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The Fiction Issue 2012

Genius in Exile

Writer James Purdy's work is like a dark underground river that flows undetected through the American landscape and deserves to be waded in.
July 2, 2012, 12:45pm

Archival photo courtesy of John Uecker

Aboxer, muscular, his stance wide, his shoulders broad, leans back as he holds his bare fists in front of his face, ready to spar with an unseen opponent. The soft tones of his skin and the pastoral background belie the brutality he is capable of. All around him are other pugilists, somewhere around 20 of them—all of them just as fierce and foreboding. For more than 50 years they occupied a one-room apartment in Brooklyn, leaning against the walls, a series of prints that were collected by the author James Purdy. This was appropriate considering much of his work felt like a punch to the face, dividing critics and shocking the public.

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From 1956 until his death in 2009, Purdy published nearly 20 novels, a volume of poetry, dozens of short stories, and several plays. Writers like Langston Hughes, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams praised his work. Gore Vidal proclaimed him an “authentic American genius.” And in 1998, the New York Times called him a “singular American visionary.” Yet America has never properly embraced him as one of its own. While many Europeans consider him to hold a firm place in the American literary canon, in his homeland his legacy remains obscured by the controversies of his novels, which contain subject matter that people are still uncomfortable discussing in 2012. But whatever critics say about him and whatever readers think about his writing, Purdy’s rise to the margins of the literary mainstream is the tale of an artist fighting to express his vision of the dark American psyche. “I was brought up in a troubled atmosphere,” Purdy once admitted, which pretty much explains it all.

Purdy was born in 1914 in Hicksville, Ohio, and his parents separated early, their marriage ending in divorce after his father’s investments went belly-up. Purdy bounced between his mother, father, and grandmother, and writing stories and plays became an early refuge for him. Sometimes he would send anonymous hate letters to his mother’s landlord. “My mother,” he recalled in 2005, “was both horrified and amused that I would write these terrible things about real people.”

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He left Ohio as soon as he could and moved to Chicago in 1935. While studying for his master’s in English at the University of Chicago, he found a new family in Gertrude Abercrombie, “the queen of the bohemian artists,” and her circle of painters, poets, and jazz musicians, which included Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He was acquainted with the artist lifestyle through Abercrombie’s underground salons, styled after Gertrude Stein’s gatherings in Paris. After graduating in 1937, he served in the army, studied in Mexico, traveled to Spain, taught English in Cuba, and taught Spanish for nearly a decade in Wisconsin. Throughout this time he continued writing, developing a style that blended midwestern speech patterns with allusions to the Bible and ancient Greek literature. Nothing like it had been done before. He submitted his stories to New York magazines, and they were “returned with angry, peevish, indignant rejections.” Sometimes even his sanity was questioned. “All editors were insistent that I would never be a published writer.”

Determined to have his work known, he left the comforts of academia in the 50s and moved back to Chicago, where he got his big break. A small printing of his short stories landed in the hands of Dame Edith Sitwell, who identified him as “one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language.” She brought Purdy to wider publication in London, which then opened the back door into the US market.

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Color of Darkness, a collection of short stories and one novella, was released in 1957. Readers were introduced to his world of affairs and broken marriages, obsessions and violence, prophets and corrupted souls. His characters search for love but are too self-interested to actually achieve it. They are symbolic, surreal, and sobering in their dark comedy. And they have a way of staying with you. Weeks after reading “Why Can’t They Tell You Why?” I kept hearing in my head that animalistic hiss from Paul—a grieving child, defending the pictures of his dead father from the hands of his abusive mother. Here one sees Purdy’s trajectory away from redemption, boring deeper into the human condition, asking why we are born in shackles. It is disturbing, marvelous, and powerful.

His first novel, Malcolm, followed in 1959. It’s the story of a naive teenage boy, ruined by a group of eccentrics, each wanting to keep his company for their own ends. It was widely praised in the US and in Europe, becoming an immediate classic of sorts, and for years was included on college English syllabi. Readers were eager to see what Purdy would do next. Critics finally began recognizing Purdy as an original voice in literature.

Just a few years later, however, his hard-won and honored status in American letters began to unravel. In 1964, he published Cabot Wright Begins, a novel that follows the escapades of a recently released rapist stalking through Brooklyn. Reviewers struggled to determine whether he was ironic or sincere, comic or tragic, brilliant or adolescent. How does one write humorously about rape—“an everywhere sport”—as Purdy did? In the New York Times, Orville Prescott, who had praised Purdy’s “mastery of words” in Malcolm, called Cabot Wright an “unfortunate fictional mistake.” Six days later, also in the Times, Susan Sontag called it a “fantastic and ironic tale.”

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Had Purdy placated his harshest critics, had he restrained himself more, he may have retrieved some of that early glory. But ultimately he wasn’t interested in earning praise. Like any masterly author, he had stories to tell that had to be told his way. And his fourth novel, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, was by far his best-selling book, but it also marginalized him for the rest of his career. The story follows acolytes of a poet who writes verse in charcoal over the pages of the Chicago Tribune. It portrays a destructive love affair between two men, a gruesome abortion, and a finale of shocking sadomasochism, all set to the backdrop of the Great Depression. It outraged critics. Nelson Algren in the Chicago Tribune dismissed it as a “fifth-grade novel.” Purdy explained years later, “The gist of the review was that since it was about faggots it could have no meaning for any normal person because faggots aren’t human.” Wilfred Sheed in the New York Times also claimed the book was markedly “homosexual fiction,” which apparently by some unclear measure is distinguishable from “heterosexual fiction.” Purdy understood he was “being burned at the stake.”

After Eustace Chisholm, the label “gay writer” stuck to Purdy for the rest of his career. In fact, when this “most revolutionary novel” was rereleased in 2005, earning the Clifton Fadiman Medal and immense praise by Jonathan Franzen, Purdy was called a “literary cult hero of major proportion” and the book a “gay classic.” Therein lay the rub. As Gore Vidal observed in an essay about Purdy, “‘Gay’ literature… is a large cemetery where unalike writers, except for their supposed sexual desires, are thrown together in a lot well off the beaten track of family values.”

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Homosexuality is prevalent in Purdy’s work, but he neither depicts nor debunks gay stereotypes. You won’t find the tropes of gay-bar hookups or Will & Grace-style banter, nor will you find an agenda to “normalize” any expression of sexuality. Normal really has no place in Purdy’s work, except at most as a thin veneer to be peeled away.

Some people wanted to keep such material out of books (or confine it to a subgenre), but no one was going to stop Purdy from writing. No subject was taboo for him: sex, violence, race, disease, religion. And he never lost the fire of his youth. His later works address the controversies of the late 20th century. In 1989, he grappled with the AIDS epidemic in Garments the Living Wear. And his final short story, “Adeline,” written at age 92, explores transgendered acceptance. But since these works were largely ignored by critics, his legacy was cast further into the margins.

In some ways this is not surprising. America did the same thing to Edgar Allan Poe. The Europeans adored him, while stateside, his peers mocked him and critics cast him as a minor writer. Yet to this day schoolchildren memorize poems like “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” Clearly, the initial critical reception of a work does not determine its lasting influence. “My work,” Purdy once said, “has been compared to an underground river which is flowing often undetected through the American landscape.” While this river is dark and at times terrifying, it deserves to be waded in, especially in troubled times like ours.

And there is much to gain from reading an iconoclast like Purdy. By disregarding what he deemed “the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy, stagnant New York literary establishment,” Purdy was free to evolve and experiment, always striving to convey his vision, never repeating himself, never yielding to critics. “Writing is like a battle,” he once said. “You’re often so into it you don’t have any high ideals. You’re just doing it. I have all these boxing prints on my walls. I always feel that’s what I am, a boxer. I get my brains knocked out every so often.”

The complete short stories of James Purdy will be published by Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton in July 2013.Cory MacLauchlin’s book Butterfly in the Typewriter is out now from Da Capo Press.

Like James Purdy? Read one of his unpublished manuscripts: 

The Room All to Itself