Born to Be Posthumous

Born to Be Posthumous: the Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, by Mark Dery

My librarian co-worker and I have both been looking forward to this, and we had to have a polite argument about who got to take this book home first and keep it over winter break.  "You should take it first; I have so many books at home."  "No, you should have it -- I might not be able to finish it in time!"  I wound up with it and am due to take it back on the first day of the semester, which is tomorrow -- today by the time this is published.  So I'd better hurry up and get this post done.

Can you believe nobody has done a Gorey biography before this?  Me neither.  On the whole, it's an interesting read and delves into Gorey's childhood, Army service during the war*, and all other events through his whole life. There is a happy amount of discussion of Gorey's particular aesthetic, and the implications thereof. Of course, all writing and artistic pursuits are carefully documented, which is nice; I enjoyed reading about each little book and how it was produced.  I often had to go look at my Amphigorey volumes to study things.

Gorey was a ballet fanatic, and pretty much went to every performance of the New York Ballet for years and years.  He also watched movies all the time, and read a zillion books -- you end up wondering how he ever managed to do it all.  (the book's proposed solution: he didn't sleep all that much?)

The only trouble I had with the biography was perhaps one that is intrinsic to the pursuit of biography at all.  Gorey was an intensely private person and didn't necessarily like people poking into his personal life.  This shows up very starkly in Dery's preoccupation with Gorey's sexuality.  When asked, he said he figured he was gay, but pretty much asexual.  Dery has a really hard time accepting this, and often seems determined to diagnose Gorey as more of a gay man horrified by his own feelings, which isn't really very convincing at all, given Gorey's personal style and circle of friends.  Why not let him define himself?  It was sometimes uncomfortably like poking him with a stick or trying to pry him open.  Dery does kind of calm down by the end.  And as I said, perhaps this problem is intrinsic to the whole project of biography, at least when about people who like their privacy.  (Like me.  I hope I never get famous and have somebody try to figure out all my feelings!  Happily that is not very likely.)

I wound up with a short list of things to watch that were very influential; as above, Gorey watched a huge number of films and had a very filmy, theatery sort of brain, and he also remembered everything, apparently.  I have really got to watch some Feuillade films, especially this series, "Les Vampires."  Once you see the head vampire lady, you know you've seen her a zillion times in Gorey imagery!  This is the first of seven episodes, and she doesn't show up until episode two, but there are other things, such as the cat burglar at the end of this one.

*Fun fact: Gorey was, for a while, posted to Camp Roberts in California, which he hated even more than he hated the rest of Army life.  The only real car accident I've ever been involved with was right next to Camp Roberts -- I and three friends were in two cars, and the other car lost control and went off the road.  No harm done, except a cracked oil pan, but the car was jammed into a curb and we had to get a truck to lift it off.  Every time I pass Camp Roberts I try to figure out exactly where that happened and I have never managed it.  I swear it happened, I even have a photo!


  1. Since Freud I think a lot of people have a hard time accepting sex is not the be-all and end-all of life for everybody (and if we say not, we're repressing it). This has infiltrated literary criticism and biography along with everything else.

    other than that, this sounds like an interesting way to learn more about a very amazing artist! Thanks for sharing it with us - I need to check my library for the book...

  2. I wonder if there are other interesting personages who've never had biographies written about them? That would be interesting to find out.

  3. I've loved Gorey since I read The House With a Clock in Its Walls as a kid. I also heard about this on NPR last fall, I'll have to look for a copy. He sounds wonderfully eccentric, just what you'd expect from his illustrations.


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