norbert blei | james purdy 1914-2009

22 03 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 175 | March 21, 2009


by Norbert Blei

If I were to ever put together a book of The Literature of Neglected Writers, James Purdy’s entry would occupy a few pages.

Who? James Purdy.

I read a few of his books a long time ago. I can’t say I remember them in any detail, forty years later. But I do recall his first novel MALCOLM which was quirky, funny, different from anything I was reading back in Chicago at that time. He was a far cry from what we considered ‘Chicago writing’, where Algren was the patron saint of grit, Royko honed a street-smart prose, a newsman’s life, on the backs of palooka politicians, and Studs talked to us in the dark with a radio voice as real as the people Sandburg used to sing about. While Purdy (who had a short Chicago history of his own) seemed a little too precious for our neighborhood. If he was one of our tribe (young, striving, wannabe writers) it was only because nobody paid much attention to us either.

As the years passed, Purdy continued to write and publish in a void, though occasionally writers with gravitas–Dorothy Parker, Tennessee William, Gore Vidal, Edith Sitwell, etc….would say or do something in his behalf. Vidal, especially, considered Purdy “ an authentic American genius.” Edward Albee adapted Purdy’s first novel, MALCOLM, for the New York stage—but Purdy hated what Albee did to it

I suspect Purdy feared success. He saw right through it. “I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me,” he said. “I’d think that something had gone wrong.” And the more you read his personal feelings concerning neglect and cultural stupidity, the more complicated his place and contribution to American literature becomes.

He falls into that literary class of American gothics …weary but sublime intellects …who shine the light on the darkest underside of the human condition…then put it all down in the purest prose. Capote could do this too. Innocence, separateness, questionable sexuality. Sherwood Anderson’s grotesque Americana, raised to the art of rococo.

The fact that Purdy lived to be 94 is astounding. I’m not alone in thinking he had died a long time ago. Just how he did survive, continue to publish and be ignored through all those years is a story I’m waiting to hear—and trust someone will unravel now that he is gone.

“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.

I had to smile when I ran across his small obit last week in a Midwest newspaper. I could have overlooked it so easily. About 10 lines on page 22 of the business section, right above the standard columns of general obits—and just over a small advertisement that read: Best Price Caskets—Our Price $995; Retail Price $5000.


(Little-Known but Controversial Author)


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 R. Dee, Publisher, said Mr. Purdy had been in poor health and died Friday morning at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. Reports of his age have differed, but his literary agency, Harold Ober Associ-ates, said he was 94.

Mr. Purdy published poetry, drawings, plays, novels and collections. Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years.

Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker were among his fans, but Mr. Purdy won few awards and was little known to the public.

One time during those early Chicago years, I had lunch with the book editor of a major newspaper that I reviewed for on a regular basis. Our conversation inevitably veered to the usual subject: the plight of the writer. I remember him saying: “Did you hear what happened to James Purdy?” I nodded no. “He had a new book scheduled to be released last fall and his publisher forgot to publish it.”

I probably smiled. Maybe laughed out loud. Which seemed appropriate at the moment. But I never forgot the sadness I felt for James Purdy. —Norbert Blei

James Otis Purdy (17 July 1914 – 13 March 2009) was a controversial American novelist, short story-writer, poet, and playwright who, since his debut in 1956, has published over a dozen novels, and several collections of poetry, short stories, and plays. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages. It has been praised by writers as diverse as Edward Albee, James M. Cain, Lillian Hellman, Francis King, Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, Dame Edith Sitwell (an important early advocate), Terry Southern, Gore Vidal (who described Purdy as “an authentic American genius”) and A.N. Wilson. Purdy has been the recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1993) and was nominated for the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel On Glory’s Course (1984). In addition, he won two Guggenheim Fellowships (1958 and 1962), and grants from the Ford Foundation (1961), and Rockefeller Foundation. He worked as an interpreter and lectured in Europe with the United States Information Agency.

Purdy was born in Hicksville, Ohio in 1914. His family moved to Findlay, Ohio when he was about five years old where he graduated from Findlay High School in 1932. He was further educated at Bowling Green State College (now Bowling Green State University), the University of Chicago and the University of Puebla in Mexico.

From the start, his work had often been at the edge of what was printable: Gollancz could not bring himself to print the word “motherfucker” in the 1957 UK edition of 63: Dream Palace; decades later, the German government tried to ban Narrow Rooms, but a court threw the case out. Although many readers were scandalized, a solid cadre of distinguished critics and scholars embraced his work from the start, including John Cowper Powys and Susan Sontag, who warmly defended him against prurient critics.

His early novel Malcolm was for decades a staple of the undergraduate American Literature curriculum of most American colleges and universities. Malcolm may have slipped from its place in the canon in recent years due to its irregular publishing history. This is consequent upon the contractual confusion that arose when Purdy agreed to permit Edward Albee to adapt it for the stage. In spite of this ongoing and unresolved problem, Malcolm is currently in print.

Following several reissues of previously out-of-print novels, as well as a recent appreciation by Gore Vidal in The New York Times Book Review, Purdy’s work is currently enjoying a renaissance. As Edward Albee wrote long ago, there is a Purdy renaissance every ten years, like clockwork. Albee has been proved right every decade since.

Since the 1990s, when great age began to make itself felt, he had worked closely with his companion John Uecker (who was previously the last amanuensis of Tennessee Williams), a partnership that resulted in such late works as the novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1997) and the collection of stories Moe’s Villa (2003, 2005). He continued to dictate to a small team of devoted friends, and ascribed his continued intellectual vigor to the drinking of green tea and the avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. His advice to young writers was to ‘banish shame’.

Purdy wrote anonymous letters since age nine. His first was written to his mother’s landlady who, in young Purdy’s view, was grasping. Countless thousands have been written since, many now owned by persons who have no idea of their provenance or value, although the style is inimitable. One of his very latest, written when he was 92, to a redactor who had displeased him by moving from New York to Montana, can be seen at This features some of Purdy’s drawings, which have attracted some attention.

Purdy continued to dictate and to draw nearly every day until his death at 94. After several years of declining health, he fractured a hip and died in Englewood, New Jersey on 13 March 2009.

The American composer Robert Helps (1928-2001), a friend of Purdy’s, used Purdy’s texts in two of his works, The Running Sun and Gossamer Noons, both of which have been recorded by the soprano Bethany Beardslee.

The playwright Edward Albee adapted Malcolm for the stage, but it was a notable flop, perhaps because Albee cut out the black characters in the book. This cuts out the very meat of the book, for the story makes no sense without the final affair between Malcolm and the young jazz singer, which echoed Purdy’s relationship with Billie Holiday.


  • * 63: Dream Palace (short stories) (1956)
  • * Malcolm (1959)
  • * Colour of Darkness (short stories) (1961)
  • * The Nephew (1961)
  • * Children is All (1963)
  • * Cabot Wright Begins (1965)
  • * Eustace Chisholm And the Works (1967)
  • * Jeremy’s Version (1970)
  • * I Am Elijah Thrush (1972)
  • * Color of Darkness Malcolm (1974)
  • * In a Shallow Grave (1976)
  • * Narrow Rooms (1978)
  • * Lessons And Complaints (1978)
  • * Dream Palaces: Three Novels (omnibus) (1980)
  • * Mourners Below (1981)
  • * On Glory’s Course (1984)
  • * The House of the Solitary Maggot (1986)
  • * The Brooklyn Branding Parlors (poems) (1986)
  • * In the Hollow of His Hand (1986)
  • * The Candles of Your Eyes (1988)
  • * Garments the Living Wear (1989)
  • * Garments (1989)
  • * Out with the Stars (1992)
  • * Dream Palace: Selected Stories, 1956-87 (1992)
  • * Epistles of Care (1995)
  • * Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1996)
  • * Moe’s Villa and Other Stories (short stories) (2000, 2005)