Highlights of a Life
James Purdy was born in 1923 in the northwestern Ohio town of Fremont, now a city of 17,000. The product of a troubled marriage that ended in divorce, Purdy spent the early years of his youth on his grandmother’s farm, then alternated between the homes of his mother and father.
His rural upbringing is the source of much of his fiction. “Most of my books come from years back, and the people may have died or moved away, but they come back to me in memory,” he said in a 1974 interview. Inspired by stories told by his grandmother and great-grandmother, Purdy wrote Jeremy’s Version (1970), The House of the Solitary Maggot (1974), Mourners Below (1981) and On Glory’s Course (1984).
In 1941 he attended the University of Chicago. The following year Purdy was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was later honorably discharged and returned to Chicago in 1946 to take graduate courses. Years later, Purdy quipped that being a soldier gave him material for writing Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967), a controversial novel about homosexual love.
Purdy taught English at Lawrence College in Beloit, Wisconsin, from 1949 to 1953. Though he wrote constantly, his work was rejected by commercial publishers for lacking general appeal. Purdy’s first books were printed privately by Chicago businessman Osborn Andreas, an acquaintance who believed Purdy’s work to be too powerful to go unnoticed.
With 800 copies of his novel, Don’t Call Me by My Right Name, printed but not being read, Purdy acted on a hunch and mailed a copy of the book, as well as the manuscript for 63: Dream Palace, to Dame Edith Sitwell. The British author declared his writing a masterpiece and called Purdy “the finest American writer in the past hundred years.” Her influence resulted in the publication of 63: Dream Palace: A Novella and Nine Stories, by a London publisher. Only after commercial success in England did U.S. publishers seek interest in Purdy.
With the validation of his work in the American literary scene, Purdy received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, in addition to an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1961, the Ford Foundation awarded Purdy a grant.
Purdy is perhaps best known for the novel Malcolm, a 1959 underground classic that relates the story of a boy who runs away from his small town upbringing, only to face abuse and exploitation in the big city. Malcolm was later adapted as a play by Edward Albee.
In much of his work, Purdy fictionalizes what he believes to be the American family’s legacy of profound damage to children. Shocking descriptions of abused runaways, as in Malcolm, are present in his earlier works. In subsequent novels, such as Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1997), Purdy’s characters reveal destructive family relationships.
“What I write comes from so deep down,” Purdy once said in an interview with Publishers Weekly. “It’s a very physical thing to write. There’s sweat and pain.” In writing the conclusion of The House of the Solitary Maggot (1974), Purdy is said to have become ill from the horrific details he forced himself to put on paper.
His limited success in America’s literary scene has been attributed to harsh criticism by mainstream reviewers who have dismissed Purdy for being off-putting and weird. Purdy said, “Critics distrust imaginative, emotional writing like mine.” He has expressed disdain for the publishing business, calling big city publishers “little czars.” Explaining the lack of interest in his books by the American establishment, Purdy remarked, “the prize today goes to the antiseptic and the anesthetic.”
Amid the abundance of harsh reviews, Purdy has enjoyed praise from such notable figures as Gore Vidal, who wrote in 1978: “Over the past quarter century James Purdy has created an American language which was always there but never noticed until he began that series of prose works whose most recent manifestation is Narrow Rooms, a dark and splendid affair by an authentic American genius.”
Purdy has confessed to believing in the supernatural, a theme that appears in Mourners Below (1981), a story of two brothers killed in the war, whose ghosts materialize in front of their surviving younger brother.
Another theme that emerges in his writing comes from Purdy’s suspicion of the American establishment. Cabot Wright Begins (1964) was described as a satire on corporate America. “Corporations want to destroy the artist’s integrity, and he just goes along,” said Purdy in a 1974 interview with Penthouse.
In 1996 the Ohioana Library Association chose Purdy to receive its annual Ohioana Career Award. Now in his early 80s, Purdy continues to live in Brooklyn, New York.