Nov. 20, 2011Peter Neumeyer, a retired San Diego State literature professor, was collaborator and friends with the late Edward Gorey, the quirky illustrator of dozens of children’s books best known for the distinctive animated opening of the PBS TV show “Mystery!”
Their correspondence from the late 1960s has been collected in a new book, “Floating Worlds,” edited by Neumeyer. He answered questions recently by email.
What is significant about this collection?
I think it gives an insight into the heart and mind of Edward Gorey such as we haven’t seen before in all the writing about him and the interviews with him. It’s his warmth, his generosity, and sometimes even his loneliness that come across in these letters. And the letters themselves are a testament to a quickly disappearing form of human exchange. From the Renaissance on to the advent of the Internet, people would take the time and would be in touch with each others’ thoughts and feelings by way of letters. Such documented intimacy has become rare by the 21st century.
What is Edward Gorey’s legacy in the children’s literature world?
As he says in the letters, just about the same way Maurice Sendak says it, don’t worry about writing for children. Trust the children to find what’s right for them. And so Ted didn’t have children in mind much when he drew and wrote. I doubt that he will go down as a major children’s writer. He had very different things in mind. But children often take on their parents’ enthusiasms. So if a parent marvels at Gorey’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” the child may well follow suit. But a seven-year-old isn’t likely to set up a shelf of Gorey books on his own.
What do the letters tell us about him that we might not otherwise know?
The letters show his generosity, his humor, his warm aptitude for friendship. They give us insight into Gorey’s carefully thought-out theory about the art he was creating, and they suggest his affinity for varieties of Asian thought. They reinforce what we already knew about his omnivorous capacity for books, film, ballet.
Why do you think the two of you hit it off?
That’s a good question. On the surface, certainly our shared love of books. Then, in our joint creations, it seemed there was, between us, a certain congruence of style and even viewpoint that each of us was thrilled to discover in the other. That would take a lot of defining to explain, but Gorey went some way to articulating it in his speculation on the workings of art, as he writes in these letters. Then, simply, he was at ease in our family.
What have you come to most admire about him and his work?
I admire the way he was for more than 40 years able to develop his own singular understanding of what he wanted to do, and then to stay faithful to that aspiration. Although Gorey nimbly hopped from genre to genre, essentially both his own vision and his mode of expression remained coherent and of a piece over his lifetime. That somehow represents a deep truthfulness. And that’s one thing Gorey’s art exemplifies.
How is it that you both saved the letters?
I saved Ted’s letters, as I have saved those of a few other dear friends, simply because we were close friends. Ted is in those letters, after all. How could I discard them! Because my letters were more pedestrian, I was a little surprised Ted had kept so many.
Were they something you would read now and then over the years?
No. Not that they don’t deserve to be reread, but life in the right-now is just so busy. Maybe when I’m old.
What do they tell us about the time in which they were written?
I don’t know. I have no idea whether young folk today of similar disposition as ours was in the ‘60s wouldn’t also perhaps share their literary enthusiasm just as ebulliently. Perhaps they would. But it’s true, in 1968 we weren’t inundated with what’s today vulgarly called data. We drown in it, or choke on it. So just perhaps 40 years ago we had a bit more time to ruminate — which means, quite literally, to chew and to chew again on our thoughts, our books, our encounters.
In this age of email and text messaging, are authors writing letters?
Undoubtedly, many are not, and it’s an enormous loss, both to scholars and to students who inherit the insights of the scholars. As a doctoral student, I worked with the actual letters of people who corresponded with Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka. As the author/editor of “The Annotated Charlotte’s Web,” I’ve worked many hours with E.B. White’s manuscripts and letters at Cornell.
I thought constantly of all the things we would have no idea about if White’s work had evaporated in a Microsoft cloud. There are eight drafts of “Charlotte’s Web,” with erasures, cross-outs, second thoughts, as well as many fascinating letters White wrote to his editor, and others he wrote to Garth Williams, his illustrator. Those are national treasures as well as profound windows into the creative process.
I’m in touch with several authors and artists, and we’ll write each other only in ink-pen letters. Even finding postage stamps appropriate to the contents and to the recipient is part of the message. Because email is so fast and convenient, I fear substantial letters are getting scarce. And that will be a great loss.
What will be lost if we don’t have letters like this?
It’s hard to know how email will evolve. At the moment, it seems an uncongenial medium for measured, crafted, and contemplative communication. And with its emphasis on immediacy, it devalues syntactic style, artfulness, and — oddly — brevity. But who can predict?
“Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer,” edited by Peter F. Neumeyer, Pomegranate, 256 pages, $35.