Purdy’s harshest words were consistently aimed at the literary apparatus that he felt was inherently unable to appreciate his formally deliberate but thematically audacious fiction.

By Daniel Green 

James Purdy was indeed a shamefully neglected writer for the last twenty-five years of his life. Not only was he, in the early stages of his career, the author of several works of fiction that stand among the greatest achievements in postwar American fiction (among them the novels Malcolm, The Nephew, and Eustace Chisholm and the Works, as well as the shorter fictions collected as Color of Darkness), but he continued to produce singular works of fiction even during the period when he was mostly forgotten. Purdy was not silent about this – he complained bitterly about his standing to whoever would listen, and he spoke contemptuously about the publishers, critics, and journalists he felt had failed to appreciate his work and, in some cases, had actively sabotaged his career.

Michael Snyder’s biography, James Purdy: Life of a Contrarian Writer, makes it clear, however, that Purdy was capable of great resentment even when his early work was being critically acclaimed. James Laughlin, legendary publisher of New Directions, who did much to bring Purdy into print in the United States during the difficult beginning of his career, was the target of this Purdy fusillade over the rights to the early books (quoted by Snyder):

“Only a very wealthy man out of touch with reality and with a total lack of comprehension of a writer could behave as you do. You pretend to care about my welfare. You care nothing about it. You have never visited me or showed any sort of the concern for my existence as has Robert Giroux. It may be too late to avoid a tragedy, but I do not see how. You well understand that by tragedy I do not mean of course anything pertaining to you. You are too cold, too selfish, too rich to know tragedy.”

Lest we think Giroux, unquestionably the best editor Purdy ever worked with, had escaped Purdy’s wrath, the novelist later wrote indignantly to both Giroux and Roger Strauss accusing Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux of failing to defend him against what he considered a defamatory review, doing “nothing to restore my name and the dignity and the decency of my personal life, and my years of hard work and accomplishment. . .What are publishers for, if not to defend an author when so criminally attacked. The answer is you were never my publisher of course. You printed the books and sat on your hands.”

Purdy’s harshest words (both public and in private correspondence) were consistently aimed at the literary apparatus that he felt was inherently unable to appreciate his formally deliberate but thematically audacious fiction. This apparatus rejected—or at least Purdy thought so—the gay subjects and subtexts as well as the often-bleak worldview that looms over much (although not all) of the work. To be fair to Purdy, however, his antipathy to American literary culture and its keepers to a substantial extent reflected his even more deep-seated antipathy to the presumptions of American culture more generally, which from Purdy’s perspective had produced a cruel and craven society, obsessed with money and stature and wholly insensitive to real human needs. Snyder’s biography also documents Purdy’s grateful acknowledgements of praise and recognition from readers, critics, and colleagues, and he seems to have cultivated a number of devoted friends and patrons. If Purdy could be “intractable” and “his own worst enemy,” as at least one such friend put it, most of his ire was directed at those he perceived to be obstacles to the acceptance of adventurous literary writing of the kind Purdy believed his own work exemplified.

To anyone familiar with Purdy’s work, and at least aware of the history of its reception, his fulminations against both American publishing and American culture seem only too justified. When Purdy remarked of the response to his 1967 novel, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, that it “outraged the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy, and stagnant New York literary establishment,” he was absolutely correct. This establishment was not at all prepared to accept the frank portrayal of the characters’ gay-centered milieu, nor to understand that these characters were not illustrating “homosexual problems” but were expressing common human emotions and were immersed in universal conflicts. As Purdy himself said of his protagonist’s dilemma: “We can’t face what is most ourselves, what is deepest in ourselves. Like Macduff, in Macbeth, who was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, we want to rip out the really delicate beautiful things in us so that we will be acceptable to society.” Purdy’s case against hidebound critics and a meretricious literary culture was typically pleaded in a hyperbolic and inescapably self-serving way, which surely does create an obstacle to fully recognizing the justice of the case, but there is indeed much justice in it. No doubt some of Purdy’s animus was rooted simply in an author’s displeasure with criticism (not that uncommon among writers), and it can be disillusioning to read the sordid details of his outbursts of rage revealed in the correspondence. Still there is in Purdy’s accusations more than enough justified contempt for the commercialism, resistance to innovation, and rampant homophobia in the “book world” of his time to make Purdy’s displeasure with living in it intelligible, if not always admirable in its expression.

Even less admirable are the comments Purdy sometimes made about Jewish literary figures and their alleged lack of sympathy for his work. To put it most charitably, Purdy believed that postwar American literary culture was heavily influenced by the group of writers and critics now identified as the “New York Intellectuals,” who were predominantly, although not exclusively, Jewish. In Purdy’s view, these critics were insular in their outlook, prevailingly urban and academic. They were not prepared to account for his rural settings and midwestern vernacular language, so that Purdy’s work could never be appropriately valued. A more skeptical assessment of Purdy’s words, however, could certainly judge them to be antisemitic—to identify the literary establishment as specifically “Jewish” (especially if you in turn explicitly identify yourself as Christian, as Purdy did) comes close enough to a slur it is hard to believe Purdy wasn’t aware of it (and to his credit, Snyder doesn’t hesitate in calling attention to some of his subject’s most questionable remarks). Reading this biography doesn’t just confirm that James Purdy was a “contrarian,” but that his character flaws were numerous enough, and his “contrary” opinions at times obnoxious enough, that we could perhaps justifiably conclude that his questionable behavior undercuts any obligation to redress his critical neglect by now confronting his work.

This would be an unsound conclusion. While Purdy accurately described the “vernacular” quality of his style, to pose his work against a putatively more sophisticated kind of fiction favored by “coastal elites” really does not do justice to the actual range of subjects and setting in his fiction. Purdy’s earliest published works and several of his later novels were set in urban or suburban locations, and his cast of characters is quite multifarious and diverse – young and old, male and female (also some transgender), gay and straight, white, black, and Native American (the author long claimed to have Native American heritage himself). Despite his personal fulminations, there is nothing in Purdy’s work that suggests intolerance or exclusion. Just the opposite.

However, it is certainly true that Purdy derives his prose style from his characters’ own idiomatic language (in both first- and third-person narratives), and that the speech practice most influencing his prose is that blending of “plain talk” and a more decorous and elevated formal language characteristic of the American Midwest, or even more precisely, small-town eastern Ohio, where Purdy was born and raised. This is the setting for many of Purdy’s novels and stories (in some cases, more nonspecific locations and largely rural areas still evocative of social and cultural isolation), but even those works set in Chicago or New York feature characters who have migrated from such places and find their provincial innocence threatened by the predations of city life. The prevailing center of awareness remains the provincial perspective, captured in the style Purdy developed from midwestern colloquial speech. Purdy’s style is neither ostentatious nor delicately wrought, but serves as the verbal embodiment of this perspective, independently of variations in character and setting.

But this stylistic debt does not lead Purdy to a sentimental or nostalgic vision of the Midwest, or, indeed, of human existence in general. If the midwestern innocent is one of the prototype characters in Purdy’s work, this innocence entails not just a naivety about the ways of the world but an innocence about their own nature, a lack of self-knowledge, which clearly, they have not been encouraged to develop. The novels set in the Midwest, in particular the “Swimmers in Moon-Swept Valleys” series beginning with Jeremy’s Version (1970), might be read as explorations of the sources of this dysfunction. These novels also feature an assortment of character types, from young men seeking relief from their restrictive circumstances to older women who have adapted to them in often destructive ways, to something like a faded gentry languishing in their decaying mansions, but together they make a world in which small-town conventions inhibit full human flourishing, which at times results in outbursts of grotesque and violent behavior.

Such behavior is common enough across all of Purdy’s fiction, and part of the explanation for his long slide into critical neglect might have been the frequency with which these disturbing scenes of human depravity appear in his work. Not all of Purdy’s midwestern novels are examinations of frustrated desires and emotional confusion, however. Perhaps Purdy’s greatest work, the Midwest-centered The Nephew (1960) works operates instead through what is not revealed (or revealed only obliquely) rather than through directly dramatized actions. Portentous events seem to hover just beyond the apprehension of the novel’s protagonist, Alma, who senses that the world is a stranger place than she knows but lacks the sort of awareness that would allow her even to imagine the actual circumstances of her now dead nephew’s life—a life she is attempting to memorialize. Nevertheless, by the close of the novel, she has learned enough to accept the nephew as he really was and to affirm her enhanced perception of human variety. It is a quiet book that begins in midwestern innocence but ends not in disillusioned destruction but in a kind of muted transcendence, muted because Alma is elderly and nearing the end of her life.

Snyder calls The Nephew “a special work that became a favorite of many Purdy aficionados” but doesn’t provide much if any analysis that would elucidate just what it is about the novel that would account for its high status among said “aficionados.” But Snyder doesn’t really offer critical commentary on Purdy’s work at all. This is a biography that sticks to chronicling the knowable facts about the writer’s life, which, considering the uncertainties that have continued to linger over James Purdy’s life—many of them perpetuated by the author himself—is certainly a beneficial service, but unfortunately it is not likely to have the effect of reviving Purdy’s work as an important body of postwar fiction. The book’s unsparing portrayal of his truculent rages, however well-founded they might have been, may only give readers and critics a fresh reason to avoid Purdy’s work.

A literary biography, however, comes with no obligation to enhance its subject’s reputation or bring new readers. Snyder’s account of Purdy’s career does do him the favor of emphasizing the writer’s work as poet and dramatist, facets of his writing that have been overshadowed by his more notorious career in fiction. Still, securing Purdy’s status among the great writers of American literature likely waits for a critic or biographer concerned to reconcile Purdy’s work with the thornier realities of his personality more than Snyder seems to want or do. Probably we now have the authoritative narrative of James Purdy’s life a writer of his achievement deserves, but we still need critics who move from mere biographical details this book provides to the integration of both Purdy’s long and often turbulent life with the uncompromising literary art that is the most important legacy of that life.

Daniel Green is a literary critic is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016). His essays and reviews have appeared in scholarly and general-interest publications. He has written previously on the work of James Purdy, including “The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels of James Purdy” in the Quarterly Conversation.