Who is Edward Gorey?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Edward Gorey was a prolific American artist, writer, and illustrator. Though many people are under the misconception that he was British, due to the style and themes of his work, he was in fact born in Chicago in 1925 and only traveled outside the United States once during his lifetime. Edward Gorey died in Massachusetts in 2000 at the age of 75 of a heart attack. The pen and ink illustrations of Edward Gorey have a characteristic and unmistakable Gothic style, and many of his books have been published around the world.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Edward Gorey spent his childhood in Chicago, and he attended the Chicago School of Art for one semester before enlisting in the army for the Second World War. He spent his war years working as a clerk at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where the army tested mortars and poisonous gas. After the war, he enrolled at Harvard to study French Literature, where he spent a great deal of time with Frank O'Hara, a well known poet.

Edward Gorey spent the years between his college graduation in 1950 and 1983 in New York City, where he found employment as an illustrator for Doubleday Anchor. He illustrated a wide variety of book covers and interiors, including works by T.S. Eliot, John Bellairs, Saki, Muriel Spark, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker, and H.G. Wells. During this time, he also began designing and illustrating small chapbooks of his own, relentlessly submitting them to publishers in search of a wider audience.

Edward Gorey also made contributions to the field of set design, visualizing the sets and costumes for a 1977 production of Dracula that won a Tony award. He also wrote plays, designed fantastical paper mache puppets, and composed the libretto for The White Canoe. He made himself into a memorable figure in New York City, frequently seen wearing tennis shoes and voluminous fur coats like those worn by the characters in his books. He was also an ardent fan of the ballet, rarely missing a performance of the New York City Ballet.

A highly eccentric and somewhat reclusive man, although apparently amiable with strangers, Edward Gorey left New York in 1983 for Cape Cod, where he lived until his death. He shared his home, Elephant House, with a flock of cats and an assortment of plants. Elephant House has since been turned into a museum, called Gorey House, where visitors can examine the environment in which he lived and worked for 17 years. Edward Gorey is well remembered for his commitment to animal welfare causes, and Gorey House to this day donates to animal causes and participates in animal welfare education.

Edward Gorey created over 100 books, in a style that defies boundaries and description. His illustrations tend to be finely detailed, macabre, and wry, along with his text. Some of his books contained no writing at all, merely a series of sometimes perturbing illustrations.

Edward Gorey also wrote under a variety of pseudonyms created by anagramming his name, such as Ogdred Weary. Many of his characters got themselves into unpleasant and uncomfortable predicaments, which were brilliantly illustrated in a manner that let the imagination run wild. Cats were frequent subjects of his books, and they can be found skulking in the corners of many Edward Gorey illustrations.

Edward Gorey's books were frequently set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and usually took place in England, though some had more ambiguous locations. As a result, Edward Gorey is quite popular among the Gothic community, which has a fascination with macabre Victoriana.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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