Purdy, James, 1914-2009

Alternative names
Birth 1914-07-17
Death 2009-03-13

Biographical notes:

James Otis Purdy (July 17, 1914 - March 13, 2009) was an American novelist, short story-writer, poet, and playwright who debuted in 1956. Purdy was born in Hicksville, Ohio, and attended Bowling Green State College (now Bowling Green State University), the University of Chicago and the University of Puebla in Mexico. His most well-known works are the novels "Malcolm" and "The Nephew.":

From the guide to the James Purdy papers, 1956-1973, (Ohio University)

Born in Ohio on July 17, 1923, James Purdy is one of the United States’ most prolific, yet little known writers. A novelist, poet, playwright and amateur artist, Purdy has published over fifty volumes. He received his education at the University of Chicago and the University of Peubla in Mexico. In addition to writing, Purdy also has served as an interpreter in Latin America, France, and Spain, and he spent a year lecturing in Europe with the United States Information Agency (1982).

From the outset of his writing career, Purdy has had difficulties attracting the attention of both publishers and critics. His first several short stories were rejected by every magazine to which he sent them, and he was forced to sign with a private publisher for his first two books, 63: Dream Palace and Don’t Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories, both published in 1956. Hoping to increase his readership, Purdy sent copies of these first two books to writers he admired, including English poet Dame Edith Sitwell. Sitwell raved about Purdy’s work and helped convince an English publisher, Gollancz, to publish and distribute Purdy’s books in England. Purdy’s writing was introduced in the United States a year later when his previous books were published together in one volume, Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella (1957).

Most of Purdy’s work has been the subject of mixed critical response. While some, like Sitwell and book dealer Robert A.Wilson, appreciate the artistry of Purdy’s work, many American publishers and critics regard his work as too daring and risque. In a 1990 letter to Wilson, Purdy wrote, “Dame Edith Sitwell once told me I was the wrong color, race, religion, and talent ever to be accepted by the New York Establishment. I didn’t understand quite the full meaning of her words at the time. Now I do. I want to leave the US eventually and never come back. But I haven’t earned enough money to live here, let alone depart” (F3). Many of Purdy’s letters reflect this frustration.

Despite his lack of commercial popularity in the United States, Purdy is not entirely without critical success. He won a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature in 1958, followed by Guggenheim fellowships in both 1958 and 1962. Purdy is also the recipient of a Rockefeller grant, a Ford Foundation Grant (1961), and a P.E.N.-Faulkner Award nomination in 1985 for On Glory’s Course . Most recently, he was awarded a Morten Dauwen Zabel Fiction award from the Academy of Arts and Letters (1993).

Though Purdy has had much critical and commercial success abroad particularly in the Netherlands, he struggled to increase his readership in the United States. As he lamented in a 1988 letter to Wilson, “The good thing about the Dutch for me is they are very enthusiastic about my work while the American publishers seem to do everything in their power along with the New York Times to starve me to death.” (F3).

Metzger, Linda, Ed. Contemporary Authors . New Revision Series, Volume 19. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1984. pp.389-395.

From the guide to the James Purdy manuscripts, 1961–1978, (University of Delaware Library - Special Collections)

James Purdy was born in Ohio on July 17, 1923, the third of five sons of William Purdy and Vera Covick Purdy. The Purdys divorced in 1926, and in the following years James moved frequently, living at various times with his mother, his father, and his grandmother. He eventually left home and went to Chicago, where he graduated from high school in 1940. In the following year, he attended classes at the University of Chicago, but was soon drafted into the Army. Upon his discharge, Purdy traveled to Mexico and studied at the University of Puebla.

During the 1940s, Purdy was employed first as an English teacher at a school for boys in Havana, and later as an interpreter and translator in Latin America, France, and Spain. He joined the faculty of Lawrence College in Wisconsin in 1949, but left in 1953 in order to write full-time. Over the next three years, however, his short stories were consistently rejected by publishers and magazines.

The Chicago businessman and critic Osborn Andreas was impressed by Purdy's work, and in 1956 he subsidized the publication of about 1,000 copies of Don't Call Me by My Right Name . In the same year Purdy's friend Jorma Jules Sjoblom borrowed money to subsidize the printing of Purdy's novella 63: Dream Palace . Purdy sent copies of both these works to a number of authors and critics in England and America. Edith Sitwell admired them and was instrumental in persuading Victor Gollancz to publish an English edition of both works under the title 63: Dream Palace .

Purdy received enthusiastic reviews from such literary figures as Angus Wilson and John Cowper Powys, and the attention the book received attracted American publishers. The same material, with two stories added, was brought out in the United States under the title Color of Darkness in 1957 by New Directions.

Purdy received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1958. Malcolm was published in the following year and received much praise, including an enthusiastic review by Dorothy Parker. The novel has been translated into fifteen languages and was adapted for the stage by Edward Albee in 1966.

Purdy settled in New York City in 1960. He received a Ford Foundation grant in 1961 and a second Guggenheim in 1962. Malcolm was followed in 1960 by The Nephew and in 1961 by Children Is All, a collection of stories and plays. His best-known play, "Cracks," was produced off-Broadway in 1963. The satiric novel Cabot Wright Begins appeared in 1964, and the controversial Eustace Chisholm and the Works in 1967.

In the next two decades, Purdy published eleven more novels including I Am Elijah Thrush (1972); The House of the Solitary Maggot (1974); In a Shallow Grave (1976); Narrow Rooms (1978); Mourners Below (1981); and On Glory's Course (1984) which was nominated for the P.E.N.-Faulkner Award in 1985. Purdy has also authored several collections of short stories, poems, and plays. Several of the plays have been produced off-Broadway and in regional theaters, and Purdy poems have been set to music by Richard Hundley and Robert Helps. In 1982, Purdy visited Israel, Finland, and Germany as a lecturer for the United States Information Agency. His most recent publication is the collection Candles of Your Eyes (1986).

From the guide to the James Purdy papers, 1944-1973, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

James Otis Purdy (July 17, 1914 – March 13, 2009) was an American author of novels, short stories, plays and poetry. Purdy was born near Fremont, Ohio to William and Vera Covick Purdy. He studied English and Spanish at the University of Chicago, the University of Puebla in Mexico and the University of Madrid in Spain. Purdy went on to teach English at Lawrence University in Wisconsin until 1953, when he began writing full-time.

Purdy’s works often take the perspective of an outsider and are typified by morbid and surreal characters and scenarios. His characteristic use of rural American vernacular and locales is also noteworthy. Purdy’s early work was heavily censored or rejected by American publishers, forcing him to publish privately or abroad. While critically maligned as lewd and sophomoric early in his career, Purdy’s work has been celebrated since the 1990s.

From the guide to the Letters to Geoffrey Elborn, 1976-1981, (University of Kansas Kenneth Spencer Research Library Department of Special Collections)


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