Authors: James Purdy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright

Identity: Gay or bisexual


James Amos Purdy’s considerable body of work–including novels, short fiction, poetry, and plays–is remarkable for several consistent characteristics: an unrelentingly grim depiction of the American experience, a reliance on the macabre and the grotesque, an unconstrained exploration of sexuality, and an idiosyncratic stylistic fusing of overwrought eloquence and automatic banality. For his writing, which has elicited critical comparisons with Flannery O’Connor, Nathanael West, and John Hawkes, Purdy won recognition from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation. He did not court public recognition and, in fact, remained circumspect about the details of his personal history.{$I[AN]9810000933}{$I[A]Purdy, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Purdy, James}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Purdy, James}{$I[tim]1923;Purdy, James}

James Purdy

(Fabian Bachrach)

His parents were divorced when he was eleven, and after that he lived for various periods with his father, his mother, and his grandmother in several Ohio towns. When he was sixteen years old he escaped his family situation and Ohio by moving to Chicago, where he experienced a series of nightmarish misadventures that later served as the basis for many of the incidents in his fiction; in fact, he said that his fiction conveys his life’s experiences more accurately than any biography might describe them. Eventually Purdy entered the army, and he later attended the University of Chicago, the University of Madrid, and the University of Puebla in Mexico. Between 1946 and 1949 he worked as an interpreter and as a schoolteacher in Mexico, Cuba, Spain, and France. From 1949 to 1953 he taught at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin. After leaving that position he devoted himself full-time to his writing, which appeared in such magazines as New Directions, Esquire, and The New Yorker.

It was not until a privately printed edition of Color of Darkness came to the attention of Edith Sitwell that Purdy was able to acquire a publisher in Great Britain. Enthusiastic British reviews, such as that by John Cowper Powys, led to his being published in the United States. His first three books were collections of short fiction: Don’t Call Me by My Right Name, and Other Stories and Sixty-three: Dream Palace were published in 1956, and Color of Darkness appeared in 1957. In 1959 Purdy published his first novel, Malcolm, which became perhaps his best-known work. Like the central characters of many of his earlier short stories, Malcolm is a peculiar sort of innocent, an artist who is emotionally isolated and who, in his terrible need for a satisfying identity, opens himself to sexual and social exploitation by a range of disturbed characters who ostensibly have the identity that he lacks. The novel stands as a picaresque of absurdly brutal degradations.

The Nephew, Purdy’s second novel, was published one year later. In many senses, it may be his most mainstream work. Here a young soldier is reported missing and presumed dead in the Korean War; although he never actually appears in the novel, his presence fills it. His aunt, a retired schoolteacher, attempts to compose a booklet memorializing him, but, in the process, she discovers that he was a homosexual and that, ironically, her idealized memories of him were something she should have protected for her own sake.

In 1961 Purdy published a collection of stories and plays, Children Is All, in which he explored the deprivations of the materially disadvantaged, the socially alienated, the spiritually empty, and the sexually exploited in a manner that allows no easy distinctions between realism, surrealism, and satire. Purdy next published Cabot Wright Begins, a wildly bitter satire on American values that has been compared with Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1968).

The publication of Eustace Chisholm and the Works may be regarded as something of a turning point in Purdy’s career. Because the novel deals primarily with sadomasochistic homosexuality, Purdy came to be categorized more with such brutally naturalistic writers as Hubert Selby, Jr., and John Rechy than with self-conscious experimentalists such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. The novel’s ironic validation of heterosexual “normalcy” subverts conventional, binary sexual categories and flustered many contemporary critics. In Garments the Living Wear Purdy’s satirical attack centers on the corrupt, decaying, loveless American society during the epidemic of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Purdy’s grandiose depictions of sadomasochistic violence and homosexuality, as well as the idiosyncracies of his style, provide a barrier for widespread readership and critical attention. Purdy was primarily concerned with how eroticism serves both to define personal identity and to prevent a full definition of self; he cared about how the emptiness of the American culture of his time and the depravity of individuals inexplicably combine to exploit innocence. These concerns, combined with his willingness to experiment cogently with the conventions of fiction, would seem to guarantee him a place among the more prominent writers of his generation.

BibliographyAdams, Stephen D. James Purdy. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976. Adams’s study covers Purdy’s major work from the early stories and Malcolm up through In a Shallow Grave. Of particular interest is his discussion of the first two novels in Purdy’s trilogy Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys.Canning, Richard. Gay Fiction Speaks: Conversations with Gay Novelists. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. The extensive interview contained in this twelve-author volume focuses primarily on Purdy’s identity as a gay novelist, but it does include some material on his plays. In particular, Purdy acknowledges his interest in and debt owed to the Jacobean theater of the early seventeenth century in England, especially those plays by John Webster and Thomas Middleton that fixate on the existence of evil as a major force in human destiny.Chudpack, Henry. James Purdy. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Chudpack’s book is notable for students of Purdy’s short fiction in that he devotes an entire chapter to the early stories of the author. He also offers an interesting introductory chapter on what he terms the “Purdian trauma.”Guy-Bray, Stephen. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. Edited by Claude J. Summers. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. In this short article, Guy-Bray tries to identify some of Purdy’s most pervasive themes, including the betrayal of love, the use of violence to resolve inner conflict, and the malevolence of fate.Ladd, Jay L. James Purdy: A Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State University Libraries, 1999. An annotated bibliography of works by and about James Purdy.Lane, Christopher. “Out with James Purdy: An Interview.” Critique 40 (Fall, 1998): 71-89. Purdy discusses racial stereotypes, sexual fantasy, political correctness, religious fundamentalism, gay relationships, and the reasons he has been neglected by the literary establishment.Peden, William. The American Short Story: Front Line in the National Defense of Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. Peden discusses Purdy in comparison with some of the “southern gothic” writers, such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, and in relation to Purdy’s probing of themes about the strange and perverse in American life.Purdy, James. “Out with James Purdy: An Interview.” Interview by Christopher Lane. Critique 40 (Fall, 1998): 71-89. Evaluates reasons for critical hostility to Purdy’s writings. Presents Purdy’s views on racial and sexual stereotyping, violence in art, and the effect of political correctness. Analyzes theme and subject, presenting real-life counterparts to characters in several novels.Renner, Stanley. “‘Why Can’t They Tell You Why?’ A Clarifying Echo of The Turn of the Screw.” Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 205-213. Compares the story with Henry James’s famous tale; argues that both are about a female suppressing a male’s sexual identity.Schwarzchild, Bettina. The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968. Although the primary focus of these essays is on Purdy’s novels, there is some comparative discussion of such early works as Sixty-three: Dream Palace and “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name.”Skaggs, Calvin. “The Sexual Nightmare of ‘Why Can’t They Tell You Why?’” In The Process of Fiction, edited by Barbara McKenzie. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. Argues that the mother tries to destroy the boy’s masculine identification because of her own ambiguous sexual identity. Claims that in the final scene a strong female emasculates a weak male.Tanner, Tony. Introduction to Color of Darkness and Malcolm. New York: Doubleday, 1974. Tanner’s introductory essay discusses Purdy’s novel Malcolm and Sixty-three: Dream Palace. It also compares Purdy’s effects with those achieved by the Russian realist Anton Chekhov.Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair. “James Purdy: Playwright.” PAJ 20 (May, 1998): 73-75. Discusses Purdy’s international acclaim and publication history. Praises his uses of dialogue and vernacular in the novels. Critical evaluation of dramatizations of Purdy’s novels, specifically focusing on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) distortion of In a Shallow Grave.Woodhouse, Reed. Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Purdy is one of the authors that Woodhouse sees as exploring the ethics of the gay life.
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