MAY 7, 2012
CORRESPONDENCE — for the sake of corresponding, at least — is going (has gone?) the way of the carte de visite. For scholars, or anyone who cares about the historical traces we leave, the extinction of the personal letter is an incalculable loss.
Email, snail mail’s evolutionary successor, is an epistolary form for an age of overwork, data deluge, and time famine. The prevailing style favors terse bursts, often devolving into sentence fragments; replies consisting of a single sentence, or even a word, aren’t uncommon.
To Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, “the relentless growth of in-box overload” is the kudzu overgrowing our cognitive commons. In his “Email Charter,” Anderson counsels Xtreme Brevity: “If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message).” (Even the hyphen in “e-mail” has to go, apparently, jettisoned like some vestigial appendage in the evolutionary struggle for Survival of the Pithiest.)
Ironically, the generation that came of age with texting regards email with the same indulgent contempt its parents reserve for postal mail. To text-only teens, email is a laughable anachronism from some steampunk past, like those pneumatic tube systems still in use in some hospitals. Texting, like IM and Twitter, encourages an acronym-riddled shorthand — a blipspeak — that makes the telegram look like a Homeric epic. (If you remember telegrams. Or Homer.)
Even so, this isn’t another jeremiad about the Death of Literacy and the Spenglerian Decline of Civilization. I’ve read discussion thread comments on Facebook, Boing Boing, and The Awl whose Wildean wit and devastating ripostes are easily the equal of what passes for high style and critical brilliance in Harper’s or The New Yorker.
To be sure, the data compression of our written exchanges, not to mention our tendency to broadcast them over public address systems like Facebook and Twitter (as opposed to the more intimate channel of one-on-one correspondence), is changing us as writers and social animals. Out: never-ending debates, virtuoso digression, poetic reveries, wordplay. In: bullet-point lists, forwarded links, getting straight to the point (preferably in the subject line). The less-is-more aesthetic of modernism, which percolated out of machine-age streamlining and Bauhausian architecture and into American prose style via Hemingway, Pound, and Strunk & White, reaches its endpoint, paradoxically, in the texts, posts, and instant messages of our postmodern (or is it post-postmodern?) moment. It will attain its purest expression when conversation, pecked out on cell phones, consists of a question mark from the sender and an exclamation point in reply. It’s all about information density, time conservation, the Attention Economy — catchphrases that will do nicely as epitaphs for the age of great correspondences.
But, more than the data-compressed brevity and just-the-facts utilitarianism forced on us by our times, it’s the etherealization of written communication, and its subsequent ephemeralization, that ensure the demise of correspondence as a social art form. All that was ink on paper has melted into air, and who archives air? For all we know, emails or — less likely — texts worthy of the Golden Age of Letter Writing may be whizzing through the Wi-Fi all around us, but the Elizabeth Bishops and Robert Lowells of the Digital Age — or the Eudora Weltys and William Maxwells, or Walter Benjamins and Theodor Adornos, or Hannah Arendts and Mary McCarthys, or whomever you prefer — are probably hitting the DELETE key after reading, as most of us reflexively do.
That’s what many of them were doing before the advent of social media, When Email Ruled the Earth. According to a 2005 New York Times article by Rachel Donadio, writers such as Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Rick Moody, and Annie Proulx saved their emails only desultorily. Zadie Smith said she kept “amazing e-mails from writers whose hem I fear to kiss” but for whatever odd reason imagined they would one day “go the way of everything else I write on the computer — oblivion,” presumably because that’s what our prosthetic memories do: inscribe our thoughts on thin air.
All that poetry, all that brilliance, not to mention historical and biographical information, gone to the desktop recycle bin. The loss to our collective memory is inestimable.
The recently published Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Peter F. Neumeyer, offers a long, loving look at what we’re losing, abundantly evidenced in the 75 letters exchanged by the two men and, equally, in the exquisitely illustrated envelopes in which Gorey enclosed his missives — works of art (though not Mail Art) on which finely drawn, delicately painted bats or giant slugs or lizardlike things disport themselves, often clutching banners emblazoned with Neumeyer’s address. (Imagine that in email, much less texting.)
As the friendship deepens, a mythical beast called the Stoej-gnpf takes center stage. Hippo-shaped yet sleekly froglike in its more acrobatic moments, with a black pelt and the usual beady Gorey eyes, it lumbers along on all fours or swings from a trapeze or scoots along on roller skates or gazes dolefully, like Hamlet, at a distinctly stoej-gnpf-y skull. As its name suggests — the name is an anagram of the initials of the two men’s full names (Edward St. John Gorey Peter Florian Olivier Neumeyer) — the creature is a totem: the droll, mysterious, sometimes melancholy, often frolicsome embodiment of a rare friendship.
Neumeyer, a professor emeritus now in his eighties, pioneered the serious study of children’s literature. He has written extensively on children’s books for scholarly journals and the popular press — he authored The Annotated Charlotte’s Web — and in 1978, after joining the English Department at San Diego State University, founded what was to become the preeminent children’s literature program. But it was at Harvard, where Neumeyer taught until 1969, that he introduced one of the first courses on children’s literature in North America. And it was during his time there that Neumeyer met Edward Gorey (1925-2000) — prolific illustrator; maker of mock-moralistic, darkly funny fictions set in vaguely Victorian/Edwardian dreamworlds; unimprovably eccentric genius.
Neumeyer had written and illustrated a story to amuse his three young sons: Donald and the …, a deadpan account of a little boy beguiled by a white worm. Harry Stanton, an editor at Addison-Wesley who had dropped by Neumeyer’s home to discuss a freshman English textbook they were working on, spotted the spiral-bound watercolor pad on Neumeyer’s desk. Returning from the kitchen with glasses of bourbon, Neumeyer found Stanton brandishing his manuscript: “Peter, forget about the textbook. Let’s do children’s books.” Stanton’s superiors signed off on the idea, but insisted Neumeyer’s amateur watercolors be replaced by the work of a professional illustrator. Someone recalled the unforgettable covers Gorey had turned out, in the fifties, as a house illustrator at Anchor Books, Jason Epstein’s legendary line of highbrow paperbacks at Doubleday. Gorey was agreeable, and the deal was done.
Though they span only 13 months, from September 1968 to October 1969, the torrent of Gorey-Neumeyer letters chronicle a long-distance collaboration (Neumeyer lived in Medford, Massachusetts; Gorey spent the working year in Manhattan but summered in Barnstable, on Cape Cod) of uncommon inventiveness and unbridled delight — delight in the three children’s books they created (Donald and the …, Donald Has a Difficulty, and Why We Have Day and Night); in each other’s impossibly erudite, yet playfully ingenious intellects; and in their friendship.
Their minds struck sparks. Born into a “thoroughly assimilated,” secular Jewish family in Munich in 1929, Neumeyer was the product of a sophisticated urban milieu. His father, Alfred Neumeyer, was an art historian specializing in modernism who directed the museum and taught art history at Mills College in Oakland after the family emigrated to the States in 1935, fleeing the Nazi terror. Neumeyer, who holds a PhD in English from Berkeley, is nimble-witted and well-read. Gorey, a more or less self-educated polymath (he held a B.A. in French literature from Harvard, but had been an indifferent student), was an omnivorous culture-vore and rapacious reader: At the time of his death, his library numbered some 30,000 volumes, many of them diligently inscribed with the dates on which Gorey had completed them.
The letters double back, always, to the Donald books the two men were working on, with the vexations of editor Harry Stanton and Addison-Wesley as a kind of comic-opera leitmotif. But both Gorey and Neumeyer delighted in the discursive, and their intellectual curiosity — the sheer delight of poking around in the magpie nests of each other’s minds, thrilled to discover an exotic new find or better yet a shared interest in some obscure author — inevitably beckoned them down conversational byways.
Neumeyer, from his introduction:
In talking about Donald, Ted and I would hearken back to some of our favorite authors — often Borges, or the seventeenth-century English physician and writer Sir Thomas Browne. We both had a special fondness for Browne’s Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial, a treatise on buried Roman urns, as well as for his odd Garden of Cyrus, a long essay on quincunxes (which are configurations of five), with its glorious concluding paragraph. Basil Bunting and Ralph Hodgson were a couple of our more esoteric points of reference. In conversation, Ted often cited Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave and The Rock Pool, Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles, and L.H. Myers’s The Near and the Far. Ted had been a French major at Harvard, so at times his reading, as well as his two-deep-shelved books, gave off distinctly Gallic emanations. He introduced me to Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers and Exercises in Style and The Journal of Jules Renard … Always and forever, his mind would circle back to Japanese art and writing, and to Zen expressions in particular … He was infatuated with the eleventh-century Lady Murasaki and her Tale of Genji, with The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon of the same period, with the art and craft of tenkoku, or engraved seals.
By no accident, Floating Worlds takes its title from Edo-period Japan, the “floating world” whose ethereal, aestheticized culture of courtesans, geisha, kabuki actors, and wine-drinking poets, romanticized in woodblock prints, greatly influenced Gorey.
But it also suggests the bubble of reciprocal inspiration the two men inhabited — the shared consciousness of creative collaborators that William Burroughs and Brion Gysin call “the third mind” in their book of the same name.
Theirs was a friendship of almost telepathic rapport and, atypically for men of that era, emotional candor, both about themselves and their friendship. Of the two men, Gorey emerges as the more avid correspondent, and the more confessional — a startlingly out-of-character turn, given the solitary artist’s notorious evasiveness in interviews and disinclination to answer mail or, for that matter, return calls. In Elephant House, a book of photographs of Gorey’s home, the photographer Kevin McDermott recalls “boxes of opened and unopened mail, much of it from fans,” surrounding Gorey’s sofa. Typically, Gorey replied to such letters, if he replied at all, with a postcard of his own design. Featuring a Gorey cat dozing on top of a mound of correspondence, it informed the recipient, “You’ve written me to no avail, because I never read my mail.” The novelist and critic Alexander Theroux notes, in his memoir of their friendship, The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, that the artist’s “doors lacked knobs, and I am convinced they were intentionally left that way.” When the telephone rang, Gorey was often heard to shout, “I am not here.”
For all the anachronistic set dressings of his books, Gorey was proto-postmodern in his self-construction: At Harvard, where he roomed for two years with the poet Frank O’Hara, he adopted the pose of an aesthete, drawing on Wilde and icons of late-Victorian camp like Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett. “I look like a real person, but underneath I am not real at all,” he once observed. “It’s just a fake persona.” “Just who Edward Gorey’s inner self might have been remains highly conjectural,” Neumeyer writes in his introduction.
How stunning, then, to encounter the vulnerable, acutely self-analytical Gorey of Floating Worlds. “I feel in a way as if I had known you always,” he tells Neumeyer, early on. In a later letter, he writes, “I can’t think of a word to identify what we seem to have spontaneously created between us; the temptation to visualize a creepy but lovable monster must be resisted.” (In the end, it couldn’t be: puts a lovably creepy face on their shared creative unconscious.) Gorey writes, “Us is more exciting and worthwhile than anything I might be doing on my own …” Elsewhere, he confides, “You know far more about me than anyone else in the world,” amplifying, in another letter, “I guess that even more than I think of you as a friend, I think of you as my brother.” Neumeyer, for his part, confessed he was “too congested in spirit to answer with the freeness [Gorey’s profession of ‘kinship’] requires,” but assured Ted, as he was known to his friends, “your existence has made something of this world that [it] hadn’t the possibility of before.”
I asked Neumeyer, by email, if he’d be willing to expand on the depth of feeling he felt for Ted, and which Gorey apparently felt for him; what accounted, I wondered, for the sympathetic chord each man evidently struck in the other? Moreover, was Gorey as emotionally open, as nakedly self-analytical, in person as he was in his letters? I wrote:
The epistolary form can be a more intimate medium than face-to-face conversation, for some writers. (This was notably the case for Raymond Chandler.) In these profoundly revealing letters, he confides his insecurities, his anxieties, his passions, and does so in a way that suggests another Ted behind the Wildean aesthete, the eccentric litterateur, the Puckish observer of the human comedy. Were these personae just facets of a fabricated self, equal parts Wilde and Firbank and Compton-Burnett and Sei Shonagon? Is the Gorey you knew so intimately through correspondence a truer Gorey? Or was even that Gorey only one more aspect of a complex man, no closer to the Real Ted than the invented selves (another art form, perhaps?) that may have been as “honest,” in some inauthentically authentic, Wildean way, as the Ted you knew?
Neumeyer’s reply begins with a quote from Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji: “Yet the human heart is an invisible and dreadful being.” He goes on to say,
Even if [the Gorey-Neumeyer correspondence] doesn’t exactly comprise a novel, I believe it does have affinities to such; and so, insofar as your questions are about the “truth” within a plot, I’ve got to say that I really wouldn’t want to answer with precision, even if I could.
Much of what I know of Ted, I learned from these letters. Who Ted “really” was, remained highly conjectural … At the same time, please consider Ted’s letter, p. 102, where he notes a similar difficulty regarding me (“I am suffering … from double vision, i.e. how you are in your letters and how you are yourself …”) the effect being a blurring for him. So, what you postulate may go in two directions, albeit with less bravura in my instance.
As for the ontological brainteaser of who the “real” Gorey was, “and whether even the ‘truer’ Gorey of our letters is, himself, but a delusion,” wrote Neumeyer,
I do think that at times Ted entertained a heightened version of that same question when he became “unnerved” when someone responded to something he had said “as if [he] were a real person.”
For such conundrums we read Lady Murasaki and Borges and Kafka. Your own vertiginous riff [in the extended question above] could almost make me doubt my own assurance when I still insist that we each found the other necessary, and we each spoke as true to his own heart as he was able at the time.
Near the end of their correspondence, Gorey offers dramatic evidence of the extent to which he and his collaborator had managed the uncanny feat of digging a tunnel from one creative unconscious to the other. Channeling Neumeyer, Gorey wrote a Donald of his own, The Last Stoej-gnpf: or, Donald Acquires a Pet. He tells Neumeyer, “All I can say is I am becoming a believer in possession in the occult sense: you have written this, not me; whether or not you like it has nothing to do with it. Needless to remark, it is very strange.”
The Last Stoej-gnpf is a tale about a loner who embarks on “the yearly stone walk of the stoej-gnpfs,” balancing the ceremonial Suitable Stone on his head. Like Gorey, an occasional migraine sufferer, the animal is tormented by a “dull headache,” which he sleeps off. When he wakes, it’s sundown, and all the other stoej-gnpfs have vanished mysteriously. He buries a stone in the “trove-hole,” as custom demands, then rides a raft, as night comes on, “down the ever-curving river.” Still no sign of his fellows. At dawn, he lands “on the opposite side from that which he had set out,” having crossed the archetypal river (Styx? Jordan?). Standing outside the first house he encounters, he coughs “several times in a self-deprecatory manner.” A boy — Donald, of course — offers the creature a pancake with current jelly and powdered sugar, one of two cakes on his plate. “And that is how the Stoej-gnpf became his pet.”
An existentialist fable? A Taoist parable? (Gorey felt a deep sympathy for Taoism.) A gloss on the George MacBeth couplet he quotes in the letter containing the story: “And I sense the flow/ Of death like honey to make all things whole”? Or maybe just the quintessential Gorey story, which like all the best Gorey stories is better left inscrutable, since it would die on the dissecting table?
Was Gorey the Stoej-gnpf briefly adopted by Neumeyer? Or was it the other way round? Or was the creature a surreal figment of their shared imaginations, destined to vanish away, once their collaboration had ended? Or was Gorey suggesting that, having sounded the depths of Neumeyer’s imagination, so much so that he could write a Donald story on his own, his restless mind was moving on? (His insistence that Neumeyer, not he, was the true author of the story belies that interpretation.)
Although it ends on a happy note, there’s a melancholy, long-shadowed air to the tale. Soon, “the correspondence dwindled and came to a halt,” Neumeyer told me by email. Gorey was scrambling to meet his many freelance illustration deadlines; Neumeyer had taken a job at SUNY Stony Brook and was juggling family and work, “teaching too many new courses.” In time, the two men drifted apart. “We talked by phone, but then after a time, we completely lost touch,” remembers Neumeyer. “I’m sorry about that. Was then; am now. I truly can’t assign or even guess at a ‘reason.’ Some things appear without reason, and that’s how it went.”
And just as suddenly as it had appeared on that late-summer day in 1968, when Neumeyer met Gorey on Cape Cod, the Stoej-gnpf vanished, as rare things will.