“The Gashlycrumb Tinies: or, After the Outing,” an abecedarian book by Edward Gorey, published in 1963.
The New Republic pays tribute to the late Edward Gorey, who made a career out of eccentricity and tongue-in-cheek morbidity on the occasion of a new biography: Born to be Posthumous by Mark Dery.
Although he played up his eccentricities in public, Gorey was fundamentally a shy, private man who seemed to take a perverse pride in the dullness of his own existence. â€œMy life is as near not being one as is possible I think,â€ he wrote to a friend in 1951, and things didnâ€™t pick up much from there. He had relatively few friends, and virtually no close ones. He lived alone (or, rather, with cats) for decades, first in Manhattan and later in a Federal-style house on Cape Cod. He had no sexual or romantic relationships that we know of, and his rise to relative fame in the 1970s and â€™80s changed his lifestyle very little.
Born in Chicago in 1925, the only child of middle-class parents, Gorey taught himself to read at three and a half, and was soon consuming Victorian and Edwardian classics in copious doses, including Dickens and Dracula, as well as the then-new detective novels of Agatha Christie. (All of these left a permanent impress on his imagination: Though Gorey never visited England, he was a lifelong Anglophile; many of his more casual fans still assume he was British.) In 1942, he won a scholarship to Harvard, but the draft delayed his matriculation. He spent the duration of World War II doing clerical work at an Army base in Utah, and amused himself by writing closet dramas under the pseudonym â€œStephen Crest.â€ In these plays, Dery reports, â€œthe characters have names like Piglet Rossetti and Basil Prawn and dress more or less the way youâ€™d imagine people named Piglet Rossetti and Basil Prawn would dressâ€”in purple espadrilles and â€˜mauve satin ribbons [that] cling like bedraggled birds to bosom, thigh, and wrist.â€™â€ His fellow recruits were, presumably, baffled.
Goreyâ€™s aesthetic idiosyncrasies blossomed when he finally arrived at Harvard in 1946. It was during this period that he adopted the extravagant costume he would later be famous for: Dery describes him â€œswanning around campus in his signature getup of sneakers and a long canvas coat with a sheepskin collar, fingers heavy with rings.â€ (Later on Gorey would favor raccoon coats, but he never ditched the tennis shoes.) He also grew a full beard that made him resemble the solemn Edwardian patriarchs who would soon populate his books. He roomed with the poet Frank Oâ€™Hara (they shared a fondness for Marlene Dietrich, and had a tombstone for a coffee table) and befriended other future literary luminaries like John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Barbara Epstein, and Alison Lurie.
After college, Gorey moved to New York to take a job at a new paperback imprint called Anchor Books. There he designed book covers for reprints of classic novels by Herman Melville, Henry James, and others, and crucial elements of his style evolved, including his distinctive hand-lettering, which arose from his frustration working with type. It was also around this time that he developed a quasi-religious devotion to the choreographer George Balanchine, the artistic director of the New York City Ballet, where Gorey maintained an almost perfect attendance record between 1956 and 1979; he would later call Balanchine â€œthe great, important figure in my life â€¦ sort of like God.â€ (Dery observes that â€œGoreyâ€™s characters often strike balletic poses and tend to stand with their feet turned out, in ballet positions,â€ as Gorey often did himself.)
Goreyâ€™s reputation built gradually. From the start his works were prominently displayed at the counter in the Gotham Book Mart, a legendary independent bookstore in midtown Manhattan, which brought him to the attention of literary tastemakers. His first book, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953. It told the story of Mr. Clavius Frederick Earbrass, an author afflicted by writerâ€™s block; Graham Greene called it â€œthe best novel ever written about a novelist.â€ His small cult following expanded considerably when Edmund Wilson devoted a column to â€œthe albums of edward goreyâ€ in the pages of The New Yorker in 1959. In 1972, Amphigorey, a mass-market omnibus reprinting 15 of Goreyâ€™s little books, became a surprise best-seller. Other milestones were the 1977 Broadway production of Dracula, starring Frank Langella, for which Gorey designed the sets and costumes, and the 1980 premiere of the PBS television series Mystery!, featuring an animated credit sequence based on images from Goreyâ€™s books.
By the time he died in 2000, Gorey was a minor celebrity, much sought after both as a freelance illustrator and as a profile subject. He devoted his last years on Cape Cod, touchingly, to writing, designing, and directing avant-garde plays for a local theater troupe called Le ThÃ©atricule StoÃ¯que. One of them, Omlet, or Poopies Dallying, was a collage of garbled texts from early versions of Hamlet, performed with handmade papier-mÃ¢chÃ© puppets. From Deryâ€™s descriptions, these shows, few of which ever made it off the Cape, were as strange as anything in the Gorey oeuvre, and proof of the strong streak of perversity that never deserted him.