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Obsessed at Harvard

Artist and writer Edward Gorey ’50, who died in 1999, once told a would-be interviewer, "The facts of my life are so few, tedious, and irrelevant to anything else, there is no point in going into them." Yet he granted dozens of interviews over the course of his life, enough so that Karen Wilkin could select from them and assemble a sort of autobiography, Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey (Harcourt, $35). What follows are selections from two chapters: the first from a New Yorker profile by Stephen Schiff, the second from a Boston Globe Magazine piece by Richard Dyer, A.M. ’64, G ’68.

Gorey spent a semester after high school at the Art Institute of Chicago, but in 1943 he was drafted into the Army and assigned to be a company clerk at the Dugway Proving Ground near Salt Lake City. "They tested mortars and poison gas," he says….Accepted by Harvard before he was drafted, Gorey enrolled after his discharge…. His roommate was Frank O’Hara, later the most celebrated poet of the New York School. At an exhibition of Gorey drawings at Cambridge’s Mandrake Book Store, O’Hara met the future poet John Ashbery, and soon a gang formed that would eventually include Alison Lurie, Kenneth Koch, Donald Hall, and the poet-actress-playwright who became their den mother and sacred monster—the late V.R. (Bunny) Lang. With Lang and O’Hara (and a host of other poets, including Lyon Phelps, Richard Eberhart, and Richard Wilbur), Gorey was a founding member of the Poets’ Theater….

Gorey’s prodigal consumption of culture had already begun. While Harvard was teaching the staid classics, Gorey and his companions were exploring French Surrealism, Japanese Kabuki and Noh, Hollywood "guilty pleasures," and, above all, the perfumed, semi-satirical fictions of English novelists like Ronald Firbank, Evelyn Waugh, Ivy Compton-Burnett, C. Day-Lewis, and Henry Green. "They were a counter-culture, an early and élitist form of it," says the writer Brad Gooch…. "Gorey had this nonsensical style that came from his Anglophilia, from the English books that he read. So that kind of Brideshead Revisited sensibility was what Gorey conveyed to O’Hara."

 

"Most of us took John Ciardi’s courses in creative writing. I wrote short stories and long poems in unrhymed tetrameter. All of us were obsessed. Obsessed by what? Ourselves, I expect."