod-residing. 

Hill writes that when Gorey’s popularity arrived in the early 1950s, “He was in his late twenties, but it wasn’t surprising that the readers who discovered him in slowly increasing numbers on both sides of the Atlantic thought that he was old, or even dead, and that in America they imagined he was English.”  

Edward St. John Gorey, 1925–2000; American writer and artist known for his whimsical though vaguely unsettling narrative scenes. Image by Christopher Seufert, Mooncusser Films, 1999.

Gorey’s father and mother divorced when he was 11 and remarried each other when he was 27. His interim step-mother was Corinna Mura, a cabaret singer remembered as the guitar-strumming French woman singing “La Marseillaise” in Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca.

Hill writes that “Gorey created a peculiar, hermetic world in which the comic and the macabre combine in proportions dependent on the reader’s temperament. It has been described variously as Edwardian, Jazz Age, avant-retro, surreal, picturesque and English; Gorey said it had the effect of ‘Victorian novels all scrunched up.’ “

A panel from The Gashlycrumb Tinies, 1963, the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. Image from London Review of Books, June 3, 2021.

A Victorian Abecedary. In 1966, he published The Gashlycrumb Tinies, or After the Outing, which Hill describes as “an Abecedary in the Victorian style: 26 children meet their deaths in different ways, from ‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs’ to ‘Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin.’ “

The school picture for The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Image from Boston Anthenaeum.

Gorey Musings. “What were you like as a child?,” Dick Cavett asked Gorey on his 1977 talk show. “Small,” Gorey replied. 

Another time, Gorey expanded on this: Childhood and the rest of life remained “intrinsically … boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.”

Image from pinterest.com.

Gorey’s Illustration Style. Hill writes, “The delicate cross-hatching that gives his monochrome illustrations the velvety depth of 19th-century engravings was all done by hand with a crow quill dip pen. Having worked out his modus operandi, Gorey became ‘fast and competent’ at his job and used the rest of his time at the office [in the publishing world] to produce his own books.”

Gorey wrote more than 100 books and illustrated many others. Wikipedia gives a partial list.

The Mystery! animation was to be 75 seconds long; Gorey submitted enough art for 10 minutes.

A Fitting Gorey Epitaph. Hill cites, “When asked what he might choose for his epitaph, one of his suggestions was ‘not really.’ ” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021.

5 comments on “GOREY’S SPOOKY PEN AND INK

  1. Mike B
    July 12, 2021

    Thanks very much for this! I’m surprised (but not astonished) that Mystery! would have focused on only that 75 seconds – they missed a bet, though, by not using more of that 10 minutes of material in some sort of rotating scheme.

    And the tinies! I never made that connection before. Thanks!

    • simanaitissays
      July 12, 2021

      Thanks, Mike, for your kind words. I had long planned a Gorey feature; Rosemary Hill’s piece proved conclusive.

  2. Michael Rubin
    July 12, 2021

    I’ll add another “Thank you!,” Dennis. Recognized the style but I never knew who he was. Now I do. Your article does a fine job outlining Gorey and his career and is yet one more mildly surprising thing you’ve written about, which is yet one more reason I love your blog.

    • simanaitissays
      July 12, 2021

      Well, Michael, I accept your kind words with sincere thanks. But note my chief attribute here is sharing the wonderful art of Gorey and superb writing of Rosemary Hill.

  3. phil ford
    July 13, 2021

    I’m somewhat familiar with Gorey’s work, and am always struck by the “authenticity” of his eccentricity. His persona never seemed labored or constructed. I’m sorry that his contributions are finite. Thanks for your piece.

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