Born in Ohio on July 17, 1914, James Purdy consistently avoided personal publicity, arguing that his work was his biography. As a result of this decision, the details of his personal life are often sketchy. One of three sons born to William and Vera (Covick) Purdy, who divorced when he was only a small child, Purdy spent his teenaged years in Chicago. He attended both the University of Chicago and the University of Puebla in Mexico.
Purdy spent a number of years abroad, particularly as an interpreter in Latin America, Spain, and France. In addition to his linguistic work, he tried teaching, first as a faculty member at Lawrence University in Wisconsin from 1949 to 1953, then as a lecturer for the United States Information Agency in Europe in 1982, and finally as an instructor of fiction writing at New York University in the 1980’s.
Still, most of Purdy’s life was devoted to his writing. At the beginning of his career, he could not attract the attention of editors and publishers, and he had his first two books privately published. Purdy sent copies of these two books to writers that he admired, and one in particular, the English poet Dame Edith Sitwell, helped him acquire a European publisher, a development that led eventually to an American publishing contract.
From that moment, his output was prolific. In fact, Purdy published more than fifty volumes of fiction, poetry, and drama. Although his works did not garner him a popular audience, he continued to hone his craft. Purdy lived and worked in Brooklyn Heights, New York until his death at age 94 on March 13, 2009.
James Amos Purdy was born in Fremont, Ohio, on July 17, 1914, the son of William and Vera Purdy, and he told many interviewers that the exact location of his birthplace is now unknown, since the community no longer exists. Purdy’s parents were divorced when he was quite young. He lived, as he once said, with his father for a time in various locations and at other times with his mother and an aunt who had a farm, an experience which he has recalled favorably.
Purdy explained that his ethnic background was that of a very long line of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, but that most of his family were deceased, as were many of his oldest friends. Purdy’s formal education began with his attendance at the University of Chicago, where he was to drop out during World War II to serve with the U.S. Air Corps. He indicated that he was not the best of soldiers but that his military service gave him the necessary background for his later novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967).
Purdy also attended for a time the University of Puebla, Mexico, and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago. He taught from 1949 to 1953 at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, and later worked as an interpreter in Latin America, France, and Spain. In 1953, however, he gave up other work to pursue a full-time career as a writer.
Although he was a prolific writer throughout his career, Purdy’s fiction, while enjoying considerable critical success, was not commercially successful, a fact that Purdy often attributed to a conspiratorial elite in New York that foists more commercial, but less substantive, literature on the American public.
Purdy’s early work was rejected by most major American publishing houses, and his first fiction was published privately by friends in the United States and later through the help of writers such as Carl Van Vechten and, in Great Britain, Edith Sitwell. Both Purdy’s volumes Sixty-three: Dream Palace and Don’t Call Me by My Right Name, and Other Stories were printed privately in 1956, and in 1957, the novella Sixty-three: Dream Palace appeared with additional stories under the title Color of Darkness, published by Gollancz in London. These early works gained for Purdy a small, devoted following, and his allegorical novel Malcolm followed in 1959. In that work, Malcolm, a beautiful young man, is led by older persons through a wide range of experiences, until he...
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