- Born: in Hicksville, Ohio, The United StatesJuly 17, 1914
- Died: March 13, 2009
- Genre: Literature & Fiction, Short Stories, Gay & Lesbian
- Influences: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville
Author of almost a dozen novels and numerous volumes of poetry, short stories, and plays, James Otis Purdy (July 17, 1914 – March 13, 2009) was a prolific figure in American literature. The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy was published in 2013 and features stories that have been translated into more than 30 languages.
The author’s “dark, often savagely comic fiction evoked a psychic American landscape of deluded innocence, sexual obsession, violence and isolation.” (Obituary, New York Times) He wrote fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Although many writers, like Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Gore Vidal, condemned his works, others praised him for their boldness and originality.
Ohio was Purdy’s home state prior to his relocation to Chicago. He enlisted in the military and then went on to get degrees from the University of Chicago, the University of Madrid, and the University of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico. In Appleton, Wisconsin, he taught at Lawrence College from 1949 until 1953. After meeting photographer Carl Van Vechten in New York City in 1960, his writing career took off.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters honored Purdy with the Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction Award in 1993, and his novel On Glory’s Course (1984) was shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1985. He also received funding from the Ford Foundation (1961) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1962) in addition to his two Guggenheim Fellowships (1958 and 1962).
Purdy’s debut novel, published in 1959 and titled Malcolm, is a quirky, comedic tale of the picaresque that follows a 15-year-old kid as he searches for his absent father and encounters various bizarre characters along the way.
Albee adapted it for the stage in 1965. His second novel, The Nephew (1960), is about a spinster schoolteacher in a tiny Midwestern town who chooses to compose a memorial booklet for her nephew who died in the war. She finds out more about him and life in general than she bargained for when she learns that he was a gay.
The persistent but mild-mannered rapist in Cabot Wright Begins (1964), a satirical novel on the American scene, is “raped” by editors and publishers who want to make a best seller out of his escapades. Both positive and negative interactions between homosexuals are addressed in Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967). The relationships between the several men in I Am Elijah Thrush (1972) are much more intricate.
Another film that explores the experience of feeling out of place is 1975’s In a Shallow Grave, which follows a horribly wounded war veteran as he tries to reconnect with his childhood sweetheart. Jeremy’s Version (1970), The House of the Solitary Maggot (1974), and Mourners Below (1981) make up the trilogy “Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys,” which is about the tense, odd relationships inside a family in the Midwest.
On Glory’s Course (1984) is about a village in the Midwest in the 1930s, while Narrow Rooms (1978) is a novel about homosexual feelings. In the Hollow of His Hand (1986), his next work, he tells the story of the son of an undocumented Indian mother and a high-society father. In the shorter story Garments the Living Wear (1989), people are swept up in the widespread corruption of New York City.
In a tone somewhere between nostalgia and satire, Out with the Stars (1994) conjures up images of New York City’s gay culture in the years leading up to AIDS and Stonewall. Purdy and an associate adapted their 1957 story collection and novella The Color of Darkness for the stage in 1963. Stories and two plays are collected in Children Is All (1962), and more plays and poems are included in A Day After the Fair (1977). The Ever-Chasing Sun
Best Books by James Purdy
In the Hollow of His Hand
When Ojibwa Indian Decatur returns home to Yellow Brook from World War I, he meets Chad Coultas and realizes at once that the young man is his son. Chad’s coming-of-age trip begins in the 1920s Chicago high life and ends in the Canadian wilds, all because of the competing claims of Decatur and his legal father, Lewis. Along the way, Chad is introduced to sex, drugs, and the complexities of filial love.
Cabot Wright Begins
In 1964, when this book was first released, it was already an uphill battle to portray a serial rapist in a positive light by portraying him as a generous person. After finishing college, Cabot Wright finds work on Wall Street, but raping is his true passion: “he was no respecter of age, raping girls, young ladies, middle-aged matrons, and even elderly women.” But Wright is no violent psychopath; he uses “some form of hypnotism” on his victims, allowing him to rape them “easily and well.”
The Candles of Your Eyes, and Thirteen Other Stories
This collection of 14 stories from the experienced author of Southern gothics has a great freshness and vibrancy. Purdy, like always, is a master storyteller who constructs his stories from intimate details.In “Scrap of Paper,” an elderly woman is depicted as having frequent arguments with her former maid, but ultimately clearing her of any wrongdoing by signing a piece of paper. In “Short Papa,” a father gives his son an antique watch and warns him to keep it safe at all times.
MOE’S VILLA & OTHER STORIES
The prolific and mostly unheralded Purdy (Malcolm; In a Shallow Grave; etc.) has written a collection of 12 odd, frequently fanciful stories that are replete with jewels, songs, grandmothers, wills, and Ouija boards. Two stories that have the feel of fairy tales but take a different perspective on “happily ever after” are “Kitty Blue,” in which a beloved talking cat is catnapped by the wicked proprietor of a burlesque hall, and “A Little Variety, Please,” in which a dragon saves a little girl from her cruel adoptive parents.
Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue
This is the first novel by the prolific and award-winning novelist (Malcom; In a Shallow Grave) to be published in the United States in a decade, and it is both distinctive and enigmatic. When her daughter Gertrude, a rebellious and talented painter who despised her sheltered, naive mother, passes away, Chicago matron Carrie Kinsella is distraught. Neither Carrie’s sick, condescending husband (whom she always refers to with the endearing diminutive “”Daddy””) nor her worldly and often-married sister-in-law Gwen are initially sympathetic to Carrie’s effort to comprehend the daughter she never really knew.
The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy
Purdy’s talent for depicting human hopelessness shines brightly throughout these 58 tales. A wife’s hatred for her husband is demonstrated in her lack of trust that he can repair a refrigerator’s lightbulb, in “Man and Wife.” The doctor of “Ruthanna Elder,” who has delivered over 2,000 infants, says he can’t sleep because “too meticulous a memory of the subsequent lives” they lead weigh on him like “slabs from the stone quarry.”
63, Dream Palace: Selected Stories, 1956-1987
In this collection, readers will get a fresh chance to assess the talents of this unique stylist. The bewildered tone of Purdy’s (Garments the Living Wear) narration is evocative of America in the years following World War II. From two egotistical bodybuilders who are only concerned with their appearance (and the coworker who is enamored with them) to a lady whose drunken confession of loathing of her spouse and herself prompts domestic violence, his characters are emotionally crippled.
Out with the Stars
Purdy’s characteristic blend of high fun, weird characters, hilarious satire and piercing realism animates this eccentric frolic. Abner Blossom, an old composer, decides to write an opera about the lives of bisexual risqué photographer Cyril Vane and his harpy Russian-born wife Olga Petrovna, a faded silent-screen star who claims to be a cousin of the Romanovs. A scandalous funeral with hired mourners, a sleepwalker’s suicide, a swarthy Sicilian youth who levitates, and several gay love affairs all feature in Blossom’s opera, Cock Crow, the Brooklyn premiere of which is the focus of the couple’s efforts to stifle the truth about their lives.
The Candles of Your Eyes
The title story, about a black man’s intense love for a white youngster, and “Short Papa,” about a child entrusted to keep a family watch, are just two of the 14 tales collected here. PW praised the compilation, writing, “This collection… has a delightful freshness and vitality.” Purdy uses spare language and condenses his stories to highlight the emotional impact of the occasion.