James Purdy Purdy, James (Amos) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James (Amos) Purdy 1923–

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and dramatist.

Purdy is a gifted author whose subject is human estrangement and whose style blends the real and the surreal. Basic to Purdy's bleak vision of contemporary life is his belief that American culture is destructive to the individual and to family relationships. Postwar urban society as represented by New York City is Purdy's example of all that is wrong with a culture that places material gain above spiritual enrichment. Purdy's negative outlook affects his characterizations. His protagonists are desperate, alienated, and unhappy; his antagonists are often cruel, greedy, and manipulative.

Purdy's early works, including 63: Dream Palace (1957) and Malcolm (1959), focus on the exploitation of innocents by adults who attempt to buy love rather than earn it. The principal character in these stories is the adolescent male searching for love in his life but who, knowing nothing of its nature, can neither give nor receive it. He is often orphaned or abandoned, and has known no normal relationships. He is thus at the mercy of deceivers and victimizers. The physically or emotionally absent father is also a central character, and the mother is frequently depicted as immature, narcissistic, or sadistic. Most of Purdy's characters are married for the wrong reasons, and children are born into loveless homes. All his characters are removed in some way from the mainstream of society. Purdy believes that in their "otherness" they typify the alienation of contemporary life.

As with many of his works, Cabot Wright Begins (1964) is a statement on the failures of society. Here Purdy proposes that technical advancement and affluence have not eliminated the need to connect with other human beings. He believes that those who cannot communicate often resort to criminal or other unacceptable behavior. Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967) and Narrow Rooms (1978) concern homosexuality. In these stories Purdy attempts to portray the lonely and isolated lives of homosexuals as being merely other forms of empty love. The Nephew (1960) and In a Shallow Grave (1976) are the closest of Purdy's works to an acknowledgment that life may yet hold some kind of hope and meaning. The characters suffer the tortures of love and become more spiritually aware. Communication leads to a discovery of self and an appreciation of others. Critics think that Purdy developed this more positive view of life in Jeremy's Vision (1970), one volume of a planned trilogy entitled Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys. In this book he turns his attention towards the midwestern American past, where life is based on the founding morals and virtues of this country. This is in contrast to the decline of those same values in present-day society.

Purdy's strengths lie in his use of language, especially the patterns and dialects of his native Ohio, skillfully employed in dialogues between characters. He has been compared to many great writers, yet attempts to classify him have resulted in such diverse labels as naturalist, realist, black humorist, and satirist. However, he has been accused of writing from bitterness, petulance, and an inability to grow beyond the deprivations and disappointments of his early life.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)

Herbert Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Purdy began to make his reputation with some stories first successfully published in England, where the praise for him had that overripe odor that characterizes a peculiar subdepartment of British enthusiasm for minor American writers…. But the stories themselves, when they finally appeared in this country in the collection Color of Darkness, emanated a hard harsh radiance….

Purdy, like Kafka, tells dreams which turn out to be stories and at the same time retain their fretful, oppressive dream quality. With all their subdividing and subtlety of mood and observation, wit and document, they are very close to the origins of literature in dreamlife. Purdy seems to cross over into the dream world and carry back his booty into consciousness.

The Nephew, like Malcolm, Purdy's earlier novel, has a farcical surface, but his picture of life in "Rainbow Center" … is pervaded beneath the comic accuracy of speech by a deep despair and boredom. The plot concerns the unravelling of the life, or rather, its meaning, of the nephew, Cliff, the "boy missing in Korea," and of his connections with his ancient aunt and uncle and the other people of a stagnant Midwestern town.

But the plot is a mere excuse for a curious parody of a Norman Rockwell illustration or an Edgar Lee Masters poem. Talk of custard pies … is succeeded by talk of the great issue of life in the American Midwest now...

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Martin Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A problem novel in which the problem is never solved, Purdy's latest book [The Nephew] is in many ways a departure from the fey and fantastic humor for which he has become celebrated. If he mystified people and won many fans by Malcolm, he may gain some dissenters with this relatively simple novel of compassion and small-town humors. The nephew, unlike Malcolm, has few adventures, and the only one he has which is of dramatic consequence remains shrouded in Purdy's dialectical ambivalence.

In an unfair but accurate summary, the central problem is whether the nephew is a homosexual. His old-maid aunt and widowed uncle, who live together in a big, stuffed house, have taken care of the nephew from the time he enters the army. When they are informed that Cliff is missing in action, their world collapses. In an attempt to keep Cliff's presence alive, the aunt decides to write a memorial about him. But in trying to write down on paper the things that made up Cliff, she discovers she knows almost nothing about the only person she has loved.

In her search for the knowledge of Cliff's identity, the aunt begins to learn compassion through the discovery of many damning facts, or suggestions which might be facts…. The old-maid aunt, who used to be a bossy grade school teacher, is, in Purdy's eyes, discovering life.

Such a theme—self-discovery through understanding of friend or lover—is as old and valid as the first novel written. Where Purdy fails this time is in employing only sincerity and an extraordinary writing style in which every sentence seems the result of centuries of meditation. People also are needed for a novel. The plain fact is that the central character, Aunt Alma, is just not very interesting in the...

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Winfield Townley Scott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a double edge to the quite remarkable talent of James Purdy. The simplest view of this may be taken by looking at the two novels he has so far published…. Yet the simple view of Purdy is not easily maintained, for he is more likely to blend what I think we may call the realistic and the surrealistic visions. He is rather complex and special. This was evident in the arresting short stories, eventually collected as Color of Darkness, which brought him such high praise several years ago; we have it again in [Children Is All, a] new collection of nine stories and two brief plays. (p. 25)

The shorter of the two [plays], "Cracks," presents a very old lady, her nurse-companion, and a small child. It consists largely of the musings of the old lady on life and death. Then when we have the old lady solo in darkness a Figure appears and they converse also of life and death. But the Figure, close-wrapped and half-shadowed in darkness, identifies himself as the Creator and says the world has come to an end. Nevertheless the vision concludes—or the old lady wakens from a dream?—and we are back with nurse, child, morning and an affirmation of ever-continuing creation.

"Children Is All," the longer play, is one of those "waiting for" situations which we have had at least from "Lefty" to "Godot." Here the regional atmospherics compare to The Nephew. We await with a middle-aged, middle-class woman the return after fifteen years in the Pen of her son who, perhaps unfairly, had been jailed for stealing bank funds. We are asked to believe (1) that in all those years she has never visited Billy and (2) that...

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Ihab Hassan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the last five years James Purdy has published two novels, "Malcolm" and "The Nephew," and a collection of stories, "Color of Darkness." These very nearly established him as one of the most important American writers to appear since the war. The judgment, which in the mind of crusty critics was rendered suspect by a certain voguishness that attended his sudden appearance on the scene, is now confirmed by the present collection ["Children Is All"].

Like Salinger, Purdy is a writer of love, "pure and complicated." But there all analogies end. For Purdy is a true original within the area where, neither windswept nor entirely claustral, his sensibility dwells. The area, as in so many works of Kafka, is...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Richard Horchler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In] Children Is All, Purdy displays once more the talents, quirks and compulsions that have, in the few short years be has been publishing, moved his readers to almost equal extravagance of praise and exasperation.

What is best in this volume is unmistakably Purdy. Perhaps the same is true of what is worst in it, but that is at least a less obvious conclusion. "Daddy Wolf," for instance, the first story in the collection, is a totally successful tour de force—a semihysterical monologue by a Negro whose wife and child have abandoned him and their rat-infested tenement flat Dialogue has always been a Purdy strength, and in "Daddy Wolf" the speech is exactly right. It is funny, sad,...

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Henry Chupack

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the three decades since the end of World War II—a period when American affluence and technological impersonality grew to astronomical heights and appeared to many Americans to be the be-all and end-all of human existence—Purdy dared to tell them the truth: behind the facade of great material wealth lay a vast spiritual wasteland of loveless lives and hellish marriages; from such barren marriages came children who, as a rule, were treated cruelly by their parents or by other adults; rape and homosexuality were engaged in by those who, denied love in their own lives, sought it in antisocial actions; and most ironic of all, the quest for wealth and the possession of it did not result in happiness. (p. 126)


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Stephen D. Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Purdy's] originality and extraordinary talents cannot be neatly inventoried and … to portray him as the author of an eccentric body of fiction, as a part of some movement or fashionable literary trend, or as a novelist who essentially mocks the capacities of art, is to deny the complexities of his individual voice. His own description of his work as an exploration of the American soul conveyed in a style based on the rhythms and accents of American speech runs contrary to such categories and is a claim that merits examination.

The author's distinctive formal and philosophic preoccupations need to be seen in a broader, more tentative perspective. Although it has an urgent bearing upon the present...

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Jerome Charyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The story [of Mourners Below] is deceptively simple. It's a kind of battlefield where the living play dead, and the dead begin to warp those "mourners below." Most of the novel exists in that lost hour "between very late and very early." This has always been the strength of Mr. Purdy's writing. He cuts below the skin and doesn't become involved with the sociology of any particular time or place. He uses locale to isolate hysteria and deal with that terrible anger of being unloved. The rhythms of his prose have nothing to do with mimicry, or the rendering of American speech. He has never sought to be a caricaturist, to parody the best or the worst of our lives. That slight awkwardness of Mr. Purdy's corrosive...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Gary Krist

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mourners Below, which appeared this past summer, is Purdy's tenth full-length novel, and the book appears likely to share the same fate as its immediate predecessors. If critics can be likened to rock climbers, then Mourners Below is a sheer scree slope, offering countless apparent critical footholds, but none which is strong enough to bear the weight of complete interpretation. The book seems to call out for all manner of critical approaches—psychoanalytic, archetypal, even phenomenological—yet it cannot be made to cohere in any of these systems. The book remains elusive, and this fact, while certainly inconvenient for the critic, is perhaps the novel's greatest strength. Unlike many works that fit...

(The entire section is 523 words.)