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Purdy, James (1914-2009)  

James Purdy's novels often describe obsessive love between men for whom homosexuality is unthinkable and whose fate is inevitably bleak.

Purdy was born on July 17, 1914 in Hicksville, Ohio. His family moved to Chicago when he was still in his teens. He received a bachelor of science degree in education from Bowling Green State University in 1935, followed by a master of arts degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1937. He enlisted in the Army at the beginning of World War II.

After the war he studied at the University of Puebla in Mexico. From 1949 to 1953, he taught Spanish at Lawrence College in Wisconsin and then lived abroad for some years. He settled in Brooklyn, New York.

Purdy began to publish stories in magazines in the 1940s. In the 1950s, he tried without success to find an American publisher. His first book was published privately in his own country and then by a major publisher in England, where he had many supporters in the literary world, most notably Dame Edith Sitwell and Angus Wilson.

Purdy was isolated from the literary establishment, largely because his works are unusual thematically and stylistically and because he was a savage social critic. He concentrated on topics that book reviewers preferred to ignore.

His first novel, 63:Dream Palace (1956), deals with obsessive love, homosexuality, and urban alienation, and ends with fratricide. These are typical themes in Purdy's works, which often describe obsessive love between men.

Purdy wrote about men who are unable to express their love for other men because homosexuality is unthinkable to them. The result of this failure can be horrifying violence, as in Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967) and Narrow Rooms (1978).

The love need not be sexual, as In a Shallow Grave (1975) shows. Purdy's protagonists are usually people who have not found love in their families and who can find no home in the cities in which they live. The happiness of love is temporary and is usually the means by which the protagonist is led to his fate. In some of Purdy's later work, AIDS was one of the many kinds of fate awaiting those who search for love.

In addition to novels of urban alienation, Purdy also wrote novels such as The Nephew (1960), which deals with small-town life in the Midwest. His later books of this kind, like Jeremy's Version (1970) or In the Hollow of his Hand (1986), are increasingly Gothic, in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson and Carson McCullers. His rural characters, like his urban ones and like the protagonists of Greek drama, are pursued by a malevolent destiny.

Purdy's gloom and pessimism are tempered to some extent by his humor, especially in black comedies like Cabot Wright Begins (1964). Out With the Stars (1992), presents his usual themes in a high camp manner reminiscent of Ronald Firbank.

Purdy's style was one of his most distinctive qualities as a writer. Like Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis, Purdy attempted to reproduce everyday American speech both in his dialogue and in his narration. The flatness and simplicity of this style form an effective background for his stories of obsession. At times, as in In a Shallow Grave and many of his short stories, this simplicity takes on a biblical grandeur that is the perfect vehicle to present his characters, who are simultaneously exalted and tormented by larger-than-life emotions.

Although Purdy published excellent novels, short stories, poems, and plays for almost forty years, he never achieved the popular fame or the critical attention he deserved. He was, however, highly regarded by other writers and had a great influence on such younger gay writers as Dennis Cooper and Paul Russell.

In 2005, Eustace Chisholm and the Works was chosen by novelist Jonathan Franzen as the recipient of the Clifton Fadiman Award. Sponsored by the Mercantile Library of New York and named for the distinguished editor and reviewer, the award, which includes a $5000 cash prize, recognizes a work of fiction by a living American author who deserves recognition and a wider readership.

Purdy died on March 13, 2009 in Englewood, New Jersey.

Stephen Guy-Bray


zoom in
Top: A 1957 portrait of James Purdy by Carl Van Vechten.
Center: A more recent portrait of James Purdy by Stathis Orphanos.
Above: James Purdy (second from left) accepts the Clifton Fadiman award from Noreen Thomassi, Executive Director of the Mercantile Library, in 2005.

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Adams, Stephen. The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction. London: Vision Press, 1980.

Baldanza, Frank. "Northern Gothic." Southern Review 10 (1974): 566-582.

Brantlinger, Patrick. "Missing Corpses: The Deconstructive Mysteries of James Purdy and Franz Kafka." Novel 20 (1986): 27-40.

Pease, Donald. "False Starts and Wounded Allegories in the Abandoned House of Fiction of James Purdy." Twentieth Century Literature 28 (1982): 335-349.

Schwarzschild, Bettina. The Not Right House: Essays on James Purdy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969.

Tanner, Tony. City of Words. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.


    Citation Information
    Author: Guy-Bray, Stephen  
    Entry Title: Purdy, James  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 14, 2009  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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