James Purdy
Memento Mori

When I was already past forty, I met a Chicago businessman, Osborn Andreas, who had written critical studies on Joseph Conrad and Henry James.  I had been introduced to him by his former wife, Marian [Miriam] Andreas, who was deeply moved by my stories.  After reading all that I had written, Mr. Andreas decided they should be privately printed since no magazine or book publisher would touch them.  He felt they were too powerful and unforgettable to pass into the dust heap.  Had he not published the book I would have been unheard of forever.  I could not have gone on because of all the rejections.  I probably would have died.  What else could I have done?

Mr. Andreas printed the stories with the title Don't Call Me by My Right Name (about eight hundred copies came from the press).  But after the finished books arrived, he wondered what on earth to do with them.  Nobody would buy a volume of short stories by a totally unknown writer.  We decided finally to send some of the books to a few poets and fiction writers.

A kind of psychic impulse caused me to mail a copy to Dame Edith Sitwell to the Castello di Montegufoni, Italy.  I never expected Dame Edith (whom I did not know) to set eyes on the book, let alone read it. 
I was astonished to receive out of the blue one day the following letter from Edith Sitwell:

Castello di Montegufoni, 20 October 1956

Dear Mr. Purdy,

I do not know whether it was you, or whether it was your publishers, who sent me your Don't Call Me by My Right Name.  But I owe a debt of gratitude to you and to them.  I think several of the stories - in especial Eventide, Why Can't They Tell You Why, and Sound of Talking - as well as many others, - are superb; nothing short of masterpieces.  They have a terrible, heart-breaking quality.  I do not know if you have an English publisher already, but I am so deeply impressed by this book that, on the chance that you have not, I wrote to my friend Victor Gollancz, and advised him to get the book.  I hope we shall soon hear that you have another work ready.

Yours sincerely, EDITH SITWELL


While I was still pondering this letter from Edith Sitwell, another friend of mine, Jorma Sjoblom, of Finnish ancestry, a teacher of chemistry, had become such an admirer of my unpublished short novel, 63: Dream Palace, that he insisted on having it printed privately.  He was, however, unlike Mr. Andreas, poor, and had to borrow the money from a bank in a town in Pennsylvania with the apocalyptic name Emmaus.

I sent the printed edition of 63: Dream Palace to Edith Sitwell with some trepidation for the short novel is a more devastating work to read than the short stories in Don't Call Me by My Right Name and employs speech described as "naked and unashamed."  Edith Sitwell wrote me again:

Castello di Montegufoni, 25 November 1956

Dear Mr. Purdy,

I am most deeply grateful to you for sending me 63: Dream Palace.  It arrived, after an astonishingly quick journey, two days ago, and I have read it twice, already.  What a wonderful book!  It is a masterpiece from every point of view.  There can't be the slightest doubt that you are really a great writer, and I can only say that I am quite overcome.  What anguish, what heart-breaking truth!  And what utter simplicity.  The knife is turned and turned in one's heart.  From the terrible first pages - (the first sentence is, in itself, a masterpiece) to the heart-rending last pages, there isn't a single false note, and not a sentence, or a word too much, not a sentence or a word too little.  Wonderful as the short stories are - and I have read them many times, and think them - if it were possible to do so ­ even more wonderful than when I wrote to you before, this book is just as great.  Indeed, I am not sure if it isn't even greater.  Point after point I go through, and I am inclined to think so.  My best wishes to you and the books, and my most profound admiration.  You are truly a writer of genius.

Yours very sincerely, EDITH SITWELL


The two letters from Edith Sitwell had an almost unhinging effect on me.  I could hardly believe as I read and reread them that she had written me these letters, for the stories and short novel which she extolled in so extraordinary a way were the very same works, unchanged in any particular, which American publishers had rejected with such bitter denunciation, contempt, and derision.  My friends Mr. Andreas and Mr. Sjoblom were also deeply moved by Edith Sitwell's recognition, but I do not think they were as overwhelmed as I was.

They perhaps believed in me more consciously than I believed in myself.  For the long years of rejection and persecution by the American publishing industry had forced me to live in a kind of half-world.  In my inmost soul I thought I was a writer of vision and talent, but in the daytime real world of publishers and editors, I felt I did not exist, was nothing.

Stirred by Edith Sitwell's praise, and her personal intervention to him, Mr. Victor Gollancz, the British publisher, read the two books by me, was also deeply impressed, and immediately accepted them for commercial English publication in one volume under the title 63: Dream Palace: A Novella and Nine Stories.  It was both praised and damned, but it was reviewed everywhere and established my name as a serious writer.

And two other famous British writers came forward and gave the book high praise, John Cowper Powys and Angus Wilson.  It was John Cowper Powys, the great novelist and critic, who wrote of the book as follows:

James Purdy is the best kind of original genius of our day. His insight into the diabolic cruelties and horrors that lurk all the time under our conventional skin is as startling as his insight into the angelic tenderness and protectiveness that also exist in the same hiding place with them.

John Cowper Powys' description of my work as exploring human beings "under the skin" was an insight which I greatly appreciated then and which I cherish to this day.  It is a correct evaluation, I believe, of what I have tried to do.

I also have to mention the Italians published me before the Americans, so I already had a reputation in Europe before my books were published in my own country.

But because of the acclaim of 63: Dream Palace in England, American publishers now came forward with offers to publish the book.  The American publication was greeted on the whole by respectful acclaim.  One of the comments on the stories, which I most appreciated and still believe to be one of the finest appraisals of my work, came from Katherine Anne Porter.  She wrote:

Style as fluid and natural as a man thinking to himself in the dark, yet controlled, coherent, with an innate sense of form, and great powers of concentration. All the stories are very short, but the impression is one of a long story.  He has the priceless gift of compassion…  He knows the worst, no doubt, but he knows something else very good, very real, and he is loyal to that without question.  I believe in this talent and hope it may thrive.

About 1960 I made the decision to move from the small Pennsylvania town where I had been living to New York City. 

New York, or the Great City as I call it, is a long way off from where I grew up.  New York's critics describe it as a permanent nightmare, and Frank Lloyd Wright is credited with saying that the only thing to do with the city is raze it to the ground.

Soon after moving on the Upper West Side [then a “terrible place” being close to Needle Park] a friend told me about a room in Brooklyn Heights and I rented it.  And wrote most of my books there.   That’s where I wrote nearly everything.

Despite all of New York's drawbacks, its pandemonium of crime, madness, filth, and noise, all finding their apotheosis in the hot seats from hell, the subways, I have found it the place where I can write undisturbed, and where I can communicate freely with other kindred souls.

When Angus Wilson and Dame Edith Sitwell came to America, they were under the assumption I was black.  Dame Edith Sitwell read my story, Eventide, which is about black mothers.  She thought it was so anguished only a black person could have written it.

I remember when I was a young boy, my mother didn’t have time sometimes to make a dessert.  She said,  “Go down the lane to Aunt Lucy and ask if she has something.”   Aunt Lucy was about a hundred and lived in a shack with another black woman.  They loved to talk to me.  “You were gone two hours for a cake?”  I didn’t know enough then about racial prejudice. Those two black women seemed to me perfectly familiar.  I found out who they were without knowing I’d found out.

I lived with people of different races and was tutored by them.  When I lived in Chicago earlier, I had so little money that I was eventually thrown out of my home, and met a black man who was afraid that I would get into trouble. He stole some cherries for my breakfast, and after that I followed him home and stayed there for a time.  And there I learned a lot.  I couldn't afford to live with whites.

I write about blacks under the skin.  But I don’t think it is necessarily familiarity.  I think I would have gotten there anyhow.  Maybe I already knew it before I was born.  I’m queer for stories.  It doesn’t matter to me what kind of people are in them.   If I like their story I’m going to write it.

I liked that sentence by Terence the Roman writer:  “Homo sum.”  –  “I am a human being nothing human is foreign to me.”
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