James Purdy
Memento Mori
1914-2009

 James Purdy never mentioned in interviews or in print the vast influence the Chicago painter Gertrude Abercrombie and her salon had on him.  He did not state the association, nor the relevance of the people he met in her circle to his work.  He did not publicly associate the well-known artists or high placed Chicago notables to any of the prominent characters in his urban novels.  He merely said of his Chicago days:  “It provided me with enough subject matter for the rest of my life.”


In an interview with Marie Claude Profit in 1994 Purdy revealed a probable reason for the omission:

MFP:  Would you say that personal experience plays an important part in your work?

JP: Yes, completely.

MFP:  The biography I have of you is very...

JP:  ... skimpy?


MCP:  Yes.

JP:  I like it that way.

JP:  I really don't like to talk about my biography.  I wish now I had written anonymously.

MCP:  Do you think there are some facts in your biography that are of some importance for your work?

JP:  No.  I think it should all be just the work.  I envy the Spanish picaresque novels because they don't know who wrote them.

MCP:  I wonder about the names of places.  In some cases, like Dream and Malcolm.  I don't think you give names to the cities.

JP:  No.


MCP:  Are they real or imaginary.

JP:  In Malcolm, it's Chicago.  In Dream Palace, it's Chicago and West Virginia.


MCP:  If it's Chicago why do you choose not to give their names?

JP:  I'd rather not give the name because you can be sued by people.  I can't tell you.  I change the names to avoid notoriety.   People can cause you lots of trouble.  They write you terrible letters.  They think they are in the books.  It's a bit dangerous.  If you told the right name (of a town or city), someone who was not in the book might think that was a portrait of him or her.

 

His Chicago days must be addressed differently as there is no first person commentary of any biographical information from this time period.   Clearly, his closeness to Gertrude Abercrombie is and was of paramount importance to him.



Wikipedia puts forth a history both accurate and supported by scholars:

Soon after his arrival in Chicago to attend the University of Chicago in 1935 James Purdy, broke and without friends, met the painter, Gertrude Abercrombie.  She was nicknamed the “Queen of the Bohemian Artists."  His vast body of work includes many works inspired by his close relationship to Queen Gertrude and to her underground salon (which had its roots in the salon of Gertrude Stein.)  During the 1930’s James Purdy was one of Abercrombie’s closest friends.  This American incarnation of the creative parlour had at the center those who were to become the jazz greats:  Percy Heath, Sonny Rollins, Erroll Garner, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. 



Purdy’s attendance at the all-night, weekend gatherings where bebop and jazz were improvised by these greats (many times with Gertrude at the piano) impressed James Purdy deeply. “Through these jazz singers and musicians, who would often stay with Abercrombie, young Purdy received an intensive education in African American music and culture.”  Equally important was his intensive study as a young boy of the Old Testament in the King James Version of the Bible as well as the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.  All were key in making James Purdy the writer he became.  For quite some time during his Chicago years Purdy was living in Gertrude’s “ruined” mansion with members of The Modern Jazz Quartet.

The music and lives these jazz musicians were able to create from their own humble origins inspired Purdy to realize that he could create a uniquely individual voice in literature using his American small-town speech patterns and his worlds of poverty and neglect.  Gertrude and those in her “circle” had done the same with painting.  His associations with these jazz artists and especially his meeting with Billie Holiday gave him the insight as well as the confidence to move from an upstart and lost boy, prone to running wild, to a world-class writer and artist.  His relationship to the painters in Abercrombie's circle of magic realists, Ivan Albright, Dudley Huppler, Karl Priebe, Julia Thecla, and John Wilde helped develop the strokes of imagery he would use to create his own version of an American “magic realism” in literature.



The influence of Chicago’s jazz scene and the experience of the “New Negro Renaissance” is reflected in all his early work: It begins with the short story Eventide printed first in the private collection Don’t Call Me By My Right Name and then commercially in the collection, Color of Darkness (T Boy who would never be coming home again, played the tenor sax and had had his hair made straight), to the novella 63 Dream Palace  (63rd Street is home to the Chicago Jazz scene) on to his first novel Malcolm then to Children Is All, Cabot Wright Begins, Eustace Chisholm and the Works.  Even his small town Ohio novel The Nephew echoes the story of the boy who would never be coming home again.  Eventide was the pivotal story which led to his becoming a published writer.  His final novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue throws back to a remembrance of painter Gertrude Abercrombie and others in her “circle” of artists.   The controversial Narrow Rooms (1977) is at an initial level a personal communication looking back some 25 years to Wendell Wilcox a failed writer in Abercrombie’s circle. (It is interesting to note that Wilcox stopped publishing at the very moment James Purdy began commercial publication.)  Always of major significance was jazz both in Chicago and New York.  Shortly after his move to New York, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance circle became a lens for his work.
The comic novels I am Elijah Thrush, Out with the Stars and Garments the Living Wear are the New York incarnations of this reflection.

 
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