ASSESSING JAMES PURDY
The first academic conference on the work of James Purdy took place on October 24th - 25th, 2003, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, convened by Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., professor of English. The conference began with an evening reading of James Purdy’s one act play Dangerous Moonlight by local actors under the direction of Michael Bennett, one of several university graduate students who helped with various aspects of the conference. The intimate conference the next day featured nine speakers with an audience of perhaps fifty persons, many of whom were students in a university course that featured Purdy’s fiction. Conference participants and presenters came from as far away as Washington and Oregon States, and even Vietnam.
The delightful keynote address “Deliverer of the Tales of the Ones Excluded from the Dream” by Donald E. Pease, Jr., from Dartmouth College, energized everyone. It was followed by a panel of writers who admire Mr. Purdy. Matthew Stadler, author of The Sex Offender and other novels, discussed “James Purdy and the Theater of Real Speech, 1967-1974.” Flournoy Holland, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of The Spectacle of the Body: Stories, spoke on “The Origin and Allure of Instability in James Purdy’s Short Fiction.” At the invitation of the session chair, Matthew Schmidt, Dr. Skerrett read the amusing memoir “Befriending James Purdy, 1969-1973” by Gerald Rosen, author of Blues for a Great Nation and other novels, as Mr. Rosen was too ill to attend in person.
At the lunch break, panelists, conference staff and many attendees of the conference discussed the formation of a James Purdy Society over sandwiches and salads. All agreed with Joseph Skerrett’s suggestion that a Society would help significantly to keep James Purdy’s work in the public eye and in the classroom. He committed to securing an affiliation with the American Literature Association. Dennis Moore agreed to assume the responsibility for spearheading the project of organizing and incorporating the Society. Donald Pease offered to organize a second Purdy conference at Dartmouth College in the spring of 2005 and to host the next meeting of the Society
In the afternoon, the audience heard from two groups of scholars. The first panel included Robert Don Adams of Florida Atlantic University, who spoke on ”James Purdy’s Allegories of Love,” Joseph E. Kraus of King’s College in Pennsylvania, whose topic was “Confronting (or Not) the Absent Father in James Purdy,” and Christopher Lane of Northwestern University who discussed “James Purdy’s Family Poetics.” For the final panel, Martin Kich, of Wright State University, presented his paper “Assessing the Assessments: Five Decades of Comment on James Purdy’s Work.” Followed by Norma Jenckes, of the University of Cincinnati, with “Failing Better: Edward Albee’s Dramatization of James Purdy’s Malcolm”. Each panel was followed by lively discussion among the scholars and questions from the audience.
The conference concluded as the conference convener thanked his staff, Joel Anderson and Cathy Schlund-Vials, for their assiduous attention to the many details of production of the event. After a reception for audience and presenters on campus, the presenters celebrated with a convivial dinner at an Amherst restaurant.
— Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr.