The waning days of autumn are a terrific time to visit the realm of the eerie, the imaginative, and the surreal, and this week I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite masters of all three domains who had a French connection, too!  The American illustrator and author Edward Gorey was able to express, as well as any artist I can think of, the mystifying, whimsical, antic, playful, sometimes sublime, oftentimes sordid idiosyncrasies of Western life.  The creator of hundreds of works, Gorey excelled at the meticulous execution of etched and ink-drawn portraits and scenes of handsomely scarfed and chapeaued women and men, as well as similarly accoutered cats and myriad other curious, unsettling creatures.  He also reveled in the literal “literary” execution of dozens of children and others who met their cruel quietus at his hand. 

Gorey’s prolific professional career began in 1953, when he first established himself as an illustrator and typographer with Doubleday Anchor in Manhattan.  Shortly afterward, he transitioned to creating original material for his own works, a period spanning 46 years.  Many of Gorey’s books, illustrated with tremendously detailed black pen drawings, portray distinguished characters given to unusual pursuits or delivered to distressing fates.  By the early 1980s, his designs for the animated title sequence of the PBS television series Mystery! had received critical acclaim.


It was a perfect collaboration: enigma was Gorey’s natural habitat; he seemed to delight in deceptively simple ideas that obscured some surreal truth, or vice versa. 
Similarly, Gorey’s works were often genre-defying and oscillated between books for children and those that at first glance appear to be for young readers but may be upsetting to some (the poem and accompanying picture book, The Wuggly Ump, whose titular character is indisputably a bit wicked, is top of mind).  

Edward Gorey was drawn to France’s art and literature, providing illustrations for collections by Charles Cros and Alphonse Allais.  Before that, however, and before using French to compose some of his verses (as in The Listing Attic), or to name his own collections (L'Heure bleue, La Malle saignante), Gorey majored in French as an undergraduate at Harvard.  Considering his lifelong love of art and English literature, the choice might have seemed arbitrary, although he later jested it was because he had read every book in the English language and intended to start anew with French. While he finished his studies underwhelmed by the department, there is evidence that he had attained and maintained some proficiency of the language throughout his life.  Mark Dery, Gorey’s official biographer, kindly shared with me that Gorey “did, however, read French, and periodically snapped up books in French in order, he claimed, to keep from losing, through disuse, whatever command he did have of the language.  He told his friend and collaborator Peter Neumeyer, in a letter, that he’d been reading Borges in French, not exactly la-plume-de-ma-tante high school French, so he was at least that fluent in written French.”  In Gorey’s art, too, French influences were apparent.  Gregory Hischak, director of the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, notes that although Gorey’s style was often mistaken for British, the costumes his characters wore were inspired by turn-of-the-century French fashion.  Hischak also points to the considerable and eclectic collection of French fine art, photography, writings, toys, and even supernatural architectural designs that Gorey accumulated as confirmation of a lifelong engagement with French culture.

While exploring Gorey’s works is perfect preternatural preparation to get into a Halloween mood, his work can and should be enjoyed all year round!  I would like to carefully note that although some of Gorey’s work is considered macabre (a term which Gorey himself objected to) and is placed into the genre of the weird, supernatural, or peculiar, what made Gorey a singular talent was his ability to transcend that genre.  His human characters, while at once rigid, frail, and dark, are also some of the most charming and fully realized that I’ve ever seen.  His creatures are vivacious, supple, inquisitive, and a little naughty.  I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about Edward Gorey to read Mark Dery’s beautifully written biography, Born to be Posthumous, and to visit the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port and see his “French collections” in person.

  Edward Gorey, photographed in his home by Tim Gray    

Clare Goslant

Education Administrator

A lifelong Cantabrigian, Clare first stepped foot inside the Alliance Française when she was just five to see what French was all about and never really left. The Center’s teachers and staff have contributed so much over the years to Clare’s education and love of French literature and culture that she is delighted to be able to return the favor to others as part of the education administrative team.

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