To the Letter: Peter Neumeyer on Edward Gorey


In the summer of 1968, Harry Stanton, then editor and vice president of textbook publisher Addison-Wesley, arranged a day of sailing with Harvard professor Peter Neumeyer (1929–) and the iconoclastic author and illustrator Edward “Ted” Gorey (1925–2000), plotting a collaboration in the form of a children’s book about a boy and his housefly. It would be wildly successful, spawning Donald and the . . ., published in 1969, and two more famed collaborations (Donald Has a Difficulty and Why We Have Night and Day, released in 1970 and 1982). The illustrative style, which recalls Gothicism and Orientalism, still looks fresh today.


For thirteen months, September 1968 to October 1969, Neumeyer and Gorey corresponded about the collaboration among other subjects. Floating Worlds, a textbook-size, 256-page, full-color volume from Pomegranate Books (out since September), faithfully facsimiles the elaborately detailed postcards, letters and envelopes of the correspondence. The narrative that unfolds is telling of the interests of Gorey, an artist notoriously silent about his methodology. Recently, A.i.A. spoke with Neumeyer about his working relationship with Gorey.

JOHN REED  From 1952–1960, Gorey worked in the art department at Doubleday, and designed over one hundred books. What is your impression of the influence of the Doubleday years on Gorey’s thinking?

PETER NEUMEYER  The first time Ted visited us, I hadn’t really fully appreciated his work at Doubleday, until quite suddenly I realized that a whole pile of my “Anchor” paperbacks had Gorey covers. I laid them all out on the floor, and we all just sort of took in the glory of it all—Gide, Melville, Freud, Perry Miller.

As for “the design process” in collaborations, Gorey once said that he “never had anything to do with the author of a book [he] was illustrating” before. This was a new mode of working for him. In fact, the very first letter reproduced in Floating Worlds is fairly typical of how we often worked. I had started to write a letter to our editor, Harry Stanton, and thought better of it and decided to contact Gorey directly. The topic is the illustration of the housefly at the end of Donald and the . . .—whether he should be drawn in the context of the whole room, or stand there alone, in solitary splendor.

Ted and I discussed that fly over several letters, and that conversation more or less set the tone for how we were to collaborate henceforth. Perhaps a quarter of the book is detailed discussion back and forth both about specifics of text as well as of illustration. The first book we did together was, textually, a fait accompli when we began work. Each of the later books had its own evolution, documented precisely in the letters.

REED  Gorey wasn’t much for writing letters. His 200 pages to you are rather extraordinary, aren’t they?

NEUMEYER  I agree, I think they’re extraordinary too. And I pondered for many years before deciding that since Ted seemed so vulnerable to being misconstrued, and since his letters suggest what a profound and generous human being he was, the letters should not be lost to posterity.

REED  Japan’s ukiyo-e paintings had a major influence on Western design at about the time the Donald books were coming about. In your works and correspondence with Gorey, was Japanese art a conscious influence?

NEUMEYER  Japanese art was always a very conscious influence for Ted. He sent me five volumes of Japanese poetry translated by R. H. Blyth; he sent me Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, novels by Yasunari Kawabata and a number of other Japanese books cited in Floating Worlds. But much more than that, his thinking is so often infused with Daoist thought (even in what he sardonically called “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” in which he maintained that “anything that is art . . . is presumably about some certain thing, but is really about something else”). He deeply believed that, and variations on the theme are sounded throughout the letters as well as in his enigmatic one-sentence postcards. Even the Borges quotations that we sent to one another touch on this idea, as does my opening epigraph [“Dreams, symbols, and images pierce the day; a disorder of imaginary worlds flows incessantly into this world. . .” —Jorge Luis Borges], as well as the very last sentence in the book’s Epilogue, referring to the distinguished interpreter of Zen [“Do you know Christmas Humphreys? Worth reading”].

REED  Given the changed landscape of booksellers and publishing, could the Donald series have happened today?

NEUMEYER  Could Donald have “happened as it then happened,” today? Sure—if you had a Harry Stanton (editor/vice president at Addison Wesley), who brought Ted and me together in the first place, and then a Carla Stevens, who republished Fantod Press’s Why We Have Day and Night at Young Scott. Gorey’s name alone is a pretty good passport. And certainly Ted and my friendship might just as easily have flourished today as 45 years ago—why not?

REED  Might there be more “Donald” books?

NEUMEYER  Some pretty good “Donalds” still exist in my files from back then.