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The Ohio Legacy Series

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James Purdy: Leaving Home Is the Same
as Staying Put Unless You’ve Never Left

An essay by Martin Kich

Reprinted from the Spring 2005 Ohioana Quarterly

For more than half a century, James Purdy has steadily added to a body of work notable for its startling artistry and honesty. Indeed, although he has been made frail by advanced age, he continues to produce work that reflects a continuing vibrancy of intellect and emotional intensity. His most recent novel, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, was published in 1997, and this past fall, his most recent collection of short stories, Moe’s Villa, was released. Starting with Don’t Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories in 1956, James Purdy has authored some fifteen novels, eleven collections of short stories (and, in some instances, plays and poems), nine full-length plays, and six collections of poems. These numbers are open to some argument because much of his work has either bridged categories or defied them.

Purdy’s personal life has remained quite private. His birth date has been reported variously in reference works as 1923, 1927, and 1929. He was born in Fremont, Ohio. Although his ancestors were predominantly Scotch-Irish, they also included an Ojibway Indian and some French Huguenots. Some of his ancestors had settled in America before the Revolutionary War. Largely because of his parents’ marital difficulties, Purdy’s upbringing was marked by frequent moves between his parents’ separate households and the home of one of his grandmothers.

Prior to and subsequent to several years of military service in the 1940s, Purdy lived in Chicago, where he attended the University of Chicago and began writing the sketches that would develop into his first stories. For extended periods over the next several decades, he would also live, teach, study, and write in Mexico, Cuba, and Spain. After Osborn Andreas, a Chicago entrepreneur with an interest in literature, financed the private printing of Don’t Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories (1957), he and Purdy decided to mail copies to literary figures. The enthusiastic response that they received, most notably from Dame Edith Sitwell, much exceeded their modest expectations. The commercial publication of Purdy’s next five books - the collections: Dream Palace (1957), Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella (1957), and Children Is All (1961), and the novels Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1961) - established him as one of the most exciting voices among the iconoclastic new generation of writers who were harbingers of the cultural revolution that would define the 1960s.

The works up to The Nephew were hailed as postmodern fables. Anticipating the characters and modes of expression in Edward Albee’s early absurdist plays and in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There, the narratives typically feature characters who have been abandoned like empty containers in the material and spiritual wasteland of urban America. Set in a Midwestern town, The Nephew seems a quietly subversive reworking of James Agee’s A Death in the Family. The main character goes missing in action in Korea, and his aunt, who has raised him, decides to memorialize his short life in a book that is part biography and part scrapbook. In the process, she discovers how little she actually knew about his life, especially his interior life, with the most disturbing revelations suggesting that he was probably gay. Excerpted in anthologies and reprinted in paperback editions, Purdy’s first five books became staple readings in college courses on contemporary fiction.

At some point in the mid- to late-1960s, however, Purdy began to fall out of mainstream critical favor or, more precisely, to fall off the critical radar. Recognizing perhaps that he had exhausted many of the possibilities of the fable, especially in extended narratives, he began to produce novels that were much more complex in their depiction of character and incident, and much more ambiguous and challenging stylistically. Always difficult to categorize, his work now began to seem to some critics to be more willfully idiosyncratic, deliberately peculiar to the point of being self-indulgent. In a paradoxical way, it also began to seem somewhat anachronistic. It did not embody the cultural tumult of the period in the same way that Mailer’s, Roth’s, and Updike’s novels seemed to do. It was clearly serious in purpose, and yet it lacked the intellectual and historical breadth of Bellow’s and Styron’s efforts. It was darkly comic but seemed to lack the exuberance and accessibility of Heller’s and Vonnegut’s work.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Purdy produced a series of novels that are mature in their conception and execution and stand as significant contributions to the literature of the period. But they have not received anything approaching the attention accorded to his early work. These novels include Jeremy’s Version (1970), I Am Elijah Thrush (1972), Narrow Rooms (1978), Mourners Below (1981), On Glory’s Course (1984), The House of the Solitary Maggot (1986), In the Hollow of His Hand (1986), and Garments the Living Wear (1989). If a new generation of readers can be encouraged to approach Purdy’s work through these books, there may be some substantial shifts in the critical appraisals of his achievement. Some of this reappraisal is already occurring, especially among critics in gay studies, but there is still too much of a tendency to measure the later books against the earlier, rather than to find a critical locus in the more mature work.

My first exposure to James Purdy’s work occurred while I was pursuing my master’s and doctoral degrees at Lehigh University. My closest friend, Jim Benner, read as eclectically as I did (and still do), but we seemed to be attracted to different kinds of work. He introduced me to such writers as James Merrill, Frederick Exley, and Walker Percy, and his enthusiasms for Henry James, Woody Allen, and Emmylou Harris were so infectious that I at least began to understand what so excited him about their work. On the other hand, I made him aware of such writers as Jerzy Kosinski, John Gregory Dunne, Harry Crews, and James Ellroy. Ultimately, we were each more interested in discovering writers and filmmakers that would excite the other’s interest than we were interested in converting each other to our own tastes.

The Nephew stands out as one of our truly shared enthusiasms. I was strangely - for me - attracted to the quiet of the novel, to Purdy’s poignant but completely unsentimental handling of the half-recognized or repressed truths that death, particularly premature or unexpected death, forces us to confront. Sometime after I read The Nephew, I picked up Cabot Wright Begins, but I never got more than a few chapters into it. I don’t remember if I lost interest or simply moved on to something that, at the time, I found more interesting.

At Lehigh, doctoral candidates were required to submit a dissertation proposal before taking the exams on their areas of specialty. If you didn’t write the proposal before you became absorbed in studying for the exams, the proposal represented a last-minute hurdle. My initial proposal, asserting that there were stylistic and thematic similarities to be found underneath the many obvious differences in the work of Nathanael West and Jean Rhys, was rejected outright by the screening committee. (To this day, I think it’s a topic with wonderful possibilities, but the hastily drafted proposal certainly didn’t do it any justice.) Forced to start from scratch, I decided to focus on some of the writers that I seemed to appreciate much more than most critics seemed to. In the resulting dissertation, “Everyone Goes around Acting Crazy”: A Study of Recent American Hardcore Naturalists, I argued that these writers - Nathanael West, Erskine Caldwell, John O’Hara, James Purdy, Hubert Selby Jr., Harry Crews, Jerzy Kosinski, and Barbara Sheen - are undervalued because their aims are fundamentally different than those of the “major” writers to whom they are most often compared - that they need to be recognized as a distinct category. (I was going to include several more recent writers such as John Gregory Dunne, Frederick Barthelme, and Jayne Anne Phillips, but my advisor, James R. Frakes, who may have had more patience with my tastes than I appreciated at the time, said that what I had done was “already quite enough.”)

I initially included Purdy because I wanted to treat Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn at some length and needed a complementary work to maintain an interlocking pattern that I hoped to extend throughout the chapters. I began with a chapter on West’s Day of the Locust, which I saw as a prototype for the novels I was covering. The second chapter treated the rural and family aspects of Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre and Crews’ A Feast of Snakes. The third chapter compared the representations of labor activism in God’s Little Acre to those in Last Exit to Brooklyn. And in the fourth chapter I wanted to treat the sexual depravity of the Selby book as a sort of urban counterpoint to the rural depravity portrayed in the novels by Caldwell and Crews. From my reading of Frederick Karl’s American Fictions, 1940-1980 (a work whose scope and insight still astonish me), I thought that Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works might offer an interesting counterpoint to the Selby book. It turned out that the Purdy novel was not only the most challenging book that I treated in my dissertation, but it also may have provided a center point to the whole enterprise that I didn’t quite recognize or fully appreciate at the time.

The publication of Eustace Chisholm and the Works may mark the point at which many mainstream reviewers and critics concluded that Purdy was a literary eccentric, an acquired taste. Even so, the novel contained such truly shocking elements that it attracted some pointed critical notice. It concerns a group of characters marginally surviving in Depression-era Chicago. These characters can also be described as inhabiting the cultural and sexual margins of American society. Emotionally and psychologically damaged, they seem to have only two possible futures: a dissipated decline into a sort of quiet self-on destruction or some sort of hideous victimization. The novel is framed and dominated by the narration of the title character, a poet with advanced syphilis who is scrawling an opus on newsprint. He may or may not be mad, and while that distinction might be essential to understanding many, if not most, novels featuring similar characters, it hardly seems to matter here, for the novel offers a mid-twentieth-century American equivalent of a Hogarth painting of “gin alley.” The climax of the novel occurs after one of the characters, unhinged by his extended repression of his homosexuality, enlists in the army and is victimized with increasing intensity by a sadistic officer. The climax involves his being impaled to death on the officer’s sword.

In drafting this chapter of my dissertation, I was most interested in the characters and themes of Purdy’s novel and the possible parallels with those in Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. But what really fascinated me about the novel (and what continues to fascinate me most about Purdy’s whole body of work) was Purdy’s style. Accomplished writers often have a signature style. Sometimes the signature varies little from work to work, as in Ernest Hemingway’s work. In other instances, a signature style modulates considerably from work to work, as in William Faulkner’s corpus. Purdy’s work is, I think, more comparable to Faulkner’s in this respect. I believe I could identify a passage from a Purdy novel on sight, but the voice modulates considerably from work to work: for instance, from the quiet (but hardly tranquil) tones of The Nephew to the more self-indulgently lurid self-expression of Eustace Chisholm and the Works to the almost disembodied narrative of the most recent Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue.

Although Purdy’s characters are certainly differentiated and often have very distinct points of view, their voices are not always their own signatures. Purdy is most concerned with the state of his characters’ souls - not in a traditionally religious sense but in a fundamentally human, empathetic sense. Even his most unlikable characters merit our attention because there is something pitiable in simply being human. What seems most to move him about the human condition is the difficulty of identity, the question of who we are and at precisely what point who we are is distinguishable from what lies outside of us. To stylistically represent this condition, he draws on traditional American idioms - at times, on the archaic idioms of spiritual treatises, historical documents, and literary texts - and synthesizes them with the language of mass communication, advertising, and popular culture that literally has filled the air of modern America. His style represents a synthesis of the archetypically American styles of such figures as Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin with the experimental styles of such postmodern novelists as William Gaddis and Joseph McElroy. That this synthesis is self-effacing, almost matter-of-fact, rather than ostentatious or flamboyant, is precisely what makes it extraordinary.

As part of my scholarly pursuits, I had contributed a short profile of Purdy to the Literary Encyclopedia, an online project based in the United Kingdom, and had committed to writing (eventually) critical summaries of each of his books. Then at a 2003 conference on James Purdy held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conference organizer Joseph Skerrett encouraged the development of a society to promote interest in and to support serious critical attention to Purdy’s work. I agreed to maintain a web page for the resulting James Purdy Society, and both the society and the web page are gradually finding their legs. As a feature of the web site, I would like (eventually) to provide a comprehensive bibliography and an encyclopedia of major works, characters, settings, and themes. Both of these commitments have given me an impetus to re-read, or in a few instances to read for the first time, each of Purdy’s books. I have discovered in my reading that, given Purdy’s long and productive career, his work is remarkably consistent in its intensity of focus and in its strange purity of vision.

But I also have to admit that, for me, his work retains an element of foreignness. This is, of course, part of what makes it compelling, but I suspect it also accounts for his limited readership. Purdy takes the familiar and makes it strange, and he invests the strange with a familiarity that makes it only more strange. For an author who has attracted very devoted admirers, Purdy has, it seems to me, always kept the main part of himself out of view, off the page. It is as if he has sent the work out into the world in order to cover his own retreat from its ugliness.

And so - just in case you were wondering if I would ever address it - I come finally around to my title. I was looking for a paradoxical statement to describe not only an extremely paradoxical body of work but also Purdy’s paradoxical interest in the Midwest. Like many writers who have moved away from their home places, Purdy has continued to write about the Midwest. Indeed, his interest in the region has been pronounced enough for several critics to coin the category “Midwestern Gothic” as an alternative to “Southern Gothic,” which would be geographically inexact. But Purdy is not a regionalist and clearly has no real interest in defining characteristics of the Midwest as a region. Instead, the Midwest seems to be a private geography that he can explore and populate with equal senses of joy and horror. (At the risk of trivializing the point, Purdy’s Midwest brings to mind those comic books in which parallel and at times “bizarro” realities exist within our own reality but almost always outside of our perception.) In this sense, Purdy’s Midwest is much closer to Carson McCullers' South than it is to William Faulkner’s.

My reading of Purdy’s work has clearly shaped many of my critical attitudes about contemporary American literature and about the nature of narrative. In my creative work, I am not sure whether I have been as pointedly influenced by his work or whether I simply share some of his sensibilities. I have decided to close this essay of appreciation with a poem of my own and to leave it to the readers of the essay to decide to what extent and in what ways it pays homage to James Purdy.

A Poem Taken from a Photograph Taken by an Insurance Adjuster in Sandusky, Ohio

The old man in the multi-colored cardigan
and the lavender corduroys
lives in yellowed hotels —
pays for his night’s sleep
with bills rolled and folded and wadded
to the texture of a cotton shirt washed so often
that the sleeves just drop off the hanger.

He is a chronic drinker,
a chain-smoker,
a constipated lover of canned sardines
who has one finished kidney
and a liver that by almost any measure
is just plain shot.

He’s somebody’s brother
(who is probably dead).

He’s a child killer,

but that was more than sixty years ago,
when he wasn’t himself
anything more than a boy
who couldn’t believe that someone could suffocate
just from being held
face-down
in a pile of leaves.


Martin Kich is a professor of English at Wright State University - Lake Campus.

 

 

 

 


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