1923-07-14

JAMES PURDY (d: 2009) novelist, born; A gay man, from the start his work had often been at the edge of what was printable: Gollancz could not bring himself to print the word “motherfucker” in the 1957 UK edition of 63: Dream Palace; decades later, the German government tried to ban Narrow Rooms, but a court threw the case out. Although many readers were scandalized, a solid cadre of distinguished critics and scholars embraced his work from the start, including John Cowper Powys, Dame Edith Sitwell, Dorothy Parker, Jane Bowles, Lillian Hellman and Susan Sontag, who warmly defended him against puritanical critics. Tennessee Williams was also an early admirer of Purdy’s work.

His early novel Malcolm was for decades a staple of the undergraduate American Literature curriculum of most American colleges and universities. Malcolm may have slipped from its place in the canon in recent years due to its irregular publishing history. This is consequent upon the contractual confusion that arose when Purdy agreed to permit Edward Albee to adapt it for the stage. In spite of this ongoing and unresolved problem, Malcolm is currently in print. Following several reissues of previously out-of-print novels, as well as a recent appreciation by Gore Vidal in The New York Times Book Review, Purdy’s work is currently enjoying a renaissance. As Edward Albee wrote long ago, there is a Purdy renaissance every ten years, like clockwork. Albee has been proved right every decade since.

Since the 1990s, when great age began to make itself felt, he had worked closely with his companion John Uecker (who was previously the last amanuensis of Tennessee Williams), a partnership that resulted in such late works as the novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1997) and the collection of stories Moe’s Villa (2003, 2005). He continued to dictate to a small team of devoted friends, and ascribed his continued intellectual vigor to the drinking of green tea and the avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. His advice to young writers was to ‘banish shame’.

Purdy wrote anonymous letters from the age of nine. His first was written to his mother’s landlady who, in young Purdy’s view, was grasping. Countless thousands have been written since, many now owned by persons who have no idea of their provenance or value, although the style is inimitable. One of his very latest, written when he was 92, to a redactor who had displeased him by moving from New York to Montana, can be seen  here.  This features some of Purdy’s drawings, which have attracted some attention. 

Purdy continued to dictate and to draw nearly every day until his death at 94. After several years of declining health, he fractured a hip and died in Englewood, New Jersey on 13 March 2009. Shortly after his death in March 2009 a book of plays, “James Purdy, Selected Plays” including Brice, Ruthanna Elder, Where Quentin Goes and The Paradise Circus, was published by Ivan R. Dee. It features an insightful foreword by John Uecker (who also edited the book) about the friendship between Tennessee Williams and James Purdy. It also focuses on Purdy’s play writing being his first form of writing since childhood, when he wrote plays for his brother, an actor, to perform. The book is dedicated by Purdy “To those who stood behind me”, to Tennessee Williams and John Uecker. John Waters contributed the following blurb on the cover: “James Purdy’s Selected Plays will break your damaged little heart.” Also on the cover, Gore Vidal called Purdy “An authentic American genius.”