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Writer/illustrator Edward Gorey’s library lands at SDSU

The man behind the Mystery! title sequence amassed 26,000 volumes

The man behind the Mystery! — Edward Gorey.
The man behind the Mystery! — Edward Gorey.

My introduction to the writer and artist Edward Gorey came on some cold, dark midwestern evening about 30 years ago, as I sat with my father and first beheld the animated opening sequence of PBS’ Mystery! While Gorey’s theater sets for Dracula in the late 1970s had brought him some renown, that weekly 50-second intro was probably the most widely disseminated bit of Gorey’s work in North America. Rewatching it today, I realize just what a marvelous microcosm of Gorey’s world it provided: a realm of black and white punctuated by an isolated shock of blood red, urns, bat-like shapes, unnamable creatures, inexplicable disasters and misfortune, a tea party, fur coats and grand facial hair, all in and around a country manor. Viewers of Mystery! will surely remember the despairing cry of the supine, wailing woman waving a hankie in the air.


Gorey famously said that “Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment, the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.” There’s more danger than boredom in that sequence, but — although it might not sound like it from my description — there is a certain sedate understatement about the goings-on at the mystery manor. A veiled mourner sips wine in a graveyard as a headstone crumbles; a body sinks into a pond as the adjacent tea party carries on. These things are just happening.

I must have watched that Mystery! opening dozens of times, but it was only years later that I discovered Gorey’s books and his cover illustrations. I always found the man himself fascinating as well — his personal style, his obsessions (ballet, cats, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), his obsessive routines, and his collections.

I like looking at people’s collections, and Gorey had a lot of them: colored glass, skulls, jewelry, books. Recently I had an urge to see what Gorey’s library looked like. Just idle curiosity, a little eye candy. I was hoping to find some pictures of it on Google, maybe some shots from when it lived in its final home with Gorey, Elephant House in Yarmouth. Instead, I was delighted to discover that his library, all 26,000 volumes (!) of it, was just down the street: The Edward Gorey Personal Library, amassed in New York and Cape Cod, has found a seemingly improbable home on the fifth floor of the San Diego State University Library.

There are two individuals most responsible for bringing the collection here. One is Peter F. Neumeyer, author of children’s books, creator of SDSU’s pioneering Children’s Literature program, and friend and collaborator of Gorey’s. Neumeyer is now 94 and retired in Santa Rosa. The other is the late Andreas Brown, a SDSU alumnus and owner of the Gotham Book Mart in New York. He too was a friend of Gorey’s and a significant promoter of his work.

The collection arrived in 2009, and librarian Linda Salem — who hails from Wichita, Kansas and had been at SDSU for seven years — was placed in charge of it. Salem, a specialist in illustration and children’s literature, was a natural fit. She knew of Gorey years before he became part of her life at the library. When he did, she was eager to dig in to the collection. “I had my sister on the phone, because I was so excited about this library getting here. I took her with me on my phone and I said, ‘Okay, Robin, we’re going to open the very first box. Let’s see what the very first book is that I pull out of these 220 boxes.’ I opened the box, and the very first book, staring right at me, was called Peerless Princess of the Plains: Postcard Views of Early Wichita. It’s a book of postcards from Wichita. Everyone who’s from there knows about this book.”

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It was the first of what Salem calls the library’s “That was Edward” moments. When a certain book falls over, when a student fortuitously comes across just what she needs to find, as though the benevolent ghostly presence of Gorey still hovers around his beloved library, that’s what they say: “That was Edward.”

The library is not on display, nor is it open to the public. But it is available for research, and can be searched through the online catalog. Salem was kind enough to lay out a representative sampling of the collection for me to peruse.

A selection of Gorey’s work from his personal library, now residing at SDSU.

First, a table of Gorey’s own work. Here, she showed me what she calls Gorey’s “modifier books”: The Deadly Blotter, The Stupid Joke, The Retrieved Locket, The Unknown Vegetable, The Universal Solvent, The Betrayed Confidence, Les Urnes Utiles. There is also a selection of tiny, valuable editions from Fantod Press. (Here is The Gorey House website on the press: “The Fantod Press published such illustrious writers and illustrators as Ogdred Weary, Mrs Regera Dowdy, Eduard Blutig, O. Müde, Raddory Gewe, Edward Pig, Garrod Weedy, Awdrey-Gore, and someone named Om. All of them have one very important thing in common: all were Edward Gorey.”) There are also a few of the artist’s surrealist flip books, and a toy theater Dracula book that features miniature sets and costumes from Gorey’s prize-winning stage designs.

About 6000 volumes of the collection are children’s books: fairy tales, folk tales, rhymes, nonsense, volumes chosen for their illustrations. A lot of these served as research and inspiration materials for Gorey, along with his many reference books — for example, volumes on Victorian and Edwardian clothing. The surrealist sensibility that informs Gorey’s vision is also nurtured here by his collection of Surrealist art and letters. And though I didn’t see them, I know there are scores of novels and short story collections and ballet books.

Gorey’s biographer Mark Dery has noted that the artist was also something of a post-modern in his affection for “middle-brow” and “low-brow” entertainment. Gorey said he watched about 1000 movies a year. Some television shows he seemed to like enough to desire book versions as well: in the collection, you’ll find his Star Trek and X-Files novelizations, Buffy books, zines, and even photos.

And then there are the holdings that provide a more personal feeling, a sense of connection to the man: letters, newspaper clippings, ephemera. Gorey also left his mark on most of the volumes here, inscribing one of the endpapers with a date of acquisition and when he began or finished a reading or re-reading. (Salem pointed out how useful this was for students and scholars interested in tracking influences and developments in his work.)

The collection is in use by students and teachers, and assisted various exhibitions and book projects. The Gorey library works closely with the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, which looks forward to commemorating “the centenary of Mr. Gorey’s birth” next year. “It’ll be a yearlong birthday party full of programs, partnerships, and new product launches.”

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The man behind the Mystery! — Edward Gorey.
The man behind the Mystery! — Edward Gorey.

My introduction to the writer and artist Edward Gorey came on some cold, dark midwestern evening about 30 years ago, as I sat with my father and first beheld the animated opening sequence of PBS’ Mystery! While Gorey’s theater sets for Dracula in the late 1970s had brought him some renown, that weekly 50-second intro was probably the most widely disseminated bit of Gorey’s work in North America. Rewatching it today, I realize just what a marvelous microcosm of Gorey’s world it provided: a realm of black and white punctuated by an isolated shock of blood red, urns, bat-like shapes, unnamable creatures, inexplicable disasters and misfortune, a tea party, fur coats and grand facial hair, all in and around a country manor. Viewers of Mystery! will surely remember the despairing cry of the supine, wailing woman waving a hankie in the air.


Gorey famously said that “Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment, the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.” There’s more danger than boredom in that sequence, but — although it might not sound like it from my description — there is a certain sedate understatement about the goings-on at the mystery manor. A veiled mourner sips wine in a graveyard as a headstone crumbles; a body sinks into a pond as the adjacent tea party carries on. These things are just happening.

I must have watched that Mystery! opening dozens of times, but it was only years later that I discovered Gorey’s books and his cover illustrations. I always found the man himself fascinating as well — his personal style, his obsessions (ballet, cats, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), his obsessive routines, and his collections.

I like looking at people’s collections, and Gorey had a lot of them: colored glass, skulls, jewelry, books. Recently I had an urge to see what Gorey’s library looked like. Just idle curiosity, a little eye candy. I was hoping to find some pictures of it on Google, maybe some shots from when it lived in its final home with Gorey, Elephant House in Yarmouth. Instead, I was delighted to discover that his library, all 26,000 volumes (!) of it, was just down the street: The Edward Gorey Personal Library, amassed in New York and Cape Cod, has found a seemingly improbable home on the fifth floor of the San Diego State University Library.

There are two individuals most responsible for bringing the collection here. One is Peter F. Neumeyer, author of children’s books, creator of SDSU’s pioneering Children’s Literature program, and friend and collaborator of Gorey’s. Neumeyer is now 94 and retired in Santa Rosa. The other is the late Andreas Brown, a SDSU alumnus and owner of the Gotham Book Mart in New York. He too was a friend of Gorey’s and a significant promoter of his work.

The collection arrived in 2009, and librarian Linda Salem — who hails from Wichita, Kansas and had been at SDSU for seven years — was placed in charge of it. Salem, a specialist in illustration and children’s literature, was a natural fit. She knew of Gorey years before he became part of her life at the library. When he did, she was eager to dig in to the collection. “I had my sister on the phone, because I was so excited about this library getting here. I took her with me on my phone and I said, ‘Okay, Robin, we’re going to open the very first box. Let’s see what the very first book is that I pull out of these 220 boxes.’ I opened the box, and the very first book, staring right at me, was called Peerless Princess of the Plains: Postcard Views of Early Wichita. It’s a book of postcards from Wichita. Everyone who’s from there knows about this book.”

Sponsored
Sponsored

It was the first of what Salem calls the library’s “That was Edward” moments. When a certain book falls over, when a student fortuitously comes across just what she needs to find, as though the benevolent ghostly presence of Gorey still hovers around his beloved library, that’s what they say: “That was Edward.”

The library is not on display, nor is it open to the public. But it is available for research, and can be searched through the online catalog. Salem was kind enough to lay out a representative sampling of the collection for me to peruse.

A selection of Gorey’s work from his personal library, now residing at SDSU.

First, a table of Gorey’s own work. Here, she showed me what she calls Gorey’s “modifier books”: The Deadly Blotter, The Stupid Joke, The Retrieved Locket, The Unknown Vegetable, The Universal Solvent, The Betrayed Confidence, Les Urnes Utiles. There is also a selection of tiny, valuable editions from Fantod Press. (Here is The Gorey House website on the press: “The Fantod Press published such illustrious writers and illustrators as Ogdred Weary, Mrs Regera Dowdy, Eduard Blutig, O. Müde, Raddory Gewe, Edward Pig, Garrod Weedy, Awdrey-Gore, and someone named Om. All of them have one very important thing in common: all were Edward Gorey.”) There are also a few of the artist’s surrealist flip books, and a toy theater Dracula book that features miniature sets and costumes from Gorey’s prize-winning stage designs.

About 6000 volumes of the collection are children’s books: fairy tales, folk tales, rhymes, nonsense, volumes chosen for their illustrations. A lot of these served as research and inspiration materials for Gorey, along with his many reference books — for example, volumes on Victorian and Edwardian clothing. The surrealist sensibility that informs Gorey’s vision is also nurtured here by his collection of Surrealist art and letters. And though I didn’t see them, I know there are scores of novels and short story collections and ballet books.

Gorey’s biographer Mark Dery has noted that the artist was also something of a post-modern in his affection for “middle-brow” and “low-brow” entertainment. Gorey said he watched about 1000 movies a year. Some television shows he seemed to like enough to desire book versions as well: in the collection, you’ll find his Star Trek and X-Files novelizations, Buffy books, zines, and even photos.

And then there are the holdings that provide a more personal feeling, a sense of connection to the man: letters, newspaper clippings, ephemera. Gorey also left his mark on most of the volumes here, inscribing one of the endpapers with a date of acquisition and when he began or finished a reading or re-reading. (Salem pointed out how useful this was for students and scholars interested in tracking influences and developments in his work.)

The collection is in use by students and teachers, and assisted various exhibitions and book projects. The Gorey library works closely with the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, which looks forward to commemorating “the centenary of Mr. Gorey’s birth” next year. “It’ll be a yearlong birthday party full of programs, partnerships, and new product launches.”

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