James Purdy
Memento Mori

In New York I made the friendship of Carl Van Vechten, who had been a famous novelist in the Twenties and who was then a photographer of remarkable originality and style. Before meeting Carl I sent him a photograph.  He wrote “I don’t mind TOO MUCH your not being a Negro.”

Van Vechten was a patron extraordinaire of the Harlem Renaissance, he was the literary executor of Gertrude Stein and his Central Park apartment was nicknamed the midtown office of the NAACP.

His enthusiasm for my writing, and his encouragement in the harsh years to follow helped make my stay in the megalopolis half-endurable at least. He also introduced me to many of his countless friends, among whom was Paul Bowles and Dorothy Parker.

People really thought I was black when Color of Darkness appeared.  That was quite a common assumption:  Carl Van Vechten thought so, Edith Sitwell, Angus Wilson and a number of other writers.  I always thought that Langston Hughes, who liked that book, thought I was a black writer.

I was introduced to Paul Bowles by Carl Van Vechten in the early 1960’s, and from then on Mr. Bowles and I kept corresponding with one another.  I had already admired his work and that of his wife Jane.  It was Paul Bowles who understood that… I had created a language of style peculiarly my own.  Mr. Bowles wrote, “His dialogue is the nearest thing to a classical American colloquial I know.”

Another friendship which meant a great deal to me was that of Dorothy Parker.  It was she who brought widespread attention to my next novel, Malcolm, by her extraordinary review of the book in Esquire Magazine.  Her review was a kind of manifesto issued to the world and said among other things that Malcolm was among the "major miracles of ink and paper" and that the characters were "loud with life."  Her essay ended with the sentences:  "I have no claim, the Lord knows, to be counted among the special nor have I the voice to shout hosannas or the eyes to see into the future. I do not know how James Purdy will be rated, come the next century. I know only that I believe he is a writer of the highest rank in originality, insight and power, and if, in the Two Thousands, there is a grain of consciousness left among my dust, I will still believe it."

Malcolm soon found an international acclaim and was translated into fifteen languages.  But despite all this acclaim coming to me out of total obscurity, I soon realized that if my life up to then had been a series of pitched battles, it was to be in the future a kind of endless open warfare.

Neither the kind of publishers I had nor the press stood wholeheartedly behind me, and I was unable to earn a living from the small, often niggardly advances given me by publishers.  I had to find outside jobs to keep body and soul together.  In general, too, I found the so-called literary establishment parochial and studiedly insensitive to the kind of writing I was engaged in, completely taken up with trends and ratings and sales, and prostrate before their true God, Mammon.

My next book was The Nephew.  And Angus Wilson reviewed it in England:  “Mr. James Purdy is one of the few novelists whose progress really excites me.  After the baroque elaboration of his earlier work, he has found in The Nephew a magnificent simplicity.” 

I think I learned early on that the only subjects I could deal with were impossible.  That is they were impossible to write because they were so difficult; if I chose an easy subject, I could not write it because it would not mean anything to me.  So nearly all my books are based on “impossible” subjects. 

Then I wrote two books which infuriated and outraged the essentially stuffy New York establishment and terrified my timid publisher.  The books were:  Cabot Wright Begins and Eustace Chisholm and the WorksCabot Wright Begins is, to quote the reviews, a satire on corporate America, especially the book industry and its sister whore, the establishment book reviewing media.

It was ineptly and condescendingly reviewed by the pew-warmers of the local think tanks.  But the book soon won civilized attention in England.

I knew a man an ex-con.  He was always going to write a story about a rapist.  He was always talking about him.  And so I wrote it for him.  I got so sick of hearing about it, and I knew he would never write about it because he is not a writer, so I wrote it for him!   I soon realized however the book I was writing was not about a rapist but about people that try to write a book about a rapist.  It’s about writing.  Nearly everybody missed that.  It was somewhat like Malcolm in that it was an outrageous work.

But it was Eustace Chisholm and the Works which especially outraged the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy, and stagnant New York literary establishment.   A young man who’s really an Indian chief can’t reconcile the fact that after nothing but sexual relations with women, he suddenly realizes he’s in love with this young boy.  He can’t face that in himself.  And I think that his problem is everybody’s problem.  We can’t face what is most ourselves, what is deepest in ourselves.  Like Macduff, in Macbeth, who was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, we want to rip out the really delicate beautiful things in us so that we will be acceptable to society.

The bugbear of all these New York pygmies who rule literature is imagination. That is the unforgivable crime – to have imagination.  And the other is to deal with human nature.  You shouldn’t deal with human nature.  You should deal with documentary.

Critics here are frightened to death of any writing like mine that begins deeply inside and comes from within.  They only want the outside.  They think that is reality.  The outside.  Their writing is all about what you see when you look out a window.  It’s reality if you count numbers.  Then according to them you should be so interested in social conditions.  Well they don’t know anything about the human being, let alone social conditions.

You see my books are really all underground in that they are about things people don’t want to hear expressed.  And though the critics would like to carry them off to the shit-yard, they can’t seem to get rid of them because they haunt people.

Elsewhere some decent men stepped forward for Eustace Chisholm and the Works and acclaimed it.  Unlike its reception in corporate America, the book met with a great critical success in England and was thence quickly translated into German, French, Italian, and some years later appeared in Dutch translation. It also won the strong admiration of the noted composer Virgil Thomson, who had been following my career from the beginning and who was a special admirer of my novel The Nephew.

Perhaps the finest appraisal of it came from the famous critic George Steiner, who reviewed the book brilliantly for the London Sunday Times.  He wrote:  "Such is the honesty and sensual immediacy of Purdy's work, which is his power to make nerve and bone speak, that our imagination emerges somehow dignified, for here is the sharpness, integrity, life-giving energy of Purdy's art and of the American language at its best."

Having gotten out Eustace Chisholm and the Works, I felt free to write about any aspect of American life I chose.  And no matter how shocked the whited-sepulchres of press and public might be, some reader somewhere would respond deeply to what I had created.

By the middle and end of the 1960s all my immediate family had died,  along with my greatest friends and supporters:  Edith Sitwell, John Cowper Powys, Carl Van Vechten, and Dorothy Parker.  Osborn Andreas, who had initiated my career, killed himself over financial worries.  My own economic situation was going from bad to worse. 
It was during this very bleak period that I began to delve even more deeply into the distant past, especially that far-off time of my story-telling grandmothers.  I began writing the novels about the long ago.
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