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, Dame Edith Sitwell, Dorothy Parker, Jane Bowles, Lillian Hellman and Susan Sontag, who warmly defended him against puritanical critics. Tennessee Williams was also an early admirer of Purdy's work.
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 from the age of 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 http://hermeseta.com/purdyanon.html. 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.
Shortly after his death in 2009 a book of plays, James Purdy, Selected Plays including Brice, Ruthanna Elder, Where Quentin Goes and The Paradise Circus, was published by Ivan R. Dee. It features an insightful foreword by John Uecker (who also edited the book) about the friendship between Tennessee Williams and James Purdy. It also focuses on Purdy's play writing being his first form of writing since childhood, when he wrote plays for his brother, an actor, to perform. The book is dedicated by Purdy "To those who stood behind me", to Tennessee Williams and John Uecker.
John Waters contributed the following blurb on the cover: "James Purdy's Selected Plays will break your damaged little heart." Also on the cover, Gore Vidal calls Purdy "An authentic American genius."
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. The American song composer, Richard Hundley, composed many beautiful songs to poems of James Purdy, his friend of many decades in New York.
Purdy is one of the most underrated American writers. I believe he is one of the masters of 20th century literature and In a Shallow Grave is a gem, about a disaffected and disfigured war veteran and his love for a hired male caretaker and the fugitive who comes into both their lives is spiritual, carnal, and profound. And Purdy´s command of the language and his use of American colloquial speech is nothing short of poetry. --Rick R. Reed
I saw a film version of In a Shallow Grave years ago starring Michael Biehn (who I had a massive crush on) and Patrick Dempsey, and sought out the book it was based on. In doing so, I stumbled upon my favorite writer. Purdy, more than any other writer, echoes in my more serious work. This is surreal, Southern Gothic writing at its best. Moody, romantic, and eerie. The romance at the heart of the tale between a disfigured war vet and a hired hand is one of the most aching ever novelized, gay or straight. --Eric Arvin
James Purdy, 1987, by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2033896&iid=1124024&srchtype=)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/giard.html)
In a Shallow Grave by James Purdy
Paperback: 140 pages
Publisher: City Lights Publishers (January 1, 2001)
Amazon: In a Shallow Grave
Beautiful, moving novel of a love triangle.
More Particular Voices at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Particular Voices
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