On Edward Gorey, George Herriman, and Creative DNA

Eve Bowen’s recent NYRBlog article on collecting Edward Gorey is full of enough eclectic links and images to make any fan happy. It also reminded me that I only had a few more days to catch “Gorey Preserved” at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. RBML is my former employer, and I’d been seeing teasers for the show on display since 2010, when Andrew Alpern donated his huge collection of Gorey originals, artwork, books, and memorabilia to the library. It seemed like a perfect time to go visit old coworkers at Butler Library, look at all the new baby pictures, and catch the exhibit up on the sixth floor.

And it did not disappoint. Along with the expected sketches and prints and gently yellowed Anchor paperbacks, there were some nice surprises: A couple of miniature alphabet books in tiny slipcases. A series of eerie (even for Gorey), nimbus-like etchings of tumbling eyeless elephants. Postcards, Christmas cards. A mannequin wearing a coyote-fur parka, with a placard explaining that Gorey eventually gave up his beloved fur coats when he realized they were incompatible with his love of animals—yes, reader, I petted it. And a two-page spread from a small black-and-white book, most likely from Gorey’s own Fantod Press, of two Edwardianly bearded men lounging at either end of a very Victorian sofa holding hands, accompanied by an almost blushingly sweet poem:

Were you but mine, we’d sprawl supine
   Across a chintzed settee;
And slabs we’d take of pounded cake
   And swigs of Q.R.V.

It’s hard to believe he’s been gone twelve years already; his work still feels ubiquitous.

Aside from nudging me down to Columbia to see a terrific exhibit, though, the NYRBlog piece also got me thinking with its little offhand lede:

While working in the Anchor/Doubleday art department in the 1950s, the illustrator and writer Edward Gorey discovered a long-forgotten cache of material by an earlier artist, the Krazy Kat creator George Herriman. These were Herriman’s original drawings for Don Marquis’s book about a poetry-writing cockroach and his cat companion, Archy and Mehitabel.

As far as my personal pantheon of artistic and literary influences goes, this was just about perfect. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t love both Gorey and Herriman, and much of my childhood artwork shamelessly echoed themes from their work (oh all right, much of my adult artwork as well, although maybe not as shamelessly). And I wasn’t just sparked by their drawings—their peculiar offbeat sensibilities inspired me, even at seven or eight years old; the doggerel, the free verse, the rhythms, the skewed eye trained on the universe. These two men are both part of my creative DNA, and I was delighted to see them so linked. You just cannot beat blogs for information like that.

But… how did I find Gorey and Herriman in the first place? I’m interested in the generation of influences, where and whom they come from. I can trace most of mine: to friends in high school and college and from various workplaces and downtown playgrounds and NPR and freeform radio stations, and then after 1998 or so the wonderful wunderkammer of the internet. Before high school, though, living in the New Jersey suburbs, how did I come by all the weird and wonderful discoveries that shaped me? Who first turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut, or put a copy of The Princess Bride or Chilly Scenes of Winter or anything by Harlan Ellison into my hands? Where did MY ancient paperback of Archy and Mehitabel come from? My friends weren’t readers. I can’t remember any of my teachers pressing books on me; there were no beloved librarians. My parents were certainly readers, but I’m pretty sure not like that.

It remains a mystery to me, one I’m deeply thankful for. I’m built of weird and wonderful pop culture influences that I still love, but I have no idea where they came from. Kids these days can find anything they need or want online… but obviously the kind of kid I was could find what I needed too. I’d just love to know where.

(Photo of three books from Fantod Press from the wonderful Goreyana blog.)


2 Comments to On Edward Gorey, George Herriman, and Creative DNA

  1. August 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    For a look at Edward Gorey’s theatrical side, see my new e-book “Edward Gorey On Stage: Playwright, Director, Designer, Performer: a Multimedia Memoir.” (He and I met over Kurt Vonnegut!)

  2. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    August 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    I never suspected a meeting point of Marquis, Herriman, and Gorey, but now it seems inevitable. Thanks.

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