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James (Otis) Purdy Biography

James Purdy comments:

Nationality: American. Born: near Fremont, Ohio, 1923. Education: The University of Chicago, 1941, 1946; University of Pueblo, Mexico. Career: Worked as an interpreter in Latin America, France, and Spain; taught at Lawrence College, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1949-53. Since 1953 full-time writer. Visiting professor, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1977. Awards: American Academy award, 1958, 1993; Guggenheim fellowship, 1958, 1962; Ford fellowship, for drama, 1961; Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1993; Oscar Williams and Gene Durwood Award for poetry and art, 1995.



Malcolm. New York, Farrar Straus, 1959; London, Secker andWarburg, 1960.

The Nephew. New York, Farrar Straus, 1960; London, Secker andWarburg, 1961.

Cabot Wright Begins. New York, Farrar Straus, 1964; London Secker and Warburg, 1965.

Eustace Chisholm and the Works. New York, Farrar Straus, 1967;London, Cape, 1968.

Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue. New York, Morrow, 1997.

Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys:Jeremy's Version. New York, Doubleday, 1970; London, Cape, 1971.

The House of the Solitary Maggot. New York, Doubleday, 1974;London, Owen, 1986.

I Am Elijah Thrush. New York, Doubleday, and London, Cape, 1972.

Narrow Rooms. New York, Arbor House, 1978; Godalming, Surrey, Black Sheep, 1980.

Mourners Below. New York, Viking Press, 1981; London, Owen, 1984.

On Glory's Course. New York, Viking, 1984; London, Owen, 1985.

In the Hollow of His Hand. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986; London, Owen, 1988.

Garments the Living Wear. San Francisco, City Lights, and London, Owen, 1989.

Out with the Stars. London, Owen, 1993.

Kitty Blue (fairy tale). Utrecht, The Netherlands, Ballroom, 1993.

Short Stories

Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories. New York, William Frederick Press, 1956.

63: Dream Palace. New York, William Frederick Press, 1956;London, Gollancz, 1957.

Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella. New York, NewDirections, 1957; London, Secker and Warburg, 1961.

Children Is All (stories and plays). New York, New Directions, 1961;London, Secker and Warburg, 1963.

An Oyster Is a Wealthy Beast (story and poems). Los Angeles, BlackSparrow Press, 1967.

Mr. Evening: A Story and Nine Poems. Los Angeles, Black SparrowPress, 1970.

A Day after the Fair: Collection of Play and Stories. New York, Note of Hand, 1977.

Sleep Tight. New York, Nadja, 1979.

The Candles of Your Eyes. New York, Nadja, 1985.

The Candles of Your Eyes and Thirteen Other Stories. New York, Weidenfeld, 1987; London, Owen, 1988.


Mr. Cough Syrup and the Phantom Sex, in December (WesternSprings, Illinois), vol. 8, no. 1, 1960.

Cracks (produced New York, 1963). Wedding Finger, in New Direction 28. New York, New Directions, 1974.

Two Plays (includes A Day after the Fair and True). Dallas, NewLondon Press, 1979.

Proud Flesh: Four Short Plays (includes Strong, Clearing in the Forest, Now, What Is It, Zach?). Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1980.

Scrap of Paper, and The Berry-Picker: Two Plays. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphans, 1981.

The Berry-Picker (produced New York, 1985). With Scrap of Paper, 1981.

Ruthanna Elder. New York, Zenith Winds, 1990.

In the Night of Time and Four Other Plays. Amsterdam, Polak and Van Genned.


The Running Sun. New York, Paul Waner Press, 1971.

Sunshine Is an Only Child. New York, Aloe, 1973.

I Will Arrest the Bird That Has No Light. Northridge, California, Santa Susana Press, 1977.

Lessons and Complaints. New York, Nadja, 1978.

The Brooklyn Branding Parlors. New York, Contact II, 1986.

Collected Poems. Amsterdam, Polak and Van Genned, 1992.



By Jay Ladd, in American Book Collector (Ossining, New York), September-October 1981; James Purdy: A Bibliography, compiled by Jay L. Ladd. Columbus, Ohio State University Libraries, 1999.

Manuscript Collections:

Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; Ohio State University, Columbus.

Critical Studies:

Introduction by David Daiches to Malcolm, 1959, by Edith Sitwell to Color of Darkness, London, Secker and Warburg, 1961, and by Tony Tanner to Color of Darkness, and Malcolm, New York, Doubleday, 1974; The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy by Bettina Schwarzchild, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1968; City of Words, London, Cape, and New York, Harper, 1971, and "Birdsong," in Partisan Review (New Brunswick, New Jersey), Fall 1972, both by Tony Tanner; "James Purdy on the Corruption of Innocents" by Frank Baldanza, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 1974; interview with Fred Barron, in Penthouse (New York), July 1974; James Purdy by Henry Chupack, Boston, Twayne, 1975; James Purdy by Stephen D. Adams, London, Vision Press, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1976; "James Purdy and the Black Mask of Humanity" by Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., in Melus (Los Angeles), 1979.

(1972) As I see it, my work is an exploration of the American soul conveyed in a style based on the rhythms and accents of American speech. From the beginning my work has been greeted with a persistent and even passionate hostility on the part of the New York literary establishment which tries to rule America's literary taste—and the world's. My early work was privately printed by friends. Dame Edith Sitwell read these works and persuaded Victor Gollancz to publish the book in England. Without her help I would never have been published in America and never heard of. The mediocrity of the American literary scene, as is evidenced in the New York Times and the creatures of the vast New York establishment, has tried to reduce me to starvation and silence. Yet as a matter of fact I believe my work is the most American of any writer writing today. My subject, as I said, is the exploration of the inside of my characters, or as John Cowper Powys put it, "under the skin." The theme of American culture, American commercial culture, that is, is that man can be adjusted, that loudness and numbers are reality, and that to be "in" is to exist. My work is the furthest from this definition of "reality." All individual thought and feeling have been silenced or "doped" in America today, and to be oneself is tantamount to non-existence. I see no difference between Russia and America; both are hideous failures, both enemies of the soul, both devourers of nature, and undisciplined disciplinarians who wallow in the unnatural. Anything in America is sacred which brings in money, and the consumers can easily be persuaded to move from their old crumbling Puritan ethic to belief in things like sexual stereotyping and coprophilia, provided and only provided these bring in money and notoriety. The one crime is to be oneself, unless it is a "self" approved and created by the commercial forces. Beneath this vast structure of madness, money, and anesthetic prostitution, is my own body of work.

I prefer not to give a biography since my biography is in my work, and I do not wish to communicate with anybody but individuals, for whom my work was written in the first place. I began writing completely in the dark, and so continue. Were I in a financial position to do so, I would never publish anything commercially, since the literary establishment can promote only lies, and the critics, newspapers, and public, having been fed on poison so long, are incapable of reading anything that is not an advertisement for their own destruction. The most applauded writers in America are those who seem to have been born in a television studio where words are hourly produced from baking tins. In New York City, where American speech is unknown, a writer such as myself is considered a foreigner. Clarity and idiomatic language are considered in fact mad, while the language of dope addicts and coprophiliacs is now standard "American," approved for use by the dowagers who make best-sellers.

* * *

James Purdy is fascinated by the "color of darkness." His stories and novels deal with consuming narcissism and they assume, consequently, that "normal" love is, for the most part, cruel and nightmarish.

In Color of Darkness he gives us many heroes who are confused, lonely, and freakish. They do not know how to love (or to be loved). They are afraid to commit themselves. We see them sitting in dark rooms or roaming city streets; we hear their silent screams. Fenton Riddleway is so tormented by love for Claire, his dying brother, in "63: Dream Palace," the most impressive story in the collection, that he must kill him. The murder is the culmination of perverse love; it is perfectly in keeping with the "not-rightness" and rot of their dream palace.

In another collection, Children Is All, Purdy returns to the conflicts in family relationships. Often his heroes are orphans or bachelors. The narrator of "Daddy Wold," for example, has seen his wife and child leave him; he turns for solace to the invisible "daddy." He calls him on the "trouble phone", he rants, confesses, and rambles. But he is, finally, alone—except for the rats which crawl near him. "Goodnight, Sweetheart," like all of the best stories, fuses the realistic (or cliché) dialogue and the fantastic incident. It begins with Pearl Miranda walking "stark naked from her class-room in the George Washington" to the house of Winston, a former pupil. Both are victims of love (or "rape"); both cannot exist in the wolfish world. Unfortunately, they cannot even live with each other. As the story ends, they "both muttered to themselves in the darkness as if they were separated by different rooms from one another." They pray for help.

Purdy's novels are more varied than his stories. (It is questionable whether they surpass the great achievement of the stories.) The hero of his first novel, Malcolm, searches for his father, hoping thereby to affirm his own identity and name. But, like Fenton Riddleway, he cannot exist as a "person"—he becomes another shadow in the rotten city. He is manipulated by others; he is never understood completely, except as a mere reflection of their selfish demands. Malcolm is, to quote his lusty wife, "a little bit of this and that," and when he dies—has he ever lived?—he apparently vanishes into thin air. Malcolm is a wonderfully strange mixture of comedy and pathos, and it alone asserts Purdy's impressive gifts as a novelist. Although it deals with the lack of substance in relationships—between human beings and the cosmos—it creates its own substantial texture largely as a result of Purdy's mixed, "transformational" style.

The Nephew is set in Rainbow Center, a small American town. (It is a change from the "fairy-tale" Malcolm.) It delights in clichés, minor scandals, and popular holidays; it is, at least superficially, a realistic picture of the middle Americans. But it represents Boyd and Alma (and Cliff, their missing nephew) in such a deceptive, complex way that "local color" changes subtly to universal darkness. When Alma discovers that she has never known Cliff (despite having lived with him for many years) and, consequently, realizes her own needs and dreams, she is depressed and exalted. She grasps the hard truth; she understands that we are all "missing" shadows; we live briefly and secretly. She accepts the significance of memorial days—the novel begins and ends on this holiday—and the "faint delicious perfume" of our lives before the court house clock strikes again. Thus The Nephew, like all of Purdy's novels, must be read closely (as Alma reads her nephew's life)—it presents two worlds and demands the recognition that only art can reconcile their differences.

Cabot Wright Begins is a savage satire on American life. It attacks the automatic, false, and empty values which make us treat people as valuable objects. Cabot Wright becomes a rapist because he can assert his identity only as a vital, pumping being. Later he runs away from the others—Bernie, Zoe, and Princeton—who want to trap and use his exotic past for their narcissistic ends. Cabot Wright begins to laugh and write; he rises from the "deadly monotony of the human continuity" when he lies on the ground, "weeping a little from the pain of his laughter, a thread of drivel coming down from his mouth onto his pointed dimpled chin." Despite the cluttered sermons, this novel is brilliantly effective when its says "HA!" to the boredom of our daily routines. It is Purdy's blackest comedy.

Eustace Chisholm and the Works details the various strategies of lovers who refuse to acknowledge their own potentialities. The homosexuality which colored Malcolm, The Nephew and "63: Dream Palace" flourishes here. Daniel Haws, for example, cannot accept his love for Amos (except at the end); he flees from it into the Army. There he is "satisfied" by sadistic Captain Stadger in a powerfully detailed execution (or embrace?). These Army scenes are perhaps the most brutal ones in all of Purdy's fiction.

Eusatce Chisholm is a writer. He resembles Alma, Cabot Wright, and Bernie of Cabot Wright Begins in trying to solve the mysteries of love and will in the community, and, like them, he discovers that he cannot get to the heart of the matter. He abdicates—unlike Purdy himself—and turns instead to his wife for incredible love. He warms her with "a kind of ravening love," knowing that they will probably "consume" each other in the future. He is saved only momentarily.

Jeremy's Version is the first part of an uncompleted trilogy called Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys, but it stands alone. Jeremy is an adolescent who writes down the sermons, tales, and histories of Matthew Lacy. He is, therefore, the familiar character we have met before, but unlike the other earlier writers, he is more open, innocent and human than they are. He learns as he listens and transcribes.

Jeremy moves into the past. He becomes so involved with the family conflicts of the nineteenth-century Fergises—he identifies especially with Jethro, another adolescent writer—that at times he becomes a free-floating spirit. Thus he forces us to recognize that only by giving oneself to others can we survive and create. He offers hope. His "version" is finally a mellow, full, and sunny account, which indicates some new directions for Purdy's forthcoming novels.

The House of the Solitary Maggot, the second volume of the trilogy, presents different characters—Lady Bythwaite and her illegitimate sons—but it also assumes that love is a bloody mixture. The "family" is, again, a maggot-ridden, melodramatic structure. Thus this novel, a discontinuous part of the trilogy, parallels the first, implying a mythic, disturbing, general design; it offers few solutions and little hope for American society.

Irving Malin

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