three obituaries of James Purdy, dead at age 94: explorer of once-taboo topics — "including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality"
James Purdy in 2005
James Purdy, Darkly Comic Writer, Dies at 94
By William Grimes
James Purdy, whose dark, often savagely comic fiction evoked a psychic American landscape of deluded innocence, sexual obsession, violence and isolation, died Friday in Englewood, N.J. He was 94 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.
His death was confirmed by John Uecker, a friend and assistant. Wayward and unclassifiable, Mr. Purdy, the author of the novels “Malcolm” and “The Nephew,” labored at the margins of the literary mainstream, inspiring veneration or disdain. His nearly 20 novels and numerous short stories and plays either enchanted or baffled critics with their gothic treatment of small-town innocents adrift in a corrupt and meaningless world, his distinctive blend of plain speech with ornate, florid locutions, and the hallucinatory quality of his often degraded scenes.
“I can describe my books as I see them as American, imaginative, symbolic,” he told an interviewer for the reference work World Authors. “ My literary ancestors are two other Calvinists, Hawthorne and Melville.” He also stated, in another interview, that he was attracted only to stories that “bristled with impossibilities.”
If Mr. Purdy made limited headway against what he called, in an autobiographical sketch, “the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment,” he was proclaimed “an authentic American genius” by Gore Vidal and admired extravagantly by writers like Angus Wilson, John Cowper Powys and Edith Sitwell, who, reviewing the stories and short plays collected in “Children Is All” (1962), wrote that Mr. Purdy would “come to be recognized as one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language.”
James Otis Purdy was born in Ohio near the Indiana border but remained vague about where. Because of his father’s financial woes, he was reared, he said, “in a troubled atmosphere” and left home at an early age for Chicago, unprepared, he later admitted, for the big city. “It provided me with enough subject matter for the rest of my life,” he said.
After serving in the Army, he attended the University of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, the University of Chicago and the University of Madrid. From 1949 to 1953 he taught at Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton, Wis.
Mr. Purdy had little luck placing his short stories in magazines. Supporters of his work arranged for the private publication of his stories and the novella “63: Dream Palace,” about two orphaned brothers who leave West Virginia for Chicago, where they fall prey to a series of exploiters.
On a hunch, Mr. Purdy sent the books to Sitwell, who was impressed. The novella, she wrote to Mr. Purdy, was “a masterpiece from every point of view.” At her urging, Victor Gollancz published the stories and the novella in one volume, and British critical response encouraged New Directions Press to bring out the Gollancz volume as “Color of Darkness” in 1957.
Mr. Purdy’s early work met with critical enthusiasm, and in 1960 he moved to New York, where the photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced him to a circle of friends that included Paul Bowles and Dorothy Parker.
“Malcolm” (1959), Mr. Purdy’s first full-scale novel, further explored one of his cherished themes, innocence on the loose, this time in a picaresque tale whose Candide-like hero trips lightly from absurdity to perversity. The novel, lavishly praised by Dorothy Parker in a career-making review in Esquire, was adapted for the stage by Edward Albee.
In “The Nephew” (1961), Mr. Purdy slyly intimated the elusiveness of human character in the story of a Korean War soldier missing in action whose aunt tries to research his life for a memorial book. She discovers that the boy she thought she knew was a stranger not only to her but to the rest of the family and was quite possibly gay.
Mr. Purdy, nothing if not fearless, led his readers into more forbidding terrain with novels like the farcical “Cabot Wright Begins” (1964), about a Wall Street heir who turns into a rapist after psychoanalysis frees his libido, and “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” (1967), which ends in a grisly sadomasochistic murder.
Decades of critical neglect followed, punctuated by brief spurts of interest when devotees like Mr. Vidal made the case for Mr. Purdy as a major artist. Though his plays were praised by Tennessee Williams, only a few were produced, at small theaters like the Theater for the New City in Manhattan. At his death, “James Purdy: Selected Plays” (Ivan R. Dee) was being prepared for publication in June.
Mr. Purdy, whose view of American culture was not optimistic, seemed to regard rejection as a badge of honor. “I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me,” he told one interviewer. “I’d think that something had gone wrong.”
By and large, reviewers resisted, or neglected, the four dystopian family novels set in the South and Midwest that Mr. Purdy grouped under the running title “Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys.” These were “Jeremy’s Version” (1970), “The House of the Solitary Maggot” (1974), “Mourners Below” (1981) and “On Glory’s Course (1984).
Nor did he win converts with two later novels about gay life, one dealing with the AIDS epidemic (“Garments the Living Wear,” 1989), the other set in the New York of the mid-1960s (“Out With the Stars,” 1992).
Mr. Purdy might have countered that it was not the critics who spurned him, but he them.
“Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability,” he once said. “The worse the author, the more he is known.”
—March 14, 2009, The New York Times
Controversial author James Purdy dies
Cult author, poet and playwright James Purdy, whose fans ranged from Dorothy Parker to Gore Vidal but who was little known to the general public, died Friday morning in New Jersey.
Reports vary about his age, but according to his literary agency Harold Ober Associates, Purdy was 94 and had been in poor health. He died at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.
In his dark writing, Purdy often explored controversial topics — including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality — at the edge of mainstream discussion, hence the shock and outrage he inspired from many critics.
‘When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone.’—James Purdy
Purdy also garnered high praise from a raft of acclaimed writers, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Susan Sontag, Angus Wilson and Edith Sitwell.
"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," Purdy told the Associated Press in 2005.
More recently, praise from authors like Vidal rekindled interest in Purdy’s writing.
Born in Ohio, Purdy said he was "exposed to everything" as a child, when his parents split and he lived alternately with his mother, father and grandmother.
A writer from early on, he began submitting short stories to New York magazines, which rejected him. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s when he began to make a name for himself.
After his story collection Don’t Call Me By My Right Name was published privately, he made his official debut with the release of 63: Dream Palace in 1956.
Though best known for novels like Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1961), Purdy’s credits include Cabot Wright Begins, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, as well as numerous short stories, plays, poems and drawings created over the past half-century.
A final volume — James Purdy: Selected Plays — is slated for publication in June.
—Friday, March 13, CBC News
Author James Purdy dies
By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK – Author James Purdy, a shocking realist and surprising romantic who in underground classics such as "Cabot Wright Begins" and "Eustace Chisholm and the Works" inspired censorious outrage and lasting admiration, has died.
Spokesman Walter Vatter of Ivan Dee Publishers said Purdy had been in poor health and died Friday morning at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. Reports of his age have differed but, according to his literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, he was 94.
Purdy published poetry, drawings, the plays "Children Is All" and "Enduring Zeal," the novels "Mourners Below" and "Narrow Rooms," and the collection "Moe’s Villa and Other Stories." Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years. In the spring, Ivan Dee will issue a collection of his plays.
Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker were among his fans but Purdy won few awards and was little known to the general public. He spent most of his latter years in a one-room Brooklyn walk-up apartment, bitterly outside what he called "the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment."
He was attacked for his "adolescent and distraught mind," accused of writing "fifth-rate, avant-garde soap opera" and left out of the country’s official literary establishment – the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also called a comic genius worthy of Voltaire and an outlaw, in the best sense, among his compromised peers.
Interviewed by The Associated Press in 2005, Purdy recalled being "exposed to everything" as a child, and his books revealed the most detailed awareness of sex, violence, race, class, familial cruelty and romantic longing. His work was labelled "gothic" for its extremes of emotion and physicality, but in his own mind, there was no sensationalism, just the impulse to write what he knew.
"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," he said.
Purdy was born in Fremont, Ohio. His parents split up when he was young, forcing Purdy to alternate among the homes of his mother, father and grandmother. His formal education was essentially a waste, although Sunday school did impart an appreciation of the King James Bible. An early muse was a landlady to whom he wrote hate letters.
"My mother was both horrified and amused that I would write these terrible things about real people," he said, adding with a laugh, "We never showed them to the landlady. She might have had a stroke."
He wrote stories from an early age and in his 20s submitted some to what he called "the New York slick magazines," which duly rejected them in "rage." A break came in his early 30s when through a mutual acquaintance he was introduced to Chicago businessman and literary critic, Osborn Andreas, who agreed to privately publish a story collection, "Don’t Call Me by My Right Name."
Others soon learned about him, including British writers Dame Edith Sitwell and Angus Wilson, and his official debut, "63: Dream Palace," came out in 1956. He followed with such novels as "The Nephew," "Malcolm" and "Cabot Wright Begins," stories of innocent young men, needy older women and, in the case of "Cabot Wright," literary elitism, sexual violence and indiscreet bodily noises.
Rarely were reviewers so divided. Orville Prescott, book critic for The New York Times, labelled "Cabot Wright" the "sick outpouring of a confused, adolescent and distraught mind" and complained of Purdy’s "obsessive concentration on perverted and criminal sexual activities."
But Susan Sontag, writing in the Times six days later, likened "Cabot Wright" to Voltaire’s "Candide" and praised it as a "fluid, immensely readable, personal and strong work by a writer from whom everyone who cares about literature has expected, and will continue to expect, a great deal."
His most influential novel, "Eustace Chisholm and the Works," was published in 1967 to knee-jerk repulsion and eventual acclaim as a landmark of gay fiction. Set in Depression-era Chicago, "Chisholm" is a 20th-century "Satyricon," an explicit, matter-of-fact portrait of abortion, disembowelment and "diurnal coitus." But it’s also, through the passion of two men, a quest for "that rare thing: the authentic, naked, unconcealed voice of love."
Reviewing the book in 1967 for The New York Times, Wilfrid Sheed called "Eustace Chisholm" a "form of charade or peepshow" and placed it in "that line of homosexual fiction which announces itself not by subject matter but by tone." By 2005, the novel was respected, and respectable enough to receive the Clifton Fadiman Medal for Excellence in Fiction, presented to an ailing Purdy by "The Corrections" novelist Jonathan Franzen.
"The extreme margins of the stable, familiar world of Saul Bellow – and of most novelists, including me – are at the extreme normal end of Mr. Purdy’s world," Franzen said during a formal ceremony in Manhattan. "He takes up where the rest of us leave off."
—March 13, 2009, The Associated Press
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