Story by Paul and Lily Giambarba
Photography by Paul Giambarba
A case in point is Edward Gorey, whose prodigious output of marvelous work - nearly 50 complete books, more than 60 illustrated books, and countless illustrated articles [ this was published in 1981- Ed.] - is probably admired for reasons tangential to its greatness.
Because the macabre in Gorey's drawings seems almost incidental. It just happens to be his milieu, the way he plays his music. How he actually draws is important, for the way he puts a picture together is what's really remarkable. Others may do illustrations and sketches, but you can put a frame around almost any of Gorey's drawings. They are complete in and of themselves. Gorey's ability to create a picture and fill it with life - even the languid, half-life his characters seem to lead - is what separates every major artist from the pretenders and mannerists.
In the select and impressive work of illustrated American literature he has few peers. There have been great American writers - most of whom are well-known - and great illustrators, of whom Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911) is the most famous, remembered for his Book of Pirates, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. Pyle created a world of his own: castles and knights, damsels and dragons, fierce buccaneers and sultry wenches, from a fertile imagination and brilliant draftsmanship.
Howard Pyle has his counterpart of today in Edward Gorey. But where Pyle achieved godlike status in his own time, founding a school of illustrators (who preached his gospel - of drawing from the draped model and attending to minute detail - for over 50 years in the publishing world) Edward Gorey works secluded in a large, rambling house in the village of Barnstable along Cape Cod's northern shore. He has founded no school of illustrators and has encouraged few imitators.
Gorey's work is inimitable because of its precise mix of wit and skill, its difficult-to-achieve but nevertheless perfect proportion of physical and intellectual virtuosity. Sublimely transcending the mundane reality of printing ink on paper, the meticulously drawn crosshatch and line work of his black-and-white renderings and impeccably hand-lettered text are surpassed only the outrageous names of characters and places that surface through the tight order of Gorey's work.
The Turnip Valley Express
West Elbow and Penetralia
The Halfbath Methodist Church
Weedhaven Laughing Academy
Miss Underfoot's Seminary
and even The Abandoned Sock.
But those who would Expect Edward Gorey to exhibit in a personal way some of the macabre and unfathomable mannerisms of his characters - hoping to glimpse him lurking about headstones under a full moon, or pulling the wings off flies - are certain to be disappointed. He is, as he looks, amiable and pleasant.
A large man of middle age and obvious good nature, Gorey bears a physical resemblance to one of the English kings at the beginning of the [19th] century, and who, with the proper make-up and padding, would make an admirable Saint Nicholas (not to be confused with Santa Claus!) of the same era. While his drawings are full of ominous, hirsute, and dark-eyed males of imposing proportions, or gangly men with sandy hair and coiled mustaches in formal attire, Gorey is far more likely to be found in Levis and sneakers. And a far cry from the habitues and haunts of his dissipated characters, Gorey can usually be seen in the glare of noon hunched over a table of a local ice cream establishment [Turner's on West Main Street, Hyannis, no longer in business], specializing in sundaes, reading a paperback and lunching on such innocuous fare.
He drives an old Volkswagen, wears a vintage raccoon coat in the chill of winter, and sports a reasonably inconspicuous gold earring at all times. And at home, when he's not out visiting relatives and friends, he lives constantly surrounded by an assortment of ginger, ginger-and-white, and black-and-white cats who threaten one another, bound off the fireplace mantles, and persistently nibble all the dried flower arrangements in sight.
Gorey, a transplanted Midwesterner, was born in Chicago in 1925. After graduating from high school in 1942, he served in the United States Army as a company clerk at the infamous Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. After an honorable discharge from the Army following World War II, Gorey enrolled at Harvard under the G.I. Bill, where the courses he liked best were in Italian history, particularly of the Renaissance and Risorgimento periods. But it's hard to tell what influences from his life predominate in Gorey's work, unless, of course, they're from his voluminous reading. Isobel Grassie [a friend and collector of Gorey's work, since deceased], herself an inveterate reader - and Gorey fan, par excellence - got to know him first as a customer at a book shop [Parnassus Book Service] in Yarmouth Port where she works.
Says Grassie, "He reads more than almost anyone I have ever known. And he reads in many, many areas, particularly British and American novels - early ones - but also other things as well. If he draws a glove, it's the right glove for the period for that kind of person. It's not just any old glove. You don't know it, and I don't know it, but he does." Grassie explains that she was a Gorey fan before she met him, though. "I was a fan before I moved to the Cape (in 1965) from Cohasset [a sea side suburb south of Boston]. I had seen one of his first books, The Willowdale Hand Car, and I loved his work. He writes so beautifully," she continues. "Every word is chosen so carefully. The drawings are exquisite. Everything seems suspended in time."
Grassie is also very fond of Edward Gorey as a person. She knows him as a "very kind and generous man" who's contributed his valuable talent freely many times. When Gorey found that Grassie lacked a particular book for her growing collection of Goreyana, he gave her one of his own.
Collecting old Gorey titles, especially the out-of-print ones, has become a seller's market. A book like the Willowdale Hand Car, a slim, soft-covered paperback published in a small, cautious run by Bobbs-Merril in 1962 sold for $1.50 and was remaindered for 98 cents. The book is now worth $30 [in 1982] on the active market for Gorey's work - a market that Isobel Grassie sees as having taken off with Dracula. "It happened gradually," she says, "but Dracula did it," referring to Gorey's drawings and costumes for the Broadway production starring Frank Langella in the title role. "There was always a coterie of people who collected his work, but Dracula brought him to the attention of the general public."
But Isobel Grassie, who also collects Virginia Woolf and editions of Alice in Wonderland, sees Gorey as having a much larger place for himself carved out than Dracula might indicate. "He's really our present-day Edward Lear," she remarks, "except that Edward Lear wrote much better than he drew, whereas Edward Gorey does both equally well."
Paul Giambarba is editor and publisher of CapeArts.
Lily Giambarba is a 1982 Harvard English honors graduate.
Text and illustrations Copyright © 1982, 2000, 2012 by Paul Giambarba.
Not to be reproduced in any manner.