I Heart Indies

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Edward Gorey and I

When I was seven years old, in the children's section of the Ft Pierce, Florida public library, I discovered the most wonderful, the most delightful, the most delicious book I had ever seen up to that time.  It was as if the angels had placed it on the shelves especially for me.  It was The Wuggly Ump by Edward Gorey.  It was a nursery rhyme about three children who spend their lives in idyllic play and a monster, the Wuggly Ump, in a distant land, who lives on umbrellas and carpet tacks.  There's a periodic refrain with variations, "Sing tiraloo, sing tiralay, the Wuggly Ump lives faraway."  Throughout the story, the Wuggly Ump draws closer and closer until finally it is upon them: "How uninviting are its claws, how even more so are its jaws."  The last page shows the Wuggly Ump resting comfortably, a broad smile on its face, a cut-away drawing of the belly showing the three children floating inside with the final line, "Sing tiraloo, sing tiralump, from deep inside the Wuggly Ump."

I loved it.

That same year, my mother had introduced me to Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and I loved that book too, but as far as I was concerned The Wuggly Ump had it beat all to heck.  Max gets in trouble and goes on an adventure where he overawes and rules over an island of monsters, but after all, he returns safe and sound, and the "wild rumpus," as far as I can make out, is really just a dance.  But the Wuggly Ump eats the kids!  That was way more subversive than anything Sendak created.

And there was something about the drawings, too, and the writing.  At seven years old, I didn't know the Victorian Era from buttermilk pancakes, but even I sensed that though the book was clearly recent, there was something antique in the costumes and the wording that gave an essential charm to Gorey's twisted nursery rhyme.

There's a Saki story when Clovis tells his niece and nephew about a "horribly good" little girl who is eaten by wolves because she can't keep all her medals for comportment and penmanship from clanking together.  At the end of the narrative, Clovis' nephew says it was the most beautiful story he's ever heard.  The niece says it's the only beautiful story she's ever heard.  That's how I felt about The Wuggly Ump.

I knew this was a book I'd want to read again, so not knowing the Dewy Decimal System, I memorized its location on the shelf before I checked it out.  I read that book until I had fairly worn the pages through.  I returned it one Saturday and came back the next Saturday to check it out again.  But it was gone.

Oh, the things that children lose.  Jars of pennies and plastic soldiers, favorite toys and socks.  But of all the things I'd lost in my short life, none dismayed me so much as losing track of that book.  I searched the shelf where I knew it was supposed to be, the shelf above, and the shelf below.  All the shelves in the children's section.  Maybe another kid had found it and checked it out, but even then, my angry heart suspected what must have been the truth.  I came week after week and looked.  It was gone for good.

I am sure now, as I was sure then, that some officious parent - I can picture her now, because surely she was somebody's mother, a flabby woman with moist hands but without gallbladder or irony, had seen the book and complained to the librarian.

And so, Edward Gorey passed out of my life.

Many years later, another decade, in another state - Georgia, this time, where my school-teacher mother moved us after walking off her job during Florida's teacher's strike - I began seeing some very odd drawings in The National Lampoon.  The National Lampoon was full of odd drawings, but these were odd in a different way - they didn't seem to belong in the same category as S Gross or Gahan Wilson; they were Victorian-seeming, with beautiful, hand-lettered text.  One was about a woman who becomes possessed by the devil and winds up in Hell, "The end had come, and this was it.  He threw her in the flaming pit."
I'd long since forgotten The Wuggly Ump and didn't recognize the author's name, but then I bought an anthology of Edward Gorey's work, Amphigorey, and there at the back was The Wuggly Ump!  The triumph, like finding the long-lost jar of pennies or the tin box of toys once secreted in a hollow tree, "It's the guy!"  I said.  "It's the guy!"

Gorey wrote over a hundred books designed the animation for PBS' Mystery and won a Tony for costume design in the Broadway version of Dracula.  Whenever I feel mopey for my lot - the struggle to gain recognition and readers - I think of Edward Gorey and take heart.  And I want to pass this along to my fellow writers and to everyone who toils without recognition in the vineyards of art.  Remember Gorey and take heart.

He didn't just march to the beat of his own drummer; it was the beat of a zither or a harpsichord or some unheard-of instrument no one has ever seen.  What a madman he must have been, to be born and live all his life in the US, leaving the country only once, but deciding to write and draw like an Edwardian Englishman, and to write such books and expect anyone to ever publish them - the painstaking delicate cross-hatching that fills the page with dark shapes, the odd nonsensical imagery!  But he went ahead, indifferent to what anyone else was doing.  He died in 2000 having spent a lifetime producing precisely the sort of art he chose.  He said, "If you're doing nonsense, it has to be rather awful, because otherwise there'd be no point...  Sunny funny nonsense for children.  How boring, boring, boring."

How true.  God bless you, Edward Gorey, God bless you.

1 comment: