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James Purdy:

An Autobiographical Sketch

 

 

I was born in rural Ohio near the Indiana border. My ancestry has been traced back to the French Huguenots (hence my surname, which is an oath name), but I am mostly of Scotch-Irish stock. My great-grandmother (whom I knew as a child) was said to have been one-eighth Ojibway Indian, and when I was difficult to manage my mother would say my Indian blood was showing itself. Most of my people were farmers, craftsmen, and small businessmen. My mother traced her ancestry back to before the Revolution, and she was a member of the DAR, but she seldom attended their functions. My father had many financial problems in the 1930s, and I was brought up in a troubled atmosphere. My parents were divorced when I was still a youngster, and I lived now with my mother, now with my father, and sometimes with my grandmother.

        When my grandmother died, I lived on in her house with my father, who was deeply hurt by mother divorcing him, and consoled himself by reading everything he could find on the Civil War. I left home at an early age and went to Chicago. It was the first big city I had ever known, and I was unprepared for its overwhelming confusion. It provided me with enough subject matter for the rest of my life. I was drafted into the army, and after my service, honorably discharged. I traveled to Mexico, Cuba, and Spain. I fell in love with Spain, and Cervantes's story Riconete and Cortadillo concerning two youthful runaways in Seville made a deep impression on me. I saw myself only too clearly as the runaways.

        I had been writing stories from the age of eight or nine, but I did not intend that what I put down on yellow ruled paper should be for anyone's eyes but my own. My mother, when she happened on these outpourings, was bemused that a child had composed them. My teachers in the lower grades were also puzzled at the kind of compositions I submitted to them. It was not until high school that I met a teacher who thought I was doing something creditable. She predicted, rather worriedly, that I would become a writer.

        In my twenties, I began sending out my completed stories to magazines. Some of these stories I had begun in high school, notably "A Good Woman." My stories were always returned with angry, peevish, indignant rejections from the New York slick magazines, and they earned, if possible, even more hostile comments from the little magazines. All editors were insistent that I would never be a published writer.

When I was already past thirty, I met a Chicago businessman, Osborn Andreas, who had written critical studies on Conrad and Henry James. I had been introduced to him by his former wife, Marian 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. 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 (1)

        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 (2)

        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 (3). 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.

                But just prior to his publishing the book, Mr. Gollancz had some fears and misgivings. The language "naked and unashamed" of sections of the short novel might face strong penalties, even a lawsuit in the edgy England of 1957. Without telling Edith Sitwell or me of his intention, Mr. Gollancz excised many of the words of my book, thereby, in Dame Edith's words "emasculating the work." His removing entirely the last word in the short novel 63: Dream Palace and replacing it with a meaningless one robbed the book, Edith Sitwell felt, of its beautifully ironic and sad ending. (4)

                63 Dream Palace created a stir in England. 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. Few there be that recognize either of these things. But Purdy reveals them." (5)

        John Cowper Powys's 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.

        Because of the acclaim of 63: Dream Palace in England, American publishers now came forward with offers to publish the book. New Directions, which had been steadily rejecting all the stories and the short novel over the past ten years, now agreed to publish the book and without the censorship and "emasculations" which Victor Gollancz had perpetrated in the name of British trade and conformity. Some seven months after the British edition, New Directions brought out the stories, plus two new and additional ones, under the new title Color of Darkness. (6) (The captious excuse for changing the title was that librarians would find it hard to catalogue the number 63!)

        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. But 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.

        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. 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. (7) He also introduced me to many of his countless friends, among whom was Paul Bowles, who has remained to this day one of my best friends. 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. The book also attracted the attention of one of the most brilliant American playwrights, Edward Albee, who adapted the book to the Broadway stage in an unusual and often dazzling arrangement of the book. Mr. Albee became also one of my most appreciated friends. (8)

        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.

        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. (9)

        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.

But before I began writing the novels about the long ago, 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 Works.

        Cabot 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. Cabot Wright Begins was ineptly and condescendingly reviewed by the pew-warmers of the local think tanks. But the book soon won civilized attention in England from Dr. Tony Tanner of King's College, Cambridge, who later expanded his essay in his book on American letters, City of Words. Cabot Wright Begins was also brilliantly reviewed in the middle-leader section of the London Times Literary Supplement.

        But it was Eustace Chisholm and the Works which especially outraged the anaesthetic, hypocritical, preppy, and stagnant New York literary establishment, especially that part of the book which sympathetically narrates the passionate love between two young men, Amos Ratcliffe and Daniel Haws. Such love, unless treated clinically or as a documentary cannot be tolerated by the New York literary Powers-That-Be.

        But some decent men stepped forward and acclaimed the book. Angus Wilson, who had greatly admired 63: Dream Palace, reviewed Eustace Chisholm and the Works in Life magazine, and wrote as follows:

"Eustace Chisholm and the Works is a remarkable achievement. Purdy is a master of the horrible, the wildly funny, and the very sad.”

And the Atlanta-Journal called the book "an overwhelming novel, expertly shaped to turn its full force and fury upon the reader's susceptibilities."  Unlike its reception in corporate America, Eustace Chisholm and the Works 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.

But perhaps the finest appraisal of Eustace Chisholm and the Works 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.

Bettina Schwarzschild, who had been compelled to leave Germany as a child during the Hitler period, was drawn to my work in 1962 and began writing her remarkable series of essays on my books. She also became one of my closest friends. Her book on my fiction appeared under the title The Not-Right House, published in 1968 by the University of Missouri Press. Stephen D. Adams, a British writer, also began publishing serious essays on my work, and his completed book appeared in London in 1979, published by the Vision Press. Adams's book was at the time perhaps the most complete work on what I have written, and is both incisive and sensitive. Dr. Tony Tanner, of King's College, Cambridge, also published deeply perceptive essays on my books. (10)

In 1968 I began writing 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. 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, and the soon-to-be published On Glory's Course are the pieced-together, often broken fragments of my ancestors' lives.

I had been encouraged by Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Tennessee Williams to write plays. Tennessee Williams had especially been admiring of my dialogue and characterization. In the mid-1960s Margaret Barker, an actress who had her beginnings with the old Group theater, was drawn to the dramatic aspect of my work, and in 1964 she presented off-Broadway an evening of my stories dramatized, together with my own short play Cracks. (The production drew Edward Albee to the small theater, and shortly afterwards he adapted Malcolm to the Broadway stage.)

        A young actor of remarkable talent and insight, John Uecker, a friend of Tennessee Williams, urged me to write more plays for the theater. I was also encouraged to do so by John Stix, the eminent theater director. I began work on a series of short plays in the 1970s, plays which have since been consistently produced off-Broadway and around the United States and in Australia. I am now in 1983 at work on a long play. (11)

For some years, also, I had been writing poetry, a kind of poetry, like my stories, bound to be ignored by the hidebound literary establishment. But James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, who remained one of my enthusiastic supporters, saw fit to publish many of my poems in his New Directions Anthologies, together with most of my short plays. (12)

        My poems were soon to appear in another form. Two composers of unusual talent, Richard Hundley and Robert Helps, began setting my poetry to music. It was Richard Hundley who had encouraged me to go on with my writing poetry in the first place, and without his insistence that my verse was in its own way as important as my fiction and plays, I might have given up writing it. Richard Hundley's setting of my poems has been widely performed, including Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Newport Music Festival. Betty Allen, the black singer, has performed Richard Hundley's setting of my poetry throughout the United States and abroad. Miss Allen often interrupts her singing to read aloud poems from my collection The Running Sun.

        In the summer of 1982, the United States Information Agency, Washington, D.C., sponsored my visit to Israel, Finland, and Germany so that I might read there to writers and students from my books. My reception in these countries was enthusiastic beyond my expectations, and it was brought home to me again that my stories reach some deep note in readers who are receptive and open.

        My work has been compared to an underground river which is flowing often undetected through the American landscape. The language my books is written in has been called a true classical American by writers as diverse as Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Paul Bowles, and William Carlos Williams. Gore Vidal expressed it thus when he wrote in 1978:

"Over the past quarter century James Purdy has created an American language which was always there but never noticed until he began that series of prose works whose most recent manifestation is Narrow Rooms, a dark and splendid affair by an authentic American genius."

 

NOTES

1, Edith Sitwell: Selected Letters, edited by John Lehmann and Derek Parker. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1970.

2. Ibid.

3. The stories rejected by American publishers for fifteen years have been translated into over thirty foreign languages and have appeared [as of 1983] in fifty anthologies.

4. In 1961 Secker and Warburg reissued 63: Dream Palace in London complete and uncensored. In her preface to the Secker and Warburg edition, Dame Edith wrote as follows: "The last sentence in 63: Dream Palace is utterly appalling, but it is also full of an unutterable tenderness and a deep meaning. All the murdered child had wanted was to return to his mother, whom he had loved, and to his mother earth. That is the meaning of the phrase, terrible as it is."

5. Quoted by Edith Sitwell in her preface to Color of Darkness (London: Secker and Warburg Publishers, 1961).

6. In 1980 Viking Penguin Publishers, New York, brought out the book in hard and soft covers, with a foreword by Edward Albee.

7. Carl Van Vechten established the collection of letters and manuscripts and unpublished manuscripts from my work at the Beinecke Library, at Yale University, under the custody of Dr. Donald Gallup.

8. Edward Albee has written of my work: "The love Purdy feels for all his people-the most foolish, the doomed, the mendacious, the failed-is a compassion one brings to writing. It cannot be copied, like style or a subject, and it may be what separates the men from the boys." (Foreword by Edward Albee to James Purdy's Dream Palaces (New York: The Viking Press, 1980).

9. My financial problems were only partially alleviated by grants from the Guggenheim, ford, and Rockefeller Foundations during this decade, and by generous help from Mr. Andreas Brown of the Gotham Book Mart, Inc.

10. Dr. Toby Tanner, introduction to Color of Darkness and Malcolm (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1974); and "Bird Song," an essay on I Am Elijah Thrush (Partisan Review, Fall 1972; reprinted in New Directions Anthology 26, 1973).

11. My plays and the short stories I had written after 1968 were finally privately printed in San Francisco under the title of A Day After the Fair (1977), Commercial publishers had turned down the collection on the grounds they would not sell. The collection contains what some readers believe to be my finest short stories, "Some of These Days," "Mr. Evening," and "Summer Tidings."

12. The Running Sun, privately published in 1971, New York, contains my early collected poems.

From Contemporary Authors, Autobiography Series, Volume 1 (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1984.  Reprinted by permission of James Purdy.

 

 

 

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