James Purdy
Memento Mori
1914-2009

In 1968 I began an interconnected series of novels under the overall title,  Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys, a chronicle of narratives I had heard from my grandmother and my great-grandmother.  I had listened as a child to these women's endless recollections of small towns, and villages, and sinister cities.  My mother told had told them, “You shouldn’t tell him those things.  He’s already so strange.  He’s too young to hear terrible stories.”

When death had silenced the narrators, very gradually I began to recall, as if prompted by the dead, these stories from beyond my own remembrance. Jeremy's Version, The House of the Solitary Maggot, Mourners Below, On Glory's Course, In the Hollow of His Hand are the pieced-together, often broken fragments of my ancestors' lives.

I grew up in a family of matriarchs.  I even knew my great grandmother.  And they were inveterate story-tellers.


One story my grandmother told me was House of the Solitary Maggot.  When I began to rewrite that, I thought I’d take out the section where he blows the eyes out of the boy and puts them in his mouth.  I thought, I won’t have that.  Then I dreamed my grandmother told me, “You put that back.  I told you that, and you are going to write the story the way I told you.”  The New York Times never reviewed it.  Why? 

My most important book was never reviewed.


Writing is like being in a battle.  You’re so into it you don’t have any high ideals.  You’re just doing it.  I have all these boxing prints on my walls.  I always feel that’s what I am, a boxer.  I get my brains knocked out every so often.

No matter how wild my characters may act they are always based on actual people I have known.  I Am Elijah Thrush was based on Paul Swann.  Out With the Stars was Virgil Thomson and Carl Van Vechten.  [Garments the Living Wear was Jane Lawrence Smith and Ed Hefter.]  I only write about real people.  It’s not just moonshine.

That’s another thing that critics don’t understand in me – I’m basing these texts on real people and they want something thought out, you see.  People don’t think out their lives, they are tossed as if on waves by every wind that comes, and man is not a rational creature.  But the critics seem to think there is such a thing as rational behavior.  They haven’t read history, I guess, which is a collection of lunacies.  We contradict ourselves every day.  Life is contradictory.  What we are one day, we’re not the next.

Today everything has a subject but when you look at it there’s no content.  It’s true of everything written today:  it’s all subject, no content.  If you write like I do, they just don’t like it.  They say “Where’s the subject?”  By “subject” I mean something topical.  Those books are all unreadable to me.  The plays are the same.   The characters aren’t real.

My golden rule is:  We don’t know what we know.  Therefore I just sit down and write.  I don’t think…  the “subject” finally appears like a phantom and I know that’s the story I have to write…  If I worried about other things, I’d be a sociological writer.  Many writers are; some like Theodore Dreiser, are great writers.  But I’m not that kind of writer.  I think though if people read my books, they’d see there’s hardly a topic I haven’t covered.


When Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass he wanted to communicate with anyone who would understand.  He didn’t want to manipulate that person, or get money out of him, he wanted to touch that person.

You see, you are being opened up, if you are really “conversing” with a book.  Even if you are talking about trivial things.   You are having a reciprocal human experience.  Communication is life.  We are only human as long as we have communication with other human beings.  If man lived totally alone, he wouldn’t be human.  I don’t know what he would be:  he’d be something else.  This is the whole reason for art, and for life.  Only by being next to other people are we human.  And in our culture this happens less and less and less and less.  That’s why we have all kinds of strange behavioral abnormalities.

I don’t really think my work is fantasy so much as it’s unconscious; everyone has an unconscious, even the politically correct.

The unconscious seems like a lie, your dreams seem like lies.  And they are true.  People say I am a writer of the unconscious.  What this culture loves is  “the realistic.”  They say that my world is just fantasy but fantasies are the truth.  Realistic novels are total lies – just a collection of details.  I am the lie that always tells the truth.

Many people threw up their hands when I wrote Narrow Rooms.  They thought it meant I didn’t want readers.  Friends said “You’re really going to get burned at the stake for this.”  John Uecker, my assistant and consultant, has had a crucial role in my writing through his support and help, but we don't agree all of the time.  I said, “Well I have to write it.  If I wrote Pollyanna – they are never going to like it – the people in power.”

When it was published in Germany the police went to the bookstores and seized it.  The publisher was horrified.  The book was put on trial.  They told me not to go there – I’d be arrested.  The book was read out loud in court – every word.  It was declared a work of the literary imagination and set free.

Anyway, I don't write about homosexuals.  These people are Dionysus.  They are commanded by a god.  Priapus.  If you asked the men in Narrow Rooms if they were homosexuals, they would answer, “What are you talking about?”  It is about human attraction, and these are too fluid and diffuse to be categorized.  And this is possibly the reason why I am not that well liked by homosexual readers – I don't write for them, rather for the gods.

In the book I got under the sexuality of those boys to something archetypal and ancient.  I only write about human nature as honestly as I can.

I don’t make a distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality.  I don’t even think there is any such thing as either.  That has been invented by mechanists – psychologists who have never understood human nature.  I don’t believe in words like Jew or Negro or any of them.

 
The one thing our society fears is people who care about other people.  I think Narrow Rooms is a religious book.  Certainly In a Shallow Grave is.

 A real writer will never be respected, never, and he’ll never be accepted by the powers that be.  He can’t be.  To be a writer in America you have to be a member of the Board.  It’s like Russia.  In America they let you go on groveling in the earth in your own way.  In Russia, everyone is captured.


After considerable effort in the late 1990’s, Purdy gave up trying to  secure an American publisher for what would become his last novel, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue.     The New York Press featured an article on an off-off Broadway production of his play, Foment.  Through this they were made aware of the unpublished novel.  In support of the novel they ran what could be called an entire issue on Purdy.   It featured a large section of the novel, interviews with and essays on the author.  An article in Vanity Fair then followed which announced the state of affairs in fiction where a writer like James Purdy was unable to secure a publisher in America.  After noting these two assisting efforts a publisher emerged.  Thus his final novel was released in his own country to wide and significant acclaim.  The book was considered vintage Purdy and The New York Times established him in a very different context...  a “singular American visionary.”  It characterized a new and correct kind of evaluation for his entire body of work.



In November 2005, Purdy was honored with the Clifton Fadiman Award for Eustace Chisholm and the Works, the book that certainly dampened if it did not limit outright his entire
career.  The award was presented at the Mercantile Library benefit and awards dinner by Jonathan Franzen.  He had made the selection.



I deal with the unconscious.  That’s why many critics and readers have trouble with me.

I did not know how to end  the title story of my last book,  Moe’s Villa and Other Stories.   But I dreamed it that my mother told me, “The jewels are candy.”  I said, “How ridiculous!  That’s unbelievable.”  Well it isn’t believable but you fall under the spell of the story and believe it.  I thought it was wrong and then I kept thinking about it and decided that was it.



On the publication of his final collection of short stories, Moe’s Villa and Other Stories, which in 2005 was accompanied by the re-release of five of his novels the New York Times engaged an unlikely critic and essayist.    Gore Vidal over the years was said to despise the newspaper for  “limiting” him on the publication of his third novel, The City and the Pillar.  In the literary essay The Novelist as Outlaw, Vidal, despite his never-ending contentious relationship with the paper, brought forth in enemy territory an essay, which would become an historic configuration of James Purdy and his career.



One of my greatest fans was a Jewish girl who was almost gassed under Hitler.  Bettina Schwarzschild.  Of the people who have written and published accounts of my work she understood it the best.  [Cabot Wright Begins was dedicated to her.]  She came to America and found 63 Dream Palace.  It haunted her.  It nearly killed her because it revived the horror of her life.  But then she wrote a beautiful book about it called The Not Right House.  It was hard for her to write English. 
She grew up speaking Yiddish Polish and German.  Every word was hard for her.  She could not write in the academic style.  I loved that.
 
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