Why are we dead anyhow?


(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

A brief look at James Purdy’s career.

It is customary to speak of an artist having his fingers on the pulse of a nation’s culture. Purdy, on the contrary, repeatedly put his hands in the open wounds of American identity and ideals. His bracing advice to young writers was to “banish shame.”

When the shamefully ignored American writer of genius James Purdy died last week, there was some confusion about his age. AP initially reported that his age could not immediately be determined. Later a spokesman for publisher Ivan R. Dee, which is bringing out a selection of Purdy’s plays, confirmed that Purdy was born in July of 1914 and was 94, although – at the time I am writing this – the website of the University of Delaware manuscript collections, which owns some of Purdy’s materials, still lists his birth-year as 1923, the year previously listed on Wikipedia and the James Purdy Society website. The confusion is emblematic of a writer long misunderstood, but it also speaks of Purdy’s great difficulty in getting published in the first place – for I have always assumed that the later “official” birthdate (Purdy aficionados have known of the discrepancy for some time) was the product of a writer, agent or publisher unwilling to admit that the remarkable tour de force novella 63: Dream Palace, Purdy’s first commercially published work, had in fact been bouncing around the publishing world for many years, until its anguished, aging author – acting on what he later called “a kind of psychic impulse” – mailed it to the winter-home Italian palace of the eccentric aristocratic English poet, Edith Sitwell, who promptly wrote back to ask whether the unknown author of this undoubted masterpiece had an English publisher yet or would like to be introduced to one.

dream-palaceAs a writer, Purdy suffered the fate of the prophet who is “not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house” (Matthew 13:57 KJV), for Purdy’s work is nothing if not prophetic, and it speaks with an earnestness and honesty that has no truck whatsoever with what passes as sophistication in contemporary American literature. 63: Dream Palace begins with a question – “Why are we dead anyhow?” – that is like a throwing down of the gauntlet to the entire age. Years later in an interview, Purdy affirmed his determinedly oppositional stance, “I think I’ll always be – I hate to say this, I hate to categorize myself – but I guess I’ll always be a revolutionary. Whatever is, is wrong.” It was not an attitude designed to win friends and influence among the powers that be. Purdy reserved particular scorn for the great gatekeepers of the New York publishing establishment, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He famously said of the short stories in the latter that they are chosen to accompany and enhance the advertisements, which is the magazine’s real content. When Purdy’s most infamous novel, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, came out in 1967 – a novel that concludes with a shocking and painful scene of sadistic disembowelment of one self-hating homosexual at the hands of another ­– it was critically derided at The New York Times and elsewhere as a prurient homosexual fantasy. It is customary to speak of an artist having his fingers on the pulse of a nation’s culture. Purdy, on the contrary, repeatedly put his hands in the open wounds of American identity and ideals. His bracing advice to young writers was to “banish shame.”

The authenticity and power of Purdy’s prophetic voice was brought home to me a few years ago when I was teaching American literature in Saigon on a Fulbright grant to a classroom of Vietnamese professors of English who had asked me to introduce them to some post-Hemingway American shorter fiction that they could use in their classes. I gave them a selection of classics from standards like Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Eudora Welty, and Raymond Carver, together with Purdy’s 63: Dream Palace. When we discussed the works, they expressed impatience with Welty, boredom with Updike and Carver, mild interest in O’Connor, and an absolute fascination with Purdy. He was all they really wanted to discuss. 63: Dream Palace is a work of allegorical realism, like Melville’s Billy Budd. It is a harrowing but entirely un-sensational story about two brothers from the country who come to the city and self-destruct. Allegorically, it is about the failure of the American dream, which my Vietnamese students recognized implicitly. To them it was clear that Purdy was the real thing. Eventually, inevitably, it will be clear to American readers too.

Don Adams is an associate Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University. He has written critical pieces on James Purdy, Robert Firbank and James Merrill, among others, and edited an anthology of American literature and culture for Vietnamese students of English, and has twice served as a Fulbright scholar. More from this author →