The Blue and White can be found in buildings all over campus and on Bwog. In this Blue Note, Sam Schube discovers a rather unusual collection in the Rare Books and Manuscript Library.
For an archive that prides itself on sterile preservation and meticulous organization, the Rare Books and Manuscript Library is the last place you’d expect to see anything unseemly, let alone sinister, gruesome, or bizarrely bestial.
But the Library took on a decidedly grislier shade last spring when Andrew Alpern, Architecture ’64, donated a collection of over 700 works by the late, prolific, and reclusive illustrator Edward Gorey. With a deft hand and dark wit rivaling that of Charles Addams and Tim Burton, the Chicago-born Gorey worked as an illustrator for Anchor Books, an animator for PBS, and a Broadway costume designer before passing away in 2000.
Columbia’s new collection consists mostly of Gorey’s books, illustrations, and etchings, with the odd Gorey-designed necktie thrown in. The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an illustrated alphabet which narrates the demise of 26 children in verse – “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea / N is for Neville who died of ennui” – is the epitome of Gorey’s morbid humor. The collection, however, is more than simple macabre. “It’s not like some slasher movie,” says librarian Jane Siegel. “It’s something I can handle.”
But Siegel adds, “It’s not really for children, either.” She makes a point–works like The Insect God, which Gorey billed as “An admonitory tale of Temptation, hapless Greed, Abduction, and Unspeakable Ritualistic Practices,” might not be the best bedtime story.
The library’s display of Gorey’s 1980 ephemera collection titled F.M.R.A. (say it aloud!) shows the same macabre absurdity. An illustration of élites in black tie staring at a severed mummy’s hand clutching a jewel is displayed next to monochrome etchings of elephants rendered in his heavily crosshatched style. “They’re kind of German expressionist,” Siegel says, noting that she expects the collection to be popular with 20th century art specialists and researchers.
Given the sheer breadth of the collection, it’s not surprising that Seigel says the works are still being catalogued and that display designs are subject to change. But even though the organizational task at hand may be (truly!) monstrous, the librarian–true to her trade–praises Alpern’s pack-rat mentality.
“The thing about a good collector is that he really is obsessed,” she says. Drawing a pair of Gorey-patterned neckties from a long cardboard box, she adds, “and if you’re a good collector, you have to have the ties.”
Illustration by Adela Yawitz