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Although he wrote poems and plays throughout his career, James Purdy’s reputation rests primarily on his work as a novelist and writer of short stories. His first two novels, Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1960), caused the most critical stir. In fact, Malcolm was adapted for the stage in 1966...

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Although he wrote poems and plays throughout his career, James Purdy’s reputation rests primarily on his work as a novelist and writer of short stories. His first two novels, Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1960), caused the most critical stir. In fact, Malcolm was adapted for the stage in 1966 by American dramatist Edward Albee. In the 1960’s, Purdy was touted as one of the United States’ most promising writers, especially because of his experimentation with the conventions of the fiction genre.

By the end of that decade, however, the critical response to Purdy’s work had become increasingly fractured. Purdy himself claimed that his public unhappiness with the literary establishment was the reason for this mixed response; others point to his controversial themes and grotesque characters and plots. Although Purdy continued to have his ardent admirers, frequently his works have been disparaged and ignored.

Achievements

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Some commentators have asserted that James Purdy’s work has found greatest acceptance in Europe, especially in England and the Netherlands. In reality, his native America has not failed to recognize his creative output. He was the recipient of many grants, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1958, Guggenheim Fellowships in 1958 and 1962, and a Ford Foundation grant in 1961. Purdy was also nominated for a PEN-Faulkner Award in 1985, and he won the Morten Dauwen Zabel Fiction Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1993.

Other Literary Forms

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James Purdy, in more than four decades of literary work, beginning in the 1950’s, wrote—besides his short fiction—a number of novels (including Malcolm, published in 1959, and In a Shallow Grave, published in 1976) several collections of poetry, and numerous plays, some of which have been staged in the United States as well as abroad.

Achievements

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James Purdy received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature (1958), John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships (1958, 1962), and a Ford Foundation grant (1961). On Glory’s Course was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award (1985). He also received a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1993), and an Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood award for poetry and art (1995).

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In addition to his novels, James Purdy wrote in a variety of genres, including poetry, the short story, and drama. The most important of these other works are Sixty-three: Dream Palace (1956); Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella (1957); Children Is All (1961), a collection of ten stories and two plays; and a volume of poetry, The Running Sun (1971).

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James Purdy is considered one of the most important of the postmodern American writers. Along withThomas Pynchon, John Barth, and John Hawkes, Purdy is acknowledged as one of the best of the generation of post-Joycean experimental writers. His writing is unique and powerful, and his vision remains etched in the reader’s mind. Like other postmodern writers, Purdy took delight in experimenting with the texts and subtexts ofnarratives and treated his themes with humor and irony. In essence, Purdy’s characters are motivated by irrationality; his style is ornate and complex, and his themes are surreal. Purdy is a writer whose works must be examined if the textures and ideas of the postmodern novel are to be appreciated.

Bibliography

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Adams, Stephen D. James Purdy. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976. Adams’s study covers Purdy’s major work from the early stories and Malcolm up through In a Shallow Grave. Of particular interest is his discussion of the first two novels in Purdy’s trilogy Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys.

Canning, Richard. Gay Fiction Speaks: Conversations with Gay Novelists. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. The extensive interview contained in this twelve-author volume focuses primarily on Purdy’s identity as a gay novelist, but it does include some material on his plays. In particular, Purdy acknowledges his interest in and debt owed to the Jacobean theater of the early seventeenth century in England, especially those plays by John Webster and Thomas Middleton that fixate on the existence of evil as a major force in human destiny.

Chudpack, Henry. James Purdy. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Chudpack’s book is notable for students of Purdy’s short fiction in that he devotes an entire chapter to the early stories of the author. He also offers an interesting introductory chapter on what he terms the “Purdian trauma.”

Guy-Bray, Stephen. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. Edited by Claude J. Summers. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. In this short article, Guy-Bray tries to identify some of Purdy’s most pervasive themes, including the betrayal of love, the use of violence to resolve inner conflict, and the malevolence of fate.

Ladd, Jay L. James Purdy: A Bibliography. Columbus: Ohio State University Libraries, 1999. An annotated bibliography of works by and about James Purdy.

Lane, Christopher. “Out with James Purdy: An Interview.” Critique 40 (Fall, 1998): 71-89. Purdy discusses racial stereotypes, sexual fantasy, political correctness, religious fundamentalism, gay relationships, and the reasons he has been neglected by the literary establishment.

Peden, William. The American Short Story: Front Line in the National Defense of Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. Peden discusses Purdy in comparison with some of the “southern gothic” writers, such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, and in relation to Purdy’s probing of themes about the strange and perverse in American life.

Purdy, James. “Out with James Purdy: An Interview.” Interview by Christopher Lane. Critique 40 (Fall, 1998): 71-89. Evaluates reasons for critical hostility to Purdy’s writings. Presents Purdy’s views on racial and sexual stereotyping, violence in art, and the effect of political correctness. Analyzes theme and subject, presenting real-life counterparts to characters in several novels.

Renner, Stanley. “‘Why Can’t They Tell You Why?’ A Clarifying Echo of The Turn of the Screw.” Studies in American Fiction 14 (1986): 205-213. Compares the story with Henry James’s famous tale; argues that both are about a female suppressing a male’s sexual identity.

Schwarzchild, Bettina. The Not-Right House: Essays on James Purdy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968. Although the primary focus of these essays is on Purdy’s novels, there is some comparative discussion of such early works as Sixty-three: Dream Palace and “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name.”

Skaggs, Calvin. “The Sexual Nightmare of ‘Why Can’t They Tell You Why?’” In The Process of Fiction, edited by Barbara McKenzie. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. Argues that the mother tries to destroy the boy’s masculine identification because of her own ambiguous sexual identity. Claims that in the final scene a strong female emasculates a weak male.

Tanner, Tony. Introduction to Color of Darkness and Malcolm. New York: Doubleday, 1974. Tanner’s introductory essay discusses Purdy’s novel Malcolm and Sixty-three: Dream Palace. It also compares Purdy’s effects with those achieved by the Russian realist Anton Chekhov.

Turnbaugh, Douglas Blair. “James Purdy: Playwright.” PAJ 20 (May, 1998): 73-75. Discusses Purdy’s international acclaim and publication history. Praises his uses of dialogue and vernacular in the novels. Critical evaluation of dramatizations of Purdy’s novels, specifically focusing on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) distortion of In a Shallow Grave.

Woodhouse, Reed. Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Purdy is one of the authors that Woodhouse sees as exploring the ethics of the gay life.

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