“i don’t think i’d like it if people liked me. i’d think that something had gone wrong.”

 

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

gore vidal’s emma/emile bovary: “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.”

The opening lines of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge:

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in my garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for "why or "because." Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

Myra’s mission:

The destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.

Myra targets the handsome male student in her acting class, Rusty, and rapes him with a prosthetic penis:


. . . only through traumatic shook, through terrifying & humiliating him, could I hope to change his view of what is proper masculine behavior . . .

"In any case, if I had wanted you to–as you put it–‘ball me,’ it’s very plain that you couldn’t. As a stud, you’re a disaster."

He flushed at the insult but said nothing. I was now ready for my master stroke.

"However, as a lesson, I shall ball you."

He was entirely at sea. "Ball me? How?"

"Put out your hands." He did so and I bound them together with surgical gauze. Not for nothing had I once been a nurses’ aide.

"What’re you doing that for?" Alarm growing.

With a forefinger, I flicked the scrotal sac, making him cry out from shock. "No questions, my boy." When the hands were firmly secured, I lowered the examination table until it was just two feet from the floor. "Lie down," I ordered. "On your stomach."

Mystified, he did as he was told. I then tied his bound hands to the top of the metal table. He was, as they say, entirely in my power. If I had wanted, I could have killed him. But my fantasies have never involved murder or even physical suffering for I have a horror of blood, preferring to inflict pain in more subtle ways, destroying totally, for instance, a man’s idea of himself in relation to the triumphant sex.

"Now then, up on your knees."

"But…" A hard slap across the buttocks put an end to all objections. He pulled himself up on his knees, legs tight together and buttocks clenched shut. He resembled a pyramid whose base was his head and white-socked feet, and whose apex was his rectum. I was now ready for the final rite.

"Legs wide apart," I commanded. Reluctantly, he moved his knees apart so that they lined up with the exact edges of the table. I was now afforded my favorite view of the male, the heavy rosy scrotum dangling from the groin above which the tiny sphincter shyly twinkled in the light. Carefully I applied lubricant to the mystery that even Mary-Ann has never seen, much less violated.

"What’re you doing?" The voice was light as a child’s True terror had begun.

"Now remember the secret is to relax entirely. Otherwise you could be seriously hurt."

I then pulled up my skirt to reveal, strapped to my groin, Clem’s dildo which I borrowed yesterday on the pretext that I wanted it copied for a lamp base. Clem had been most amused.

Rusty cried out with alarm. "Oh, no! For God’s sake, don’t."

"Now you will find out what it is the girl feels when you play the man with her."

"Jesus, you’ll split me!" The voice was treble with fear. As I approached him, dildo in front of me like the god Priapus personified, he tried to wrench free of his bonds, but failed. Then he did the next best thing, and brought his knees together in an attempt to deny me entrance. But it was no use. I spread him wide and put my battering ram to the gate.

For a moment I wondered if he might not be right about the splitting: the opening was the size of a dime while the dildo was over two inches wide at the head and nearly a foot long. But then I recalled how Myron used to have no trouble in accommodating objects this size or larger, and what the fragile Myron could do so could the inexperienced but sturdy Rusty.

I pushed. The pink lips opened. The tip of the head entered and stopped.

"I can’t," Rusty moaned. "Honestly I can’t. It’s too big."

"Just relax, and you’ll stretch. Don’t worry."

He made whatever effort was necessary and the pursed lips became a grin allowing the head to enter, but not without a gasp of pain and shock.

Once inside, I savored my triumph. I had avenged Myron. A lifetime of being penetrated had brought him only misery. Now, in the person of Rusty, I was able, as Woman Triumphant, to destroy the adored destroyer.

Holding tight to Rusty’s slippery hips, I plunged deeper. He cried out with pain.

But I was inexorable. I pushed even farther into him, triggering the prostate gland, for when I felt between his legs, I discovered that the erection he had not been able to present me with had now, inadvertently, occurred. The size was most respectable, and hard as metal.

But when I plunged deeper, the penis went soft with pain, and he cried out again, begged me to stop, but now I was like a woman possessed, riding, riding, riding my sweating stallion into forbidden country, shouting with joy as I experienced my own sort of orgasm, oblivious to his staccato shrieks as I delved and spanned that innocent flesh. Oh, it was a holy moment! I was one with the Bacchae, with all the priestesses of the dark bloody cults, with the great goddess herself for whom Attis unmanned himself. I was the eternal feminine made flesh, the source of life and its destroyer, dealing with man as incidental toy, whose blood as well as semen is needed to make me whole!

There was blood at the end. And once my passion had spent itself, I was saddened and repelled. I had not meant actually to tear the tender flesh but apparently I had, and the withdrawing of my weapon brought with it bright blood. He did not stir as I washed him clean (like a loving mother), applying medicine to the small cut, inserting gauze (how often had I done this for Myron!). Then l unbound him.

Shakily, he stood up, rubbing tears from his swollen face. In silence he dressed while I removed the harness of the dildo and put it away in the attaché case.

Not until he was finally dressed did he speak. "Can I go now?"

"Yes. You can go now." I sat down at the surgical table and took out this notebook. He was at the door when I said, "Aren’t you going to thank me for the trouble I’ve taken?"

He looked at me, face perfectly blank. Then, tonelessly, he murmured, "Thank you, ma’am," and went.

And so it was that Myra Breckinridge achieved one of the great victories for her sex. But one which is not yet entirely complete even though, alone of all women, I know what it is like to be a goddess enthroned, and all-powerful.

 

the squirm-inducing prose of j.g. ballard—and others

"When had they last bathed their genitalia, did small grains of faecal matter still cling to their anuses as they prescribed some antibiotic for a streptococcal throat, did the odour of illicit sex acts infest their underwear as they drove home from the hospital, the traces of smegma and vaginal mucus on their hands marrying with the splashed engine coolant of unexpected car-crashes?"

Explained to a friend today that J.G. Ballard’s Crash is one of the few books I’ve read with scenes that made me physically squeamish; indeed, discomfiture to the point where I thought I might vomit (the scene of the anal rape of the male acting student in Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge had a similar effect on me. Then again, so did the section on contract in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).

 

 

A young, blond-haired doctor with a callous face examined the wounds on my chest. The skin was broken around the lower edge of the sternum, where the horn boss had been driven upwards by the collapsing engine compartment. A semi-circular bruise marked my chest, a marbled rainbow running from one nipple to the other. During the next week this rainbow moved through a sequence of tone changes Mice the colour spectrum of automobile varnishes. As I looked down at myself I realized that the precise make and model-year of my car could have been reconstructed by an automobile engineer from the pattern of my wounds. The layout of the instrument panel, like the profile of the steering wheel bruised into my chest, was inset on my knees and shin-bones. The impact of the second collision between my body and the interior compartment of the car was denned in these wounds, like the contours of a woman’s body remembered in the responding pressure of one’s own skin for a few hours after a sexual act.

On the fourth day, for no evident reason, the anaesthetics were withdrawn. All morning I vomited into the enamel pail which a nurse held under my face. She stared at me with good-humoured but unmoved eyes. The cold rim of the kidney pail pressed against my cheek. Its porcelain surface was marked by a small thread of blood from some nameless previous user.

I leaned my forehead against the nurse’s strong thigh as I vomited. Beside my bruised mouth her worn fingers contrasted strangely with her youthful skin. I found myself thinking of her natal cleft. When had she last washed this moist gulley? During my recovery, questions like this one obsessed me as I talked to the doctors and nurses. When had they last bathed their genitalia, did small grains of faecal matter still cling to their anuses as they prescribed some antibiotic for a streptococcal throat, did the odour of illicit sex acts infest their underwear as they drove home from the hospital, the traces of smegma and vaginal mucus on their hands marrying with the splashed engine coolant of unexpected car-crashes? I let a few threads of green bile leak into the pail, aware of the warm contours of the young woman’s thighs. A seam of her gingham frock had been repaired with a few loops of black cotton. I stared at the loosening coils lying against the round surface of her left buttock. Their curvatures seemed as arbitrary and as meaningful as the wounds on my chest and legs.

This obsession with the sexual possibilities of everything around me had been jerked loose from my mind by the crash. I imagined the ward filled with convalescing air-disaster victims, each of their minds a brothel of images. The crash between our two cars was a model of some ultimate and yet undreamt sexual union. The injuries of still-to-be-admitted patients beckoned to me, an immense encyclopedia of accessible dreams . . .

 


                           

 

"I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess."                                                  

Stock Photo

 "When philosophy paints its grey on grey it 
  then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s
  grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only
  understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings
  only with the falling of dusk."

*

But the big thing about Ballard is how he takes Freudian depth psychology as uses it as an engine to generate psychological horror: in Ballard-land it’s as if Freud opened a Pandora’s Box of the very worst of human impulses and Ballard—or his narrators, at least—revel in showing how the ploymorphous perverse rules all—and to the degree that even if we could close the lid on that proverbial Pandoran box, none of us would want to . . .

Apart from Crash, the next weirdest thing Ballard did was a short story, written in the form of a psychiatric evaluation, entitled "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," which some pranksters photocopied and handed out at the 1980 Republican Convention, claiming it to be a psychological case study why Reagan should receive the nomination instead of George Bush.

 

. . . SEXUAL FANTASIES IN CONNECTION WITH RONALD REAGAN. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth-parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear-exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child-victim of sexual assault. In 89 percent of the cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.

 

*

 

Faces were seen as either circumcised (JFK, Khrushchev) or uncircumcised (LBJ, Adenauer). In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.

 

*

 

REAGAN’S HAIRSTYLE. Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender’s hairstyle. 65% of male subjects made positive connections between the hairstyle and their own pubic hair. A series of optimum hairstyles were constructed.

 

*

 

Slow-motion film of Reagan’s speeches produced a marked erotic effect in an audience of spastic children.

 

*

Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto-disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan’s head on the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities. In 82% of cases massive rear-end collisions were selected with a preference for expressed fecal matter and rectal haemorrhages…

…It is hoped to construct a rectal modulus of Reagan and the auto-disaster of maximised audience arousal.