Writers are supposed to have a hard time killing their darlings, but there are a few who apparently thrill to the task. In Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, the cultural critic Mark Dery explains how Gorey was always looking to pare things down ... faced with so much ordinariness, Dery does his best, which proves to be more than enough. Born to Be Posthumous is an entertaining account of an artist who liked to be coy with anybody who dared to write about him.
Enter Mark Dery, the writer and cultural critic, whose fascinating new biography of Gorey, Born to Be Posthumous, paints a near-exhaustive portrait of an author who 'was inscrutable because he didn't want to be scruted' ... But where Dery truly shines is in his analysis of Gorey's many books and other works of art. He takes deep dives into even the most minor and forgotten of Gorey's literature ... The best biographies are the result of a perfect match between author and subject, and it's relatively rare when the two align perfectly. But that's the case with Born to Be Posthumous — Dery shares Gorey's arch sense of humor, and shows real sympathy for his sui generis outlook and aesthetics. Dery's book is smart, exhaustive and an absolute joy to read.
His detailed descriptions of some 100 titles produced by Gorey capture in cleverly turned phrases his distinctive visual style and the brooding emotional atmosphere it creates ... Dery documents several infatuations with men, sufficient to make the point that Gorey would have had gay sex if he had any sex at all. But Dery’s tossed-off comment about The Curious Sofa as 'a shudder of amused revulsion at the ickiness of all sex' is more illuminating than his labored exegeses of various Gorey works as coded expressions of gay sensibility ... Dery is on firmer ground when he positions such early books as The Listing Attic within 'a groundswell of intellectual discontent with the conformity of ’50s America.' He’s also informative about Gorey’s participation in the transformation of postwar book publishing as house designer for the pioneering quality-paperback imprint Anchor Books and as an uneasy-making figure hovering on the outskirts of the revolution in children’s books ... Dery’s affectionate tribute to an artist who was 'incomparably, unimprovably himself' also shows Gorey evoking in his work feelings of alienation, longing, and dread that are perhaps more common than we like to admit.
Dery goes into far too much detail tracking the endless, clearly compulsive changes of residence the Gorey family undertook throughout [Gorey's] childhood ... Dery can be good on Gorey’s art... And he recognizes that the Anchor covers could be startling in their implications ... Mark Dery, alas, knows practically nothing about ballet and ballet history. Everything he tells us is clearly received wisdom at best. He is equally weak in other areas. He refers frequently to Gorey’s love for silent film (which he identifies as one of a “pantheon of canonically gay tastes”), but his knowledge of silent film is as thin as his knowledge of ballet ... Other mistakes of Dery’s are less factual and more the result of misunderstandings and a hyperbolic and dramatizing vision of cultural life... But then Dery is a self-proclaimed 'cultural critic,' and cultural critics tend to deal in zeitgeists, not art ... Dery isn’t an experienced biographer, so it’s understandable that he stumbles. But he is an experienced writer, and although parts of his Gorey book are persuasively written... the new book is so swamped in clichés that I kept being reminded of the famous pieces Frank Sullivan wrote for The New Yorker about a fictional Mr. Arbuthnot, 'the cliché expert.'
An impressively expansive new biography by Mark Dery, Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, attempts, often with success, to demystify the illustrator’s wide-ranging elusiveness ... To varying extents, the book and the exhibitions delve into both Gorey’s surrealism-influenced philosophy of art and into perhaps the ultimate puzzle of Gorey—the private life of the man himself ... One failing of Born to Be Posthumous is Dery’s repeated insistence on claiming Gorey was obviously gay by virtue of his 'flamboyant dress' and 'bitchy wit'; here, Dery falls into the trap of equating effeminacy with gay men, an archaic stereotype.
One of the virtues of Dery’s book is its reminder that Gorey’s art was far more subtle, diverse, formally inventive, and just plain weird than his reputation for sinister whimsy suggests ... He was also, more than we tend to think, an artist of his time. While the popular conception of Gorey is of a man born 50 years too late...he saw himself as working in the tradition of the twentieth-century avant-garde ... At over 500 pages, Born to Be Posthumous is a baggier, less discerning biography than Gorey deserves ... despite its length, it often feels factually thin. Although Dery’s research into Gorey’s life brings to light some fascinating details, there are so many lacunae that he frequently resorts to speculation ... Dery struggles to produce queer readings of Gorey’s work that significantly enrich our understanding of it. When he tries, the results are clumsy, alternately unconvincing and obvious ... I’m fully convinced that there’s a great book to be written about Edward Gorey as a queer artist. Born to Be Posthumous, unfortunately,
is not it.
Gorey comes sliding down the banister of Mark Dery’s Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, not in a tutu but bejeweled, multi-ringed, otter-fur-coated, Lear-ishly bearded, crazy for the New York City Ballet and definitely wanting to live his life this way ... Dery does some excellent work comparing the [Gorey's work with Dr. Seuss's], the two chaos-bringers ... Dery efficiently lays out the debt owed [Gorey] by the graphic-novel author Neil Gaiman, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the filmmaker Tim Burton, and any other fantasist who loiters in the dark gardens of childhood ... Edward Gorey is the doubtful guest in this fine biography.
Dery provides strong and often humorous evidence that Gorey did not think of children as his audience at all, although his well-known books coincide with what Dery rightly depicts as a transformation in meaning-making about childhood in the United States ... A good portion of Born to be Posthumous is devoted to a kind of literary criticism required for an author and artist like Edward Gorey. His work is never simple and straightforward, although it creates the aura of being so ... Dery carefully renders as close to a full portrait of Gorey as possible. His insight is welcome, as is his unwillingness to make Gorey one thing or another, which simply would not do.
The first major biography of Edward Gorey ... I wish Dery had included more on Gorey’s friends and more quotes from his correspondence, but he’s excellent on Gorey’s cultural influences and obsessions ... The problem for Dery as a biographer is that nothing much changes in Gorey’s adult life ... And because part of Gorey’s protest against the conditions of his life is to refuse introspection, he is not entirely knowable, despite Dery’s best efforts.
Because [Dery] assumes that the books are peculiar and sinister, Mr. Dery concludes that their author must have been, too. His book is intended to explain why. Mr. Dery’s attempt is problematic enough, given the resistance of richly associative art to explanation and the astonishing wealth of sources, from a dizzying range of disciplines, that the brilliant, omnivorous, polymath Gorey drew upon, both directly and indirectly. What’s much more problematic is Mr. Dery’s determination to find a psychological cause for every image and text ... what Mr. Dery obsesses about is not Gorey’s well-furnished mind, but his sexuality ... But [Gorey] described himself as 'neither one thing nor the other,' refusing to define himself by his sexual preferences ... Mr. Dery, however, writes as if this aspect of Gorey’s life were the key to everything ... There’s interesting information in Born to Be Posthumous ... When Mr. Dery sticks to verifiable facts or quotes Gorey himself, the book is informative. But red flags go up when he attempts psychological interpretation or discusses things that Gorey cared passionately about and that resonated in his work. And Mr. Dery really gets into trouble when he seeks the origins of complex images and elusive narratives in the events of Gorey’s life ... Gorey would have hated Mr. Dery’s book. We’d hear the humming sound of his spinning in his grave, had he not been cremated and his ashes scattered, according to his wishes.
Gorey has found a superb biographer in Mark Dery ... But the mystery of what made [Gorey] tick, Dery says, isn’t likely to be solved. Instead, it’s best to focus on his work itself, which Dery presents with considerable panache ... Some enigmas aren’t meant to be solved — but they can be usefully illuminated. That’s just what Dery does in this excellent book.
What an inviting cabinet of curiosities we have in Mark Dery’s Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey! Every chapter is a revelation–each its own self-contained diorama that adds dimension to the whole ... With Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery pulls back the grand drape in a way that does not dispel the magic but simply sanctifies Gorey’s contribution. Though he stood apart, or was sequestered away with his cats in the studio, we can now proudly confirm that Edward Gorey is most definitively one of ours.
Dery shrewdly plumbs Gorey’s work ... Gorey’s uneventful, solitary life can be less than exciting, and the narrative sometimes bogs down in his collections and love of George Balanchine’s ballets. Fans will like the immersion in Gorey-ana, but others may feel that this colorful protagonist lacks a compelling plot.
Well-considered ...Dery constructs a nimble framework to fully appreciate the gothic artist and designer’s contributions to high art and queer culture ... The reclusive author and designer of such ghoulish gems as The Doubtful Guest and the animated introduction to the PBS series Mystery! comes fully alive, fur-coated and bejeweled, as an unlikely icon of the counterculture.