Edward Gorey’s Peculiar Talent
by John Broening (September 2013)
Was there ever a book more at odds with its age than Amphigorey, Edward Gorey’s collection of morbidly droll illustrated primers, alphabets, limericks and children’s’ tales, which appeared in 1972?
In fashion, art and design, the early 70s were the era of the prolonged psychedelic hangover, and everywhere you looked at the time-in shop windows, on book and album covers and cereal boxes, on sports uniforms (as in the notorious Houston Astros getup) you saw a garish sherbet rainbow; Gorey’s illustrations, by contrast, were in stern monochrome; he worked almost exclusively in black and white, and even his whites seemed infected with black.
The early 70s were the beginning of our long habit of sunny oversharing and shedding anything that looked like repression or guilt, the time of Free to Be … You and Me, of I’m OK, You’re OK, of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Gorey portrayed a world that was not just pre-therapeutic but pre-psychological and seemed to celebrate the repressed, the unspoken and the unspeakable.
In Edward Gorey’s world, it is usually England somewhere between 1870 and 1910; it is the England of Doctor Crippen and Jack the Ripper, of Francis Galton and Henry Stanley; of erotomanes, eccentric heirs and explorers; a gaslight world in which night, if it has not already fallen, is always looming; a world of overstuffed houses with oppressive wallpapers, of sternly manicured gardens, icy lakes, blighted landscapes.
In his masterpiece, The Hapless Child, we see Charlotte Sophie, a tiny blond girl dressed all in white in her comfortable Victorian home, attended by her doting if somewhat forbidding parents. One misfortune after another befalls her: Her father is called away to Africa; her mother receives news of his death and dies of a broken heart; Charlotte is put in the care of an uncle who is brained by a falling piece of masonry; she is quickly placed by the family solicitor in an orphanage; she is abused, tormented by her fellow orphans; her beloved doll Hortense is torn to pieces. She escapes by climbing over the orphanage wall and loses consciousness on the pavement; she is robbed of her locket bearing her parents’ images and is ‘taken to a low place’ by a blackguard in a fisherman’s sweater; he sells her to a brute who puts her to work making paper roses. She begins to lose her sight. It turns out her father is not actually dead; we see him in his early-model motor car, roaming the streets in search for her-and, irony of ironies!- he is, after a procession of villains and brutes, the scariest looking figure of all, strange and insectile in his full length fur coat, leathern cap and motoring glasses. In the end he runs her over, dismounts to look at the little girl, dying in the snow, and, we are told in the final panel, ‘She was so changed, he did not recognize her.’
In The Hapless Child, Gorey takes the Victorian tales of woe and brings their hidden sadism, which must have been unconscious to both their creators and audience, to the forefront. In other words, Gorey. like Lewis Carroll, Tolkien or E.B. White, is an author of children’s books for grown-ups, in which disturbing and adult themes are advanced in a deceptively naïve tone.
It could be also be argued that the popularity of Gorey’s works (in the 70s and 80s there was scarcely an educated household in America that didn’t possess a copy of one of his books) derives from their camp appeal: and it’s true that Gorey himself with his fur coats and Havelock Ellis beard, his puppet operas and his love for the classical ballet, was a very camp figure.
Yet that doesn’t explain their persistence: the effect of camp fades quickly, yet something about Gorey’s work seems to have endured. A clue to Gorey’s unique value may lie in the shrewd use he makes of his own technical limitations. There have been illustrators who were museum-quality artists; N.C. Wyeth was one; Winsor McCay, who created Little Nemo, and drew with the fluid line of a master draughtsman, was another. Gorey was, by contrast, a primitive draughtsman, and could not convincingly draw the human form. His human bodies are rigid and boxlike. They seem to float awkwardly in space like cardboard cutouts, rather than being anchored in the earth. But Gorey uses this crudeness to clever effect. The rigidity of his human forms always has an expressive content: his characters are coiled and paralyzed with forbidden lust or unconscious rage, stiff with insincere affection or else frozen in fear of imminent assault or violation.
The rigidity and deliberate crudeness of his drawing has another source of power and it explains why Gorey endures as a worthy minor artist. Minor artists—Beerbohm is a perfect example—excel in the short form; their work is often characterized as mannered and they recycle and repeat rather than develop. In her fascinating essay on Alfred Chester, Cynthia Ozick concludes that what makes minor art minor is that it draws not on life, but on other art.
Nowhere does she suggest that in the right hands this may be a virtue. The power of Gorey’s art, which is at once crude and highly mannered, derives from its debt to other art; not to the great Victorian illustrators like Sir John Tenniel or Arthur Rackham or Randolph Caldicott but to the forgotten ones, the anonymous hacks whose ungainly drawings illustrate penny dreadfuls and pirated editions of Dickens.
In imitating the work of these nameless artists, Gorey does something unexpected: he recalls the awesome, vanished power of the illustrated image. Living in an image—saturated world, it’s easy to forget how image-deprived the great majority of people once were: for Victorians and even Edwardians, a family photograph was a once-a-decade luxury as was a painting; museums were not the demotic institutions they have since become and the motion picture didn’t become a truly mass medium until the second decade of the twentieth century.
The source for the visual image for most people was, besides the religious reproduction, the book, newspaper or magazine illustration, which had the power to inspire indignation, create daydreams, titillate and shock.
The reissue of The Unrest-Cure and other stories by Saki, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (NYRB Books) makes clear that Gorey's peculiar talent lay in giving pictorial form to his own narratives rather than in illustrating the works of others.
To call this collection of sparkless squibs ‘stories’ is to imply they have both plots and a degree of dramatic interest. In many of them, effete aristos named Reginald or Clovis lunch with Duchesses and utter sub-Wildean bon mots like 'Scandal is merely the compassionate allowance which the gay make to the humdrum.’
Saki writes the kind of British prose that is lavish in its use of the passive voice and in which the liveliest part of speech is the adverb, which is almost always used to convey social judgment: parties are ‘severely exclusive’; ‘a woman will cheerfully choose a husband for her less attractive friends’ but 'no woman ever cheerfully chooses a claret.' And ‘if you are methodical and virtuous in private you don't necessarily want everyone to know it.’
In the bizarre title story, which was written just before the First World War, a young man named Clovis, eavesdropping on a sedate middle aged man complaining about his routine life, contrives to invent an ‘Unrest-Cure’ for the bored gentleman: he convinces the man that Clovis and a lunatic Anglican bishop have hatched a scheme with the aid of the Boy-Scouts to ‘massacre every Jew in the neighborhood.’
The suggestion is that this imaginary stratagem, this 'blot on the Twentieth Century’ has revivified the man and that proximity to danger and bloodthirstiness have given his life a new meaning. It’s hard to know what think of this story, especially after a Twentieth Century that had no shortage of blots, and Gorey’s illustrations don’t really illuminate the story, because, unlike the illustrations to his self-penned tales, they don’t really seem to have a point of view.
There’s something listless and perfunctory about the pen and ink sketches Gorey has provided for this book, which have all the defects and none of the virtues of his other work: they seem to imply that the artist had little interest in venturing outside his own self-enclosed, semi-autistic world, a characteristic he shared with many of the great children’s book writers: Barrie, Carroll, Dahl and others. No wonder he loved the puppet opera.
John Broening is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. His writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Departures, The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper, The Faster Times and The Outlet and his article on the Noble Swine Supper Club was featured in Best Food Writing 2012
To comment on this essay, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish interesting articles such as this, please click here.
If you enjoyed this article and want to read more by John Broening, please click here.