James Purdy
Memento Mori

I had been encouraged by Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Tennessee Williams to write plays.  Tennessee Williams had especially been admiring of my dialogue and characterization.  A young actor of remarkable talent and insight, John Uecker, a friend and assistant of Tennessee Williams, urged me to write more plays for the theater. 

I began work on a series of short plays in the 1970s during a stay in Provincetown. [James Purdy would eventually write close to 30 short plays.]  Then Tennessee began to go to my one act plays off off Broadway…  Tennessee liked my plays.  John brought him over, and he read the mother role in one of my shorter plays.  In contrast to many playwrights, he wasn't jealous of other authors.  He was a gentleman who accepted them whole-heartedly.  And he told John who was sort of helping him, because he wasn’t very well,  “You’ve got to tell James to write full length plays.”

My plays are more incandescent than the novels -- direct conflagration in front of the spectators – like Roman candles going off without any preparation.  Someone told me they are like the scene in Oedipus where he gouges his eyes out.  There is no old fashioned preparation with maids coming in to dust the rooms, for we don’t have time for exposition any more.  We could be blown up at any moment!

In the years following Williams’ death in1983 Purdy completed eight full length plays.  Many of them set in the long ago hill country of Ohio. “James Purdy’s Selected Plays will break your damaged little heart,” wrote John Waters.  (Throughout the last decades of his life Waters had become a valued and personal source of creative support for the writer.)  The plays were published first in Amsterdam by Athenaeum as In the Night of Time and Four Other Plays and then more recently in America as Selected Plays by Ivan R. Dee.

I had been writing poetry, a kind of poetry, like my stories, bound to be ignored by the hidebound literary establishment.  Many of them are like a child would write.  And that’s considered terrible.  Gloria Vanderbuilt called one day and I thought maybe I’ve gone mad.  She said, “James this is Gloria.  Gloria Vanderbuilt.  I’ve just read your poems.”  Then she started reading them to me.  She said,  “I’m mad about them.  Why weren’t they published in America?”  I said, “Well one publisher said these are just like Mother Goose.”  She said, “Mother Goose is one of the greatest books ever written.”  I never heard from her again.

James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, who remained one of my enthusiastic supporters, saw fit to publish many of my poems in his New Directions Anthologies, together with most of my short plays.

My poems were soon to appear in another form.  Two composers of unusual talent, Richard Hundley and Robert Helps, began setting my poetry to music.  It was Richard Hundley who had encouraged me to go on with my writing poetry in the first place, and without his insistence that my verse was in its own way as important as my fiction and plays, I would not have continued.

I began writing anonymous letters (of passion) when I was eight and nine.  These anonymous letters as I call them, and which I still write today, are purportedly unsigned letters, which defame the recipient by telling the truth about himself.  You know a truth can never be told in public.  The letters are a blowing off of steam but the novels sort of come out of it I think.  [Purdy wrote thousands upon thousands of these throughout his lifetime.]

In his New York Times essay on James Purdy, Gore Vidal states, “Certain writers are simply not allowed to pass because, at some level, they genuinely disturb, causing the Confederacy of Dunces to cart away their most vivid works.”  “On Purdy's latest book jackets I hail him as ‘an authentic American genius’; emphasis on the two adjectives.”  “He has gone his lonely way; sometimes darkly comic, other times tragic as he faces down the ‘kindly ones’ in his path, the Greeks' euphemism for the Furies that forever dog mankind.”

My work has been compared to an underground river which is flowing often undetected through the American landscape.
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