To the Lowest Hell with America: On James Purdy

 

In the 1960s, James Purdy’s writing was celebrated by such writers as Gore Vidal, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Bowles. His first novel, Malcolm, was adapted as a Broadway play by Edward Albee. In 1964, Susan Sontag said that “anything Purdy writes is a literary event of importance”. On the cover of Tony Tanner’s 1971 study of contemporary writers, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970, Purdy’s name is prominently written alongside Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth; Tanner argues that Purdy’s 1965 novel Cabot Wright Begins is “one of the most important novels since the war.”

Through the rest of the 20th century, Purdy published a new book every year or two, but those books garnered fewer and fewer reviews, sold fewer and fewer copies, and by the end of the 1980s much of his work was out of print and his new writings were published by small presses. Even as queer writers—especially white gay male writers like Purdy—were finding success with mainstream publishers and academics were making careers by unearthing underappreciated texts, Purdy mostly escaped notice, despite his work having always been filled with queer characters and themes.

The question of why James Purdy has been neglected even by the groups that ought to have celebrated him for decades is one that Purdy connoisseurs frequently ask, and it is a question that haunts every page of Michael Snyder’s James Purdy: Life of a Contrarian Writer. Snyder’s research is thorough, he answers many previously elusive questions about Purdy’s life and work, and he provides as much evidence as we are ever likely to have to help readers understand why Purdy is not better known.

Snyder addresses the question of Purdy’s neglect right from the beginning. On the one hand, he notes, Purdy’s novels, stories, plays, and poems present numerous challenges to readers. Purdy’s deepest literary influences are Greek, Roman, Elizabethan, and Jacobean. There is a prophetic, biblical, even Calvinist vision to his worldview, a vision flooded with fate and torment, a Calvinism more in tune with Jonathan Edwards than Marilyn Robinson. His style can be arch, and many of his books feel like mysterious allegories unmoored from their references. His narrative structures tend to be intuitive, loose, even apparently arbitrary. His material leans toward the gothic, grotesque, horrific. Characters float through the pages as ethereal figures, their motivations sometimes opaque, their behavior often overwrought.

It is no surprise that Tennessee Williams was a longtime devotee, because Purdy’s works can feel like cousins to Williams’s later plays and stories. (When Williams died, he had the manuscript of a Purdy short story beside his bed.) Purdy wrote some of the oddest—truly, in every sense, queerest—novels and story collections ever released by major publishers. In the introduction to The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, John Waters writes: “He uses words you seldom hear in real life; a real vocabulary lesson in unpleasantness. … Are his pernicious words like one of his characters, written down so shockingly ‘even flames’ will not be able to burn them?”

Though homophobia likely affected Purdy’s early reception, his approach to queer topics is too idiosyncratic to win the approval of contemporary readers seeking role models and redemption. In the later years of his career, once open homophobia was avoided in the mainstream press, homophile reviewers proved just as capable of befuddled scorn as any others. Purdy’s characters don’t live in gayborhoods, they don’t go clubbing, they don’t vacation to Fire Island or P-Town, they don’t put bumperstickers on their cars or wear t-shirts that make a statement. For most of Purdy’s characters, love is an affliction and sex is, at best, unfulfilling. Desire does not lead to identity, it leads to torture and catastrophe. Purdy’s characters come to tragic ends not because they are gay but because they are human.

In a 1990 profile in OutWeek, Purdy dismissed “the gay literary establishment” as lovers of “moonglow, rainbows, and rectal anesthetics.” He did not see educated, affluent gay men as his audience. “I have a large audience in America, but many of them are poor. The middle class reads John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, but my readers are often the unemployed, drifters and iIIegals, not necessarily aliens. They're actors and composers, too. Many of them are gay, but not all. Actually, I think they're all strays. They're underground, like I am.” In an interview conducted in 1997 for Richard Canning’s book Gay Fiction Speaks (2000), Purdy said, “It’s still very tragic to be gay.”

One of Purdy’s favorite books was Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life, an existentialist, Kierkegaardian, and individualist declaration that life is an agonistic struggle between unconquerable forces (reason and faith, thought and feeling, hope and doubt), with death hovering over it all. Add his affinity for Unamuno to Purdy’s Greek and Jacobean sense of drama and the result is books like Eustace Chisholm and the Works, In a Shallow Grave, and Narrow Rooms that reach toward a mysterious, often brutal, sublime.

Purdy’s frustration with the American publishing industry led to his third novel, Cabot Wright Begins, a strange and shocking satire about attempts to write the biography of a recently released felon who reportedly raped 300 women. As he worked on the book, Purdy wrote to John Cowper Powys that “since I have such a small audience, I am not taking any pains to spare that audience’s sensibilities this time at all, if I ever did before. I am writing it exactly as I please and to the lowest hell with America.” Purdy uses his outrageous premise to cast scorn on celebrity culture, on American obsessions with crime and violence, and on publishers—indeed, the real villain of the novel is less the rapist (whose uncontrolled impulses are the result of mistreatment by a doctor) than a particularly craven publisher who wants to exploit him. As the critic Daniel Green has pointed out, satire tends to age quickly, but Cabot Wright’s “dissection of an insipid media culture, rampant hucksterism, and predatory capitalism feels quite as relevant now as it was in 1965.” Purdy’s satire remains discomforting, even as it feels beamed down from an alien consciousness. Although it may appear so on the surface, it is not a reactionary or right-wing book; it is nonetheless hard to imagine a literary novel more distant from contemporary liberal sensibilities than Cabot Wright Begins.

 

 

Homophobia and narrow aesthetic ideas obviously affected the reception of Purdy’s work, but the trajectory of his career cannot be explained without attention to the writer himself. Having plunged into Purdy’s long life (he died at age 94 in 2009), Michael Snyder knows it is not only the writing that made it hard for Purdy ever to achieve the fame and reputation held by many of the people who praised him. “Over several decades,” Snyder writes, “upset with publishers, editors, reviewers, and sometimes friends and partisans, he made reckless remarks and took actions that ill-served him. Looking back on Purdy’s career, composer Gerald Busby underscored a ‘big, important streak of self-destructiveness.’” Purdy’s self-destructiveness was not that of a substance abuser or philanderer, but that of a man with a colossal martyr complex—a man who, in Snyder’s chronicle at least, seems to have cherished grievous anger over all other emotions.

To be sure, Purdy was frequently wronged. Other writers were jealous of his reputation in the first decade of his career, reviewers were openly and viciously homophobic, editors did not understand what mattered to him, publishers eventually stopped putting much effort into promoting his books. And yet reading Snyder’s biography, we see Purdy alienating allies at every turn.

Most catastrophically for his career, Purdy left Farrar, Straus, Giroux for Doubleday after deciding the publisher had not done enough to counter a vile and bigotted review by the Catholic FSG author Wilfred Sheed of Eustace Chisholm and the Works, a book which, Sheed sneered, “belongs to that line of homosexual fiction which announces itself not by subject-matter but by tone.” Snyder writes:

Sheed’s review and its fallout haunted Purdy. He wanted Roger Straus to step in to defend Eustace by taking out an ad, as FSG had done after Orville Prescott’s attack [also in the Times] on Cabot Wright Begins. Purdy believed Straus did nothing because Sheed was an acclaimed FSG author; moreover, he suspected that Straus, who may not have actually read the compete proofs, was privately dismayed that he had published such a shocking, violent, and flagrantly homosexual book, and wanted to bury it. Although Straus was libertine in his personal life, he wanted his press to be respectable and was therefore prudish about sexual content, taking exception to books he considered “dirty,” said a later FSG president, Jonathan Galassi. In conversation before the novel’s publication, Straus told professor and critic Warren French that Eustace Chisholm “poses difficulties because it is about homosexuality,” and French, after reading the novel, wrote him to say this was a “drastic oversimplification.” Straus may have chosen not to stand by the book.

Snyder’s “may have” there is rather reckless speculation of a sort that sometimes slips between his scholarly lines. However, it is undeniable that this incident caused Purdy great pain and anger. Purdy wrote to Straus that (unnamed) people he knew in the world of publishing were “convinced that the Wilfrid Sheed defamation of my character originated with persons in [FSG] who wished that another author who was to have a book shortly appear might profit from my book being hatcheted,” and he soon decided Eustace Chisholm had been a commercial failure (despite good sales in hardcover for a literary novel and a paperback advance larger than any he had received before) and it was Roger Straus’s fault.

The Sheed review obviously hurt him deeply, and Purdy would refer to it for the rest of his life. His impulse to find a publisher who would go to battle for him was understandable, but though they were indeed cautious about condemning one of their authors on behalf of another, Straus and FSG had otherwise done heroic work on Purdy’s behalf—which he utterly refused to acknowledge. Not only had they worked hard to get him reviews, and indeed taken out an ad to protest the Times review of Cabot Wright, but leaving FSG meant leaving the most sympathetic, engaged, tolerant, and powerful editor Purdy ever worked with, Robert Gottlieb. Doubleday paid Purdy better than FSG did, but nobody with authority at the company showed any care for Purdy’s writing in the least.

Throughout his career, to anyone who might listen, Purdy portrayed himself as a genius attacked at every turn. He sent vicious letters to editors, publishers, reviewers, and just about everyone in his address book, accusing them of neglect, theft, fraud, and stupidity. He attracted acolytes who sought to worship at his feet, generally young men who appreciated his work and offered sympathetic ears to his tales of malevolent publishers and illiterate readers—and who, eventually, often themselves ended up classed among the illiterates scheming against him. He was impossible to satisfy. “Regardless of how much praise he received,” Snyder writes, “it never sufficed.”

The grudges Purdy nursed were not only with individuals who he felt had wronged him. Though he was drawn to outsiders of many types, and was especially interested in African American and Native American cultures, a nasty streak of anti-Semitism poisoned some of his personal relationships. It was a strange sort of anti-Semitism, one almost entirely focused on the publishing industry, which Purdy saw as being run by Jews who published and promoted their own people at the expense of everyone else. Purdy’s high regard for his own neglected genius melded with his suspicion that Jews were keeping people such as himself from the success they deserved. Though he ranted at obsessive lengths about the Jewish conspiracy keeping him down, he seems to have been perplexed that Jewish friends and supporters such as Gordon Lish were offended.

Now that James Purdy has been dead for more than a decade, his difficult personality is far less important than his writings. (Whiffs of his anti-Semitism drift in only rarely; for the most part he kept that out of his public writing.) It is worth pausing to reflect on the possibility that the insatiable yearning for respect and attention that ate away at Purdy and so blighted his life was likely a driving force in his long, prolific career. What else, other than a grandiose self-confidence—poisonous as it proved to be—would have carried him through a lifetime of writing only what he wanted to write in the way he wanted to write it? Though he did, eventually, win real success, his first books were privately published by patrons, and his first collection, Color of Darkness (released in 1957 by New Directions), consisted primarily of stories he had written long before. He first began trying to publish fiction in the mid-1930s. “From 1935 through 1954,” Snyder writes, “Purdy placed only two stories.” Those of us who cherish his work may find it difficult to read about Purdy’s grudges, paranoia, and prejudices, but it is also difficult to imagine how he could have continued to write if he were less fueled by confidence in his gifts and by anger at the world that did not appreciate those gifts.

We do not have to “like” James Purdy as a person to recognize that some of his anger was justified. His neglect by queer critics is particularly galling. A case could be made that no American writer of his era was more committed to a queer vision than Purdy, and yet he remains unheralded. While critics such as Reed Woodhouse and Gregory Woods included and celebrated Purdy in their late-’90s studies of gay fiction, his work is rarely cited, rarely listed even in bibliographies that claim to be comprehensive. His name does not appear in the 700 pages of The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature published in 2014. Despite the fact that Purdy’s Firbankian 1989 novel Garments the Living Wear portrays activism and even something like a cure for AIDS, it goes unmentioned in studies of AIDS-related writing that celebrate less accomplished work. The continued ignoring of Purdy is not the fault of Purdy’s personality, of the bridges he burned or the editors he insulted. It shows a real narrowness in the recuperation of unsung queer texts—but also a real opportunity. There is still much to (re)discover in Purdy's oeuvre.


Beyond helping us understand the vicissitudes of Purdy’s reputation, Michael Snyder’s greatest achievement may be in how fully he has uncovered the facts of Purdy’s life before his first books were published; these years were important to what Purdy wrote, but he rarely referred to them publicly and often put some effort into obscuring them, especially his years teaching Spanish at Lawrence College in Wisconsin. Purdy habitually claimed to be younger than he was, and eventually he settled on an age that shaved off the same number of years as he had spent in Wisconsin, even though it was at Lawrence that Purdy met his most important companion, the Finnish-American professor of chemistry Jorma Jules Sjoblom. It was with Sjoblom that Purdy eventually moved to the small Brooklyn apartment that would be his residence until he had to move to a nursing home at the end of his life. Sjoblom, though, moved out in 1962, desiring more of a social life and feeling that he had become, he told Snyder, a “distraction” to Purdy, whose commitment was to his writing. They remained friends, and Snyder reports that in a phone call shortly before Purdy’s death they reiterated their love for each other, even as Purdy resented that Sjoblom had eventually married a woman.

Snyder’s biography also provides information to clear up some mysteries in the chronology of Purdy’s life and to illuminate the degree to which so much that he wrote was based on people he knew, places he lived, and experiences he had—so much so that, Snyder shows, people frequently recognized themselves in his writings. (His second novel, The Nephew, caused something of a scandal in Bowling Green, Ohio, where Purdy had gone to college and where his father lived.) Snyder also helps us understand how and why Chicago kept such a powerful hold on Purdy’s imagination, even though he lived there for only a relatively short time.

After finishing a bachelor’s degree in French (with a minor in history) at Bowling Green, Purdy applied to the University of Chicago’s graduate school to study literature. He left Ohio and moved to Chicago when he was 21 years old in 1935, writing a master’s thesis on Ronald Firbank, whose books would show some influence on Purdy’s own style, and meeting a gaggle of Chicago artists, writers, musicians, and everyday bohemians. The most important of this group, and herself a locus for people of similar sensibilities, was the artist Gertrude Abercrombie, who would provide a model for many of the women in Purdy’s books, and whom he would openly celebrate in his last published novel, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1996).

Snyder’s research into the Chicago years, which builds on the work of scholar Paul W. Miller, brings clarity to elements of some of Purdy’s most important early writings, the novella 63: Dream Palace and the novels Malcolm and Eustace Chisholm and the Works. Additionally, Snyder's research into Purdy’s family history, childhood, and college years opens new ways to understand his many writings set in the midwest, for even as Purdy was a New York writer by residence, his imagination and passion lived in the midwest.

It would be dishonest of me not to offer some caveats about Snyder’s book, much as I appreciate it. The biography is published by Oxford University Press, which is appropriate, as it is very much the work of an academic—not because of any plethora of jargon, but because it is a collection of evidence more than it is a narrative. Indeed, as a narrative it is a failure: paragraphs often feel randomly arranged, details of people and events can be frustratingly sketchy, too many characters are little more than names, and the book struggles to maintain a clear chronology. Snyder is not a storyteller. Readers seeking a gripping work of life-writing similar to revelatory, reputation-changing biographies such as Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson or Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr. will be painfully disappointed. James Purdy is more a book along the lines of J.K. Kannemeyer’s informative, dutiful, but dry biography of J.M. Coetzee.

Though Snyder shows no sense for narrative (or even, at times, cohesion), he has still performed an extraordinary service for Purdy readers through his devoted, persistent, and thoughtful research.

Certainly, it would be glorious for Purdy to be the subject of a narratively compelling, subtly written, and beautifully organized biography, one that could be read and appreciated not only by afficionados but by the countless readers for whom James Purdy’s remains a name unknown. In the absence of such a miracle, there is no reason not to be grateful to have this book, the product of many years of effort and research. We had little reason to expect a biography of Purdy at all. With its publication by an esteemed academic press, with W.W. Norton’s imprint Liveright keeping the complete stories and some of the best of the novels in print, and with small publishers such as Valancourt Books and Fordham University Press adding to what is available, there may yet be hope to right at least one of the wrongs that so frustrated Purdy when he was alive, and to provide for him in death a little bit more of the attention and reputation he ought to have enjoyed in life.

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