Brain Pickings

Edward Gorey’s Donald Illustrations

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A boy, a monster, and a loving mid-century collaboration.

In September of 1968, author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer embarked upon a thirteen-month collaboration with the inimitable Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator extraordinaire, grim alphabetician, irony connoisseur, tongue-in-cheek pornographer. Their remarkable illustrated correspondence tackled topics as diverse ad metaphysics and pancake recipes, but focused primarily on the three books at the heart of their collaboration. The third book, Why We Have Day and Night, was released last year and was among the year’s best children’s books. The first two are now out as a boxed set for the first time in The Donald Boxed Set: Donald and the . . . & Donald Has a Difficulty — a lovely duo of smyth-sewn casebound books in a beautiful slip-case, brimming with Gorey’s signature black-and-white illustrations of eccentric characters and strange creatures.

The Donald series was supposed to go on forever. Neumeyer reminisces:

Gorey writing me at one point, ‘I have just purchased lots of pristine new file folders. They await such things as… revised Donalds, new Donalds, new Lionels [another series], what else?’ Another time, he wrote that ‘[M]y mind’s eye sees a shelf of Neumeyer/Gorey works. Will Harvard have a room devoted to our memorabilia? It had better.’

But the perpetual Donald never quite manifested. Neumeyer writes wistfully:

The unending series never came to be, though shortly before his death, Ted once again returned to Donald. How far he got, only perusal of his vast legacy of papers would show.

Ted slipped away, a good, kind man of very specific genius. As I roam my bookshelves today, I can reconstruct some of the enthusiasms of that most generous of friends — a few of the many books he insisted on sending me so we could talk about them: Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave and The Rock Pool; four volumes of Haiku, translated b R. H. Blyth; L. H. Myers’s The Near and the Far; Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers and Exercises in Style; Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles; Rayner Heppenstall’s The Greater Infortune; The Journal of Jules Renard (edited and translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget); and a beautiful giant Abrams book on Pisanello — and many, many more.

Heaven would be to resume those conversations.

More than a treat for young readers, The Donald Boxed Set is an exquisite piece of Gorey memorabilia and a delightful embodiment a warm, inspired collaboration, the whimsical layers of which unfold in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

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