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The Importance of Being Ogdred: A Conversation with Mark Dery

Mark Dery is an essayist, educator, and cultural critic whose work you might or might not know, but definitely should. Among other things, Dery is considered a pioneer voice in the critical field of cyberstudies, the scholar behind the definitive work on the “evil clown” meme, the author of six books (all keepers) and the inventor of the term “Afrofuturism.” (I consider his 1999 The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink indispensable, worth the price of admission for that Bozo Noir think-piece alone.)

Edward Gorey surely needs no introduction. Except maybe he does. Every semester in the long-form section of my college-level comics history course (inching towards the graphic-novel era) I flash the cover to The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel (1953) to a fresh crop of millennial art student eyeballs and inquire if any of them might know the work of Edgar Gorey. They don’t. (They also tend not to know the work of Norman Rockwell, Babe Ruth, Frank Frazetta, or Ronald Reagan.) I toss a few hints. “B is for BASIL assaulted by bears"? PBS Mystery!? Dracula? Crickets.

Hopefully this incisive, mordant and genuinely-hard-to-put-down biography will kick-start a generational awakening of what us 20th Centurions have known since we were beastly babies: Edward Gorey was one of the darkest and lightest, funniest and dismalest, most original and most historically-rooted visual storytellers of his (or any other) time.

Mark Newgarden: Why biography, and why Gorey?

Mark Dery: An unanswerable question about an insoluble riddle! As it happens, form follows function in this case. Meaning: I wasn’t casting about for someone to biographize. I’d been prospecting for bestseller ideas in the goldfields of cultural criticism, pelting my long-suffering agent with increasingly unsalable proposals—I remember something called Anti Claus: How The Lord of Misrule Became a Bourgeois Tool (And Still Managed to Enrage the Religious Right)—when my wife and teenaged daughter and I decided to while away an overcast day at the Edward Gorey museum on Cape Cod, where we were vacationing. We left enthralled, and on the ride back to our rental cottage, my wife said, apropos of nothing, “What about a Gorey biography?” I pooh-poohed the idea, positive that a subject as endlessly engrossing as Gorey must’ve been the subject of at least one biography, if not a whole shelf-load. Incredibly, a quick search of Amazon turned up not a one, though there were exhibition catalogues (The World of Edward Gorey) and Alexander Theroux’s Strange Case of Edward Gorey, a bitchy, dishy memoir of the author’s friendship with the artist that’s as much about Theroux and his many obsessions, digressions, and vexations as it is about our hero. I sent my beleaguered agent a pleading email, asking him to take time out of his summer vacation for one more pitch. It had better be good was the gist of his reply. “A biography of Edward Gorey,” I wrote. “There isn’t one.” He was quick with his reply: Sold.

Since you asked about the biography as a genre, I will say that while I wasn’t drawn to the form as a writer, partly for economic reasons—the long years required to summit the Everest of any memorable life is a recipe for bankruptcy—I’m very much drawn to it as a reader. I’m a great believer in biography as a way of sneaking into philosophy through the backstage door. In the case of thorny thinkers—Samuel Beckett, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger—the life can be a prism that refracts the ideas in a way that’s at least as revealing as any attempt to confront a body of thought head-on, bullfighter’s cape in hand. In not a few instances, the biography is more interesting than the subject: I’m thinking of Philip Hoare’s incomparable Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant, about a golden-haired boy in Waugh’s Bright Young Things set who spent much of his life in bed.

Then, too, even if the subject casts a long historical shadow, that doesn’t mean we should draw the curtain of discretion across his quirks and peccadilloes and perversities. Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson, the book that launched the genre in the modern sense of the word, is an inexhaustible pleasure precisely because it shows us the man in full, as Thomas Babington Macaulay notes in an essay that’s almost as juicy as the book itself:

Johnson… is better known to us than any other man in history. Every thing about him, his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scrofula, his St. Vitus's dance, his rolling walk, his blinking eye, the outward signs which too clearly marked his approbation of his dinner, his insatiable appetite for fish-sauce and veal-pie with plums, his inextinguishable thirst for tea, his trick of touching the posts as he walked, his mysterious practice of treasuring up scraps of orange-peel, his morning slumbers, his midnight disputations, his contortions, his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his vigorous, acute and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr. Levett and blind Mrs. Williams, the cat Hodge and the negro Frank all are as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood.

That, to me, is the deliciousness of biography: the use of the distinguishing characteristic and the telling detail to put flesh on dry bones, bring the subject to life, make us feel we know him firsthand, can read his mind, ramble through his thoughts.

In Born To Be Posthumous, Edward Gorey emerges not only as a self-styled public enigma but also a complex, non-binary, infinitely layered contrarian of an onion. What would his response be to this biography be? Second response? Final?

It pains me to say it but Gorey would’ve been aghast. An only child and a lifelong solitary, catlike in his wariness of probing and prying, he shrank from interviewers’ questions about his childhood, his Family of Origin (as certified social workers like to call it), and—heaven forfend!—his sexuality, which he always insisted was “Victorian,” or neither here nor there, or practically nonexistent—in other words, all the unfrequented rooms in the West Wing of the psyche, which a biographer is obligated to snoop around in. He would’ve sent my book windmilling through the air, almost certainly with his signature exclamation, “Can someone tell me just what, exactly, this is in aid of?!"

Edmund Wilson’s role in jumper-cabling Gorey into the 1950s literary landscape seems significant (and something of which I was previously unaware). Can you discuss Wilson’s take on Gorey, and for the record: did Wilson ever weigh in on other visual storytellers?

Not that I know of, but his output was prodigious and I’ve only read a fraction of it so who knows? As you point out (and as I note in the book), Wilson was unquestionably the first critic of any stature to take serious notice of Gorey’s work. In his essay “The Albums of Edward Gorey”, which appeared in the December 26, 1959 New Yorker, he puts Gorey in the company of Ronald Searle, presumably because they share a love of black comedy and because they’re both world-class eccentrics, although the gleeful depravity of Searle’s humor and his frenzied, ink-spattered style are closer to Ralph Steadman’s, I think. Elegantly economical, Gorey’s line is nothing if not controlled; Searle and Steadman are all about being out of control, or at least the appearance of it. Wilson also compares Gorey’s drawings to something called Le Cirque du Père Lachaise by the art historian and illustrator Philippe Jullian, whom I’d never heard of, but whose squiggly, jaunty line strikes me as a more insouciant version of Searle’s.

A bat, or possibly an umbrella, disengages itself from the shrubbery in The
Object-Lesson. (Doubleday, 1958)

He’s very good on Gorey’s psychology, zeroing in on the Freudian figure he calls The Master, the bearded Victorian paterfamilias who recurs in Gorey’s work and whose patriarchal authority is often challenged by enfants terribles like the Doubtful Guest or unseen pranksters like whoever it was made off with His Lordship’s artificial limb in The Object-Lesson. (Gorey, it should be noted, was not close to his father, a crime reporter and, later, P.R. man who found his bookish, bohemian son baffling in the extreme.) Most perceptively, he identifies Gorey’s aesthetic as steeped in Surrealism, comparing the free-associated procession of more or less unrelated scenes that make up The Object-Lesson to the dream logic that structures Max Ernst’s collage novels. Also, he draws parallels between Gorey and Aubrey Beardsley, whose Japanese-inspired use of vast expanses of white counterpointed by patches of solid black reminds us of Gorey’s beautifully balanced black-and-white compositions, which I believe nod both to Beardsley (whose work Gorey knew) and the ukiyo-e prints that influenced him and fellow Victorian aesthetes like Whistler.

One of the things I admired about Born To Be Posthumous was the careful attention paid to the individual books themselves. While stylistically of a piece, they’ve always struck me as a powerfully diverse body of work, often incorporating perverse and ingenious formal goals. What were you able to you glean about the ways that Gorey ideas gestated and Gorey books took shape?

Only what I was able to piece together through guesswork, since few interviewers ever thought to ask Gorey how he hatched ideas. He kept a little pad with him at all times, more for jotting down ideas for books or adding to his vast store of obscure or sesquipedalian words than for sketching. It’s important to remember that he considered himself a writer first. (He once called his highly compressed narratives “Victorian novels all scrunched up.”) He was a devout fan of the Times crossword and an obsessive collector of archaic or arcane words or those he just found delicious. In The Nursery Frieze, he sets one of his word lists to visual music, so to speak, a procession of unrelated words marching across its pages in rhymed couplets.

But Gorey was a bona fide polymath whose encyclopedic erudition and sweeping art-historical literacy often fed his imagination: The Object-Lesson was directly inspired by the 18th-century dramatist Samuel Foote’s nonsense poem “The Grand Panjandrum”; The West Wing nods to Magritte and Ernst’s collage novels and the Egyptian Book of the Dead; he got the idea for his unfinished book, The Interesting List, from the fictitious taxonomy cited by Jorge Luis Borges in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”; The Pious Infant is a deadpan parody of Puritan children’s literature, specifically A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (1671–'72) by the Puritan divine James Janeway; The Hapless Child was inspired by L’Enfant de Paris (1913), a silent movie by the French director Léonce Perret, which as I noted in the book Gorey saw just once, at one of the Museum of Modern Art’s Saturday morning screenings. (He had a remarkable visual memory; it seems to have been photographic, or close to it—he claimed to be able to watch, in his head, any of the New York City Ballet performances he’d ever seen, and he saw thousands in the course of his nearly three decades of ballet-going.)

It’s important to note that Gorey wasn’t just some postmodern magpie, prying loose any ideas that weren’t nailed down and mashing them up, willy nilly. “I have a strong sense of imitation,” he readily admitted, but maintained that his pack-rat aesthetic didn’t make his work unoriginal because his pastiches always ended up inimitably his own: “So I can afford to indulge this kind of exercise, filch blatantly from all over the place, because it will ultimately be mine.”

From The
Doubtful Guest. (Doubleday, 1957)

Was Gorey essentially a humorist—and even if not, what makes his work so funny?

Not “essentially” if by that you mean it’s his defining quality. I’m not persuaded he has a single defining quality, which is why I and virtually every other critic trying to wrap our minds around the “Goreyesque” tend to reach for hyphenated terms that stitch together unlike aesthetics or influences—the conceptual equivalent of a Feejee mermaid. My contributions were “camp-macabre” and “ironic-gothic.”

But I’m dodging your bullet. Was Gorey a humorist? Certainly he was a parodist in the sense that he’s often making fun of platitudinous, terminally humorless forms like the Puritan primer, the Victorian cautionary tale, the Dickensian weeper, and even pornography, which he parodies brilliantly in his mock-porn story The Curious Sofa. At his most profound, though, he’s a humorist in the sense that Samuel Beckett is a humorist.

Unsurprisingly, Gorey was a big fan of Beckett’s work; both share the unshakable conviction that “life is the pits,” as Gorey put it—that the human comedy is essentially meaningless, an absurdist farce alternating between endless stretches of waiting-for-Godot boredom punctuated, without warning, by senseless violence or pointless Acts of God. Beckett’s famous observation, in Endgame, that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” sounds like something Gorey might’ve said, just as Gorey’s observation that “if you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point” could just as easily have been a Beckett quote. They’re both wringing black comedy out of the questions that haunt us when we turn out the light: What’s the meaning of life? Is there a god? An afterlife? How do we deal with the fact that every clock tick takes us one second closer to death? If Gorey makes us laugh, “it’s the laugh that laughs – silence please – at that which is unhappy,” as Beckett says in his novel Watt.

Often, it’s the contrast between the patent absurdity of the events he depicts and the irrepressible gloominess of his prose that makes Gorey funny; his lugubrious voiceover is the literary equivalent of Buster Keaton’s deadpan. Of course there’s more than one thing going on in his wit. When the Dickensian waif in The Hapless Child is run over by her father, who’s desperately searching for her, we’re amused by Gorey’s deadpan send-up of the genre clichés of three-hankie melodramas and by the juxtaposition of farcical horror with unflappable narration and by the cosmic irony of the thing.

You spend a fair amount of ink discussing Gorey’s sexuality (or asexuality or neutrality or…) and view his work through multiple lenses in that regard. In the end how significant for you was Edward Gorey’s sexual identity to understanding his life and work?

Well, it wasn’t so much a matter of Gorey’s complicated, ambiguous, ultimately irresolvable sexuality as it was his cultural queerness. He may or may not have been gay or asexual (though there’s no doubting he was “queerer than queer,” as one of my interviewees put it). What’s of greater importance, as I argue in the book, was the extent to which the “gay aesthetic,”whatever that is, left its mark on Gorey’s art, style of mind, and social persona—and on American culture, where it’s influence is as pervasive as it is profound. However you define it—and we could argue till we’re mauve in the face about the subcultural semiotics of pre-Stonewall gay culture—there does seem to be a shared sensibility that unites the overwhelmingly gay artists and writers who influenced Gorey, from Victorian Aesthetes like Oscar Wilde and Beardsley to ‘20s novelists like Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Firbank, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, as well as balletomania and silent-film fandom (both markers of gay identity, historically).

In the book, I use queer theory, Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on 'Camp'”, the gay cultural critic Edmund White, and gay historiography (most notably George Chauncey’s exhaustively researched Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940) to think about Gorey’s debt to gay culture and what might loosely be called the queer attitude, pre-Stonewall—a fondness for wit and theatricality, a tendency to view life as theater and the social self as a mask, an ironic take on things, a belief in taste as a defining characteristic, an insistence—with tongue firmly in cheek—on treating the serious lightly and taking the trivial seriously.

Gorey seems to have imbibed many of these qualities through his artistic, literary, cinematic, and theatrical influences. So whether he was gay in his private life is less my point of argument than his indebtedness to an aestheticized way of viewing the self and the world that suffused gay culture from the Wildean aesthetes of the 1890s through the aesthetic set of the 1920s, immortalized by Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, to the gay circles Gorey moved in at Harvard in the late ‘40s. In “Notes on ‘Camp’”, Sontag defines that stereotypically gay sensibility as a “way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon ... not in terms of beauty but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Tellingly, Gorey told an interviewer, “My life has been concerned completely with aesthetics. My responses to things are almost completely aesthetic.” Regardless of his sexuality, he owes a profound artistic debt to gay culture, as does American culture more generally.

“There’s a rather odd couple in Herts . . .” The Listing Attic. (Duell, Sloan and
Pearce/Little, Brown, 1954)

Crafting a comprehensive biography of an individual who once confided to a friend: “There is a strong streak in me that wishes not to exist and really does not believe that I do” was clearly no walk in the park. What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

Securing the permission of the estate—the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust—to quote from Gorey’s unpublished writings and to reproduce his art. As any biographer will tell you, estates tend to keep a white-knuckled grip on their intellectual property; biographers have to beg, browbeat, cajole, and do the Dance of the Seven Veils in hopes of getting access to materials that are essential to telling their subject’s life story. It’s an ulcerating, soul-shriveling chore. To add insult to injury, reviewers have faulted me for the dearth of illustrations in the book. If they only knew how lucky I was to get the handful that I did!

Contemporary popular culture owes a handsome debt—and in my opinion an unpaid one, still accruing interest—to Edward Gorey. For oddballs of my generation he was a childhood hero and dysfunctional household name, whose national Q-score eventually spiked as high as it conceivably could have in his lifetime. I’m troubled that so many millennials not only draw a blank on this late-20th-century icon’s work, but typically require a particular Disneyfied context by way of introduction. As Mark Dery, cultural critic, please weigh in: what are we to make of this?

The passage of time: the “oddballs of [our] generation” are now long in the tooth; the pop-culture constellations you and I navigate by can’t be found on any millennial’s map of mass culture. Then, too, Americans have been hostile to history from the minute we turned our backs on the Old World, and social media exacerbates that tendency by embedding us in a Perpetual Now. Of course, Gorey remains a cult figure, so we can hardly blame millennials for not knowing who he is. That said, they know him without knowing it, through the work of Goreyphiles like Lemony Snicket and Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro. I’m hoping my book will make him, if not a household name, a “dysfunctional-household name,” to filch your phrase.

What’s next for Mark Dery?

After seven years’ hard labor at the writing desk? A well-earned nervous collapse onto the nearest fainting touch, followed by a year spent in bed sipping rum shrubs and reading Ronald Firbank.

Mark Dery c. Taylor Crothers

Mark Newgarden is a cartoonist and co-author (with Paul Karasik) of the Eisner Award-winning How To Read Nancy. He teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.

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One Response to The Importance of Being Ogdred: A Conversation with Mark Dery

  1. Glen Emil says:

    Nicely done! Watching all the reviews being laid end to end, it’s gratifying to see a well-balanced, open minded one between the polarities.

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