Edward Gorey is someone who is in my pantheon of personal icons, so Mark Dery’s exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) biography of this somber cypher of a man definitely made for some fascinating company these past couple of weeks.
Written in the affected and often ornate style of its subject, Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey is chock-full of fascinating and gossipy anecdotes, and a myriad of quotations from people who belonged in circles that Gorey, being the consummate loner, was never really an intimate part of, but frequented enough to leave a lasting, singular impression, like a particularly epigrammatic, histrionic spectre.
[Gorey] asked some friends to move everything out of his apartment (“because I was already back up here on the Cape”) but had neglected to tell them about the mummy’s head gathering dust in the closet. “It didn’t occur to me to say, ‘And don’t forget the mummy’s head'” As it happened, they didn’t notice the mysterious object swaddled in brown paper on the top shelf. The super, however, did. “I got a call from a detective at some precinct or other who said, ‘Mr. Gorey, we’ve discovered a head in your closet,’ and I said, ‘Oh for god’s sake.'”
Posthumous is not a perfect biography by any means. It could have done with some more thorough editing, since Dery has a tendency to repeat himself. He also devotes far too much time and space speculating about Gorey’s sexuality, a fruitless endeavour if there ever was one, as Gorey’s life — much like work — defied any real categorization. As Dery himself notes in the introduction, Gorey “was inscrutable because he didn’t want to be scruted.” Gorey was famously evasive when it came to questions about his sexuality (as indeed, to questions about his personal life in general), often providing vague, demurring answers. The closest he ever came to admitting anything was in an 1980 interview for Boston Magazine. When asked directly, he responded, “I suppose I’m gay.” A declaration that is then, in typical Gorey mercurialness, immediately followed up with, “But I don’t identify with it much.” Dery seems to take issue with these sorts of statements, making the argument that they come from a privileged position and that they actually prevent Gorey from being properly considered as an important and prominent queer icon. It’s a fair assessment, and I’d allow that a more concrete answer would certainly add another interesting perspective from which to look at the life and work of the artist. But I don’t really see the point in making the “sure he says he’s this here but was he really” type of speculation Dery repeatedly insists on doing. Especially when Gorey’s declarations, while admittedly glib, seem to be fairly definitive. (For whatever it’s worth, Gorey was most definitely queer, and also assuredly asexual.) Ultimately, though, as fashion writer Guy Trebay is quoted as saying near the end of Posthumous, remarking on the futility of sexual speculation, Gorey was “far queerer than queer.”
Gorey didn’t fit neatly into philosophical binaries: goth or Golden Girls fan? “Genuine eccentric” or (his words) “a bit of a put on”? Unaffectedly who he was or, as he once confided, “not real at all, just a fake persona”? Commercial illustrator or fine artist? Children’s book author or confirmed pedophobe who found children “quite frequently not terribly likeable”?
Rampant conjecture aside, Dery truly shines when it comes to analyzing and discussing Gorey’s diverse variety of work, looking at much it from the lens of movements and philosophical schools of thought like Surrealism, Dada, and Taoism, all of which Gorey actively dabbled in throughout his life. They are also all topics that involve many complex and enigmatic ideas, but Dery does a commendable job at getting them across clearly. (Posthumous may be a hefty tome of a biography, but it is also an eminently readable one.) Dery’s admiration for Gorey is particularly palpable in these segments, which made for some of the most enjoyable parts in this book.
In the end, Born to Be Posthumous is a fascinating deep dive into the life of one of the most fascinating and brilliant literary eccentrics of the twentieth century. Or whatever.