- Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer
- Pomegranate, 256 pp.
The Curious Story of Edward Gorey
There’s a moment in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer where Gorey suddenly cuts off an account of a friend’s visit with this observation:
Apropos of nothing at all except that it has been on my mind and I think I had better say it because it accounts for a good deal of my behaviour. [sic] There is a strong streak in me that wishes not to exist and really does not believe that I do…
Peter Neumeyer, university don, first met Edward Gorey, modern gothic, in 1968. The matchmaker was the publisher, Harry Stanton, and the meeting – a sail off Cape Cod – was to discuss Neumeyer’s idea for a series of children’s books based around a boy named Donald.
In a nice twist to the tale, Neumeyer managed to dislocate Gorey’s shoulder.
Thus began an intense and short-lived friendship between the author and illustrator, carried on principally through correspondence. Through letters, postcards, illustrated envelopes, copies of rough drafts and random doodles, we track the progression of Donald’s publication.
You can see why Gorey was attracted to the project. In the first of the series, Donald and the…, Donald is fascinated by the metamorphosis of a little white worm into a housefly. In the second, Donald has a Difficulty, Donald’s mother tries to distract him from the sting of a splinter and fails miserably.
They were not particularly childlike books, and Stanton grew more nervous of the project as time went on. While Neumeyer was inclined to compromise, Gorey insisted on artistic integrity. Here he is venting his spleen on making things “suitable for Harry”:
I am not lying on the kitchen floor drumming my heels on linoleum, but I should like to be. I am angry. I am enraged. I want to beat Harry Stanton about the head with a pewter mug.
It would have made for a good Gorey illustration – the mild-mannered artist, with his incongruously respectable beard, pummeling his publisher to death – but, alas, it remained a fantasy.
Instead, he and Neumeyer soothed themselves with intellectual discussion. A hungry, even ravenous reader (he left approximately 25,000 volumes in the Cape Cod house), Gorey often sent Neumeyer books or updated him on the latest arthouse films.
Neumeyer responded with scholarly esprit, but he was hard put to equal his partner’s digressions. The works of Jorge Luis Borges, the wonders of Japanese court poetry, the inadequacy of The Yellow Submarine – having found a sympathetic spirit, Gorey let loose a torrent of opinions about anything in his path.
Indeed, as the correspondence deepened, Gorey’s letters became less and less like letters and more and more like journal entries. He even took over Neumeyer’s imagination, creating a Donald story of his own:
First draft of story done. It is about how Donald got the pet that appears in D has a D. I’ll no doubt have a sufficiently finished version for you to read by the time this gets to the mail. All I can say is I am becoming a believer in possession in the occult sense: you have written this, not me; whether or not you like it has nothing to do with it.
Neumeyer doesn’t remark on his feelings about this appropriation, but he must have sensed that Gorey’s enthusiasm was closely linked to his creative energies. Squash the eagerness and you squash the man.
Perhaps he also understood that the story was not really about Donald, but his pet. A black-pelted cross between a capybara and a sperm whale, the “stoej-gnpf” evolved into a mascot of Gorey’s envelopes (reprinted in the book).
We see it trialing roller skates, trussed up in a sling, examining a skull and sporting a fetching red Christmas scarf. It becomes Gorey’s alter ego, a mute companion to the human world:
I think I have always felt that I was living on the edge… Which means of course that the centre is elsewhere, always, mysterious and unobtainable. Other people are at the heart of things. Sometimes I get terribly wistful about this in my weaker moments, or used to.
As he said himself, “me is the envelopes and not nearly so much so, the often foolish letters inside.”
Then, somewhat abruptly, the “foolish letters” stop.
The end of the Donald books was partly to blame, as was geography. In 1969, Neumeyer and his family moved to New York, where Neumeyer took up a new university position at Stony Brook. Gorey observed a friend responding to the needs of family and career, and pulled back:
I’m glad you all like Stony Brook.
I’m glum and newsless. I’ve done nothing but draw (bad pictures for other people’s books), read trash, and see every awful movie the distributors deign to send to the Cape.
1970 saw a last ditch effort at sending postcards – an ink scratch pad pasted to the back, a still life with string and splinter, a typed “I would write if I could think of anything to say”…
But there is nothing left for him to say.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.