He has been praised by writers as diverse as Edward Albee, James M. Cain, Lillian Hellman, Francis King, Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, Dame Edith Sitwell, Terry Southern, Gore Vidal (who described Purdy as "an authentic American genius"), Jonathan Franzen (who called him, in Farther Away, "one of the most undervalued and underread writers in America"), A.N. Wilson, and both Jane Bowles and Paul Bowles.
Purdy was the recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Fiction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1993) and was nominated for the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel On Glory's Course (1984). In addition, he won two Guggenheim Fellowships (1958 and 1962), and grants from the Ford Foundation (1961), and Rockefeller Foundation.
He worked as an interpreter and lectured in Europe with the United States Information Agency.
Purdy was born in Hicksville, Ohio, in 1914. His family moved to Findlay, Ohio, when he was about five years old, where he graduated from Findlay High School in 1932. Purdy's parents went through a separation and then a bitter divorce in 1930 after his father lost large sums of money in investments gone bad. His mother then converted their home in Findlay to a boardinghouse of which she was proprietress.
Purdy earned a Bachelor of Arts teaching degree in French from Bowling Green State College in 1935, and taught French at the Greenbrier Military School in West Virginia. Then he studied at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master's degree in English in 1937. After serving in the U.S. Army, Purdy studied Spanish at the University of Chicago (1944–45). He spent the summer of 1945 at the University of Puebla, Mexico, and taught English at the Ruston Academy in Havana, Cuba, in 1945–1946. For the next nine and a half years, he taught Spanish at Lawrence College, in Appleton, Wisconsin. In the mid-1950s, with encouragement and support from Miriam and Osborn Andreas and the Andreas Foundation (Archer Daniels Midland), Purdy returned to Chicago to pursue writing.
Soon after his arrival in Chicago to attend the University of Chicago in 1935, Purdy, broke and without friends, met the painter Gertrude Abercrombie. She was nicknamed the "Queen of the Bohemian Artists". His vast body of work includes many works inspired by his close relationship to Abercrombie and to her underground salon (which had its roots in the salon of Gertrude Stein). During the 1930s, Purdy was one of Abercrombie's closest friends. This American incarnation of the creative parlour had at the center those who were to become the jazz greats: Percy Heath, Sonny Rollins, Erroll Garner, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. Purdy attended the all-night, weekend gatherings where bebop and jazz were improvised by these greats (many times with Abercrombie at the piano). The concerts impressed him deeply. "Through these jazz singers and musicians, who would often stay with Abercrombie, young Purdy received an intensive education in African American music and culture." Indeed, the high incidence of black figures in Purdy's work went unnoticed by critics and reviewers because they were so thoroughly integrated. Equally important was his intensive study as a young boy of the Old Testament in the King James Version of the Bible as well as the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. All were key in making Purdy the writer he became. For quite some time during his Chicago years, Purdy was living in Abercrombie's "ruined" mansion, with members of The Modern Jazz Quartet.
The music and lives these jazz musicians were able to create from their own humble origins inspired Purdy to realize that he could create a uniquely individual voice in literature using his American small-town speech patterns and his worlds of poverty and neglect. Abercrombie and those in her "circle" had done the same with painting. They had "taken the essence of our music and transported it to another form", according to her friend and fellow artist Dizzie Gillespie. His associations with these jazz artists and especially his meeting with Billie Holiday gave him the insight as well as the confidence to move from an upstart and lost boy, prone to running wild, to a world-class writer and artist. His relationship to the painters in Abercrombie's circle of magic realists Ivan Albright, Dudley Huppler, Karl Priebe, Julia Thecla, and John Wilde helped develop the strokes of imagery he would use to create his own version of an American "magic realism" in literature.
The influence of Chicago's jazz scene and the experience of the "New Negro Renaissance" is reflected in all his early work.
It begins with the short story Eventide printed first in the private collection Don't Call Me by My Right Name and then commercially in the collection Color of Darkness (Teeboy who would never be coming home again, played the tenor saxophone at The Music Box and had his hair made straight), to the novella 63 Dream Palace (63rd Street is home to the Chicago jazz scene), then to Children is All, Cabot Wright Begins, and Eustace Chisholm and the Works.
Even his small town Ohio novel The Nephew echoes the story of the boy who would never be coming home again. Eventide was the pivotal story which led to his becoming a published writer. His final novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue throws back to a remembrance of painter Abercrombie and others in her circle of artists.
Narrow Rooms (1977) is at an initial level a personal communication looking back some 25 years to Wendell Wilcox a failed writer in the Abercrombie circle. Wilcox, who had once enjoyed a degree of success, stopped publishing at the very moment Purdy began commercial publication.
Always of major significance was jazz both in Chicago and New York City. Shortly after his move to New York City, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance circle became a lens for his work. The comic novels I am Elijah Thrush, Out with the Stars and Garments the Living Wear are the New York incarnations of this reflection.
Abercrombie also introduced the young student to others in her circle, to Miriam Bomberger Andreas and to the industrialist and literary essayist, Osborn Andreas, both of whom would become extremely significant in Purdy's life and work. His first book, Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories, was privately published by Osborn with the Andreas Foundation. The title story is based on Andreas' wife, Miriam. His first five books, with the exception of The Nephew, were inspired by his association to Miriam and Osborn Andreas. His first novel which set forth his own developing style of American magic realism, was praised lavishly by Dorothy Parker and others of great literary merit. It was for decades a staple of the undergraduate American Literature curriculum of many American colleges and universities.
If Abercrombie and the Andreases inspired Purdy to become a writer, then Dame Edith made him a known one. When she received the privately printed edition, which Purdy had on a hunch sent to her, of Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories she was convinced she had discovered a great black writer from the story Eventide, which she felt only a black man could write. After requesting more of his work, Purdy sent her his newly published private edition of 63: Dream Palace. Both books were designed by Purdy with his own unique drawings. Upon the additional basis of this new work she had become convinced he was "a writer of genius" and she obtained a serious commercial publisher for his work in England. She would later write the prefaces for the publication of both these works. Her reviews, pronouncements, and assessments of his further works helped him create a coterie of supporters (notably Parker and Angus Wilson ) both in England and the U.S. Purdy felt he would never have been a known writer without her. "My stories were always returned with angry, peevish, indignant rejections from the New York slick magazines and they earned if possible even more hostile comments from the little magazines. All editors were insistent that I would never be a published writer."
Through all his work, he has dealt primarily with outsiders. Women, blacks, Native American Indians (his maternal grandmother was 1/8 Ojibway American Indian), homosexuals (living far outside the conventional gay community) – literally anyone who could be seen to be outside the circle of "normal" acceptability. Indeed, his final short story, Adeline, written at age 92, surprisingly and unpredictably, is a tale of transgender acceptance.
From the onset, with his book of short stories, Color of Darkness and through to his final book of short stories, Moe's Villa and Other Short Stories, Purdy wrote the outsider. Much of his early work takes place in extreme poverty, and is located in a small-town, heightened American vernacular. In the beginning of her assessment of him, Dame Edith felt he was always writing the black experience without necessarily mentioning race. Purdy's association with the American black experience is paramount to understanding him as an artist. In addition to his beginnings with Abercrombie, Van Vechten took him up when he arrived in New York City and introduced him to his own important New York City circle of black artists, boxers and activists. Langston Hughes praised Purdy as "the last of the [n-word] writers" for his use of the vernacular. He was seen as a master of different kinds of American vernacular as well.
Purdy was a classicist who could even read some ancient Greek. He maintained an extensive classical library in history, poetry, and drama from the ancient Romans and Greeks. In all his work he instinctively and perhaps unconsciously connects to a tight form of classical structure which is perceived only by those who have become familiar with it. His novel In a Shallow Grave has overt classical references running throughout, as do many others. The main character in his final novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue even considers in her memoir that her entire story has been Demeter descending into Hades in search of her daughter Persephone. His besieged novels which beleaguered his reputation, both Eustace Chisholm & the Works and Narrow Rooms, had outraged the critics. They were merely restating in a modern context the psychology of Dionysus set forth in the accepted and acceptable play The Bacchae by Euripides. The outer texture of his work is realistic while the deeper and more elusive interior reveals a mythic, almost archetypal trail. Its great age is apparent; its history is clearly rooted in the classics and in the Old Testament. Thus his work can be very American but it is also universal.
In his compressed dialogue structure too, he was ahead of his time. And much-later writers like David Mamet, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett (also an admirer) paved the way to the acceptance of works in this "distilled" style which has now become the sine qua non of the modern audience with its very different attention span. His early stories from the 1940s and 1930s were, because of their brevity, not even considered short stories at all at the time. They were vehemently rejected time after time by the mainstream magazines, causing him almost to give up the notion of ever becoming a writer. Now this brevity of conveying a fullness and richness of experience in what Dame Edith called a "marrow of form" has almost become a necessary standard. Both his "distilled" style and his reliance on dialogue to tell his story eluded the normal contemporary reader of his early days. There was an ingrained custom towards a much longer, more expository experience. His roots were in drama. It is a little-known fact that Purdy started writing plays as a child, crafting them to win his elder brother's approval. Purdy would act all the characters in the plays, and play them out using stick-figures, which is consistent with the early origins of Federico Garcia Lorca.
His culturally counterpointed use of in medias res (beginning his narratives in the middle of things) is extensive. He begins where most writers leave off. This is all part of the "magnificent simplicity" which is woven into all his work. His work, totally against the grain in its day, is accepted without question by the attention span of today.
Gore Vidal indicates further obstacles to his more widespread recognition in that it was impossible to reconcile his work that was labeled and published as "gay" to some of his other works and especially to the Faulkneresque novels based on his ancestors. Even today, as Vidal asserts, it is a problem that needs a solution. Dame Edith had recognized this when she stated that Purdy ”has enormous variety".
From the start, his work had often been at the edge of what was printable under American censorship. The major US publishing houses rejected his two early books 63: Dream Palace (1956), and Colour of Darkness (1961), which had to be printed privately abroad. The publishers, according to Purdy, believed that he was mentally insane. Out of the US, Gollancz could not bring himself to print the word "motherfucker" in the 1957 UK edition of 63: Dream Palace. In 1972, the supposedly liberal New York literary establishment was outraged by his I am Elijah Thrush. And as late as May 1990, the German government tried to ban Narrow Rooms, but the court, hostile to the accuser's position, belligerently decided it was a "work of the literary imagination which had no business in the courts". Although many readers were scandalized, a solid cadre of distinguished critics and scholars embraced his work from the start, including John Cowper Powys, Dame Edith, Dorothy Parker, and Susan Sontag, who warmly defended him against puritanical critics. Tennessee Williams was also an early admirer of Purdy's work.
In January 1966, an incendiary manifesto by Stanley Kauffmann set forth a bluntly damning and prejudicial way of criticizing works by homosexual writers. The article stirred the arts community. This finger in the wind of the so-called liberal critical establishment actually reflected the deep nature of an institutionalized prejudice throughout the media.
Soon afterwards, Purdy set out to write a novel of what he experienced in Abercrombie's Chicago scene of the 1930s. This time it was to reflect his fitfully terminated friendship with Wendell Wilcox, a writer of minor achievement in their circle. It would also include a scathing portrait of the department store heir Norman Macleish of the noted Chicago family.
All of Purdy's work after Eustace Chisholm would subsequently be met with both great praise on the one side, and stern, vehement condemnation and misunderstanding on the other. In 1967, a year after the publication of the treatise to limit homosexual artists, his shocking, ground-breaking and memorable Eustace Chisholm and the Works – his "undisguised" bisexual work – was put forth. The novel is dedicated to Albee. The book was a groundbreaking sensation. Purdy recalled in 1993 that he was "burned at the stake" in The New York Times review of Eustace Chisholm.
Critically it was thrown to an interpretation of and by this new Kauffmann assessment (quoted as the source in the review) and was vehemently condemned on all grounds including moral ones. The "noble" hatchet type review followed exactly the policy which had been set forth two years earlier: The attack surrounding the book chilled Purdy's growing popularity though the book sold more copies than any of his other works.
Enmeshed in this critical outcome and resultant effect on Purdy of the publication of both Cabot Wright Begins and the ensuing novel Eustace Chisholm & the Works was the fact that by the time of publication of these novels all his immediate family, his friends and his supporters had died. This included Dame Edith and Van Vechten, his brother who had been a noteworthy actor in New York City and very important to his development in literature, Parker and Powys as well. Thus eliminating all the probable defenders of both him as a writer and the two novels themselves. Osborn Andreas his patron had also died. All these deaths occurred within a two-year period between 1965 and 1967, devastating Purdy's basis of support financially, critically and personally.
"I soon realized that if my life up to then had been a series of pitched battles, it was to be in the future a kind of endless open warfare", Purdy wrote in an autobiographical sketch in 1984.
At a loss to know how to proceed and with his career seemingly shattered, his circle of literary supporters dead, Purdy began looking or rather staring at pictures of his long dead relatives for a kind of solace and validation. He began to remember ever more vividly the stories his Indian grandmother told him when he was a child. About eminent people, mostly women, and most often on the outside of a hidebound code of acceptance in the long ago towns of the hill country of Ohio.
In 1968, he began a series of independent but interconnected books (and plays) about the very real, regal and exciting personages his grandmother had bestowed upon, the Sleepers in Moon Crowned Valleys. In his hands, they were to become the voices and journeys of an almost mythic people of a uniquely different and undiscovered America. He would follow them in their navigation through life and circumstance. The narratives were something that could be found perhaps in the archives of a historical society in the towns set into the farm country and rolling hills of the Midwest. Through these memories there began to flow also the remembrance of the country vernacular and way of speaking of his great grand parents. He began to create in association with these compelling individuals and their stories a voice that Paul Bowles would call "the closest thing we have to a classical American colloquial".
Regarding Sleepers in Moon Crowned Valleys Gore Vidal stated in his New York Times essay, "Each novel stands entire by itself while the whole awaits archeology and constitution of a work that is already like no other."
As part of the series in 1974 he published The House of the Solitary Maggot, which is often regarded as his most ambitious work. It was largely ignored.
The aforementioned damning assessment, or slant, ended seemingly just as abruptly as it began, with the 1997 publication of his final novel, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue. His body of work was cleared of its long-standing, erroneous stigmas, with a New York Times review assessing him in summation as a "singular American visionary". On the last reprints of several of his books a further essay by Gore Vidal in The New York Times entitled "The Novelist As Outlaw" framed him as "an authentic American genius".
In 2005, the novel that had been the impetus to hold Purdy's reputation at bay for decades, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, received the Clifton Fadiman Award at the Mercantile Library. It was presented to Purdy with a stunning assessment of the novel by Jonathan Franzen. Thus opening the door to a different kind of future assessment for his entire body of work.
While some of his works had been seen as religious and spiritual allegories and praised many times by the religious right, they were at the same time being annihilated by the "liberal" critical establishment.
Following several reissues of previously out-of-print novels, as well as a recent appreciation by Gore Vidal in The New York Times Book Review, Purdy's work again enjoyed a brief small renaissance in the first decade of the 2000s, including among younger writers. As Albee wrote long ago, "there is a Purdy renaissance every ten years, like clockwork".
Shortly after his death in 2009, a book of plays, Selected Plays of James Purdy including Brice, Ruthanna Elder, Where Quentin Goes and The Paradise Circus, was published by Ivan R. Dee. It focuses on Purdy's playwriting as being his first form of writing since childhood, when he wrote plays for his brother to perform. John Waters contributed the following blurb on the cover: "James Purdy's Selected Plays will break your damaged little heart."
He continued to dictate to a small team of devoted friends, and ascribed his continued intellectual vigor to the drinking of green tea and the avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. His advice to young writers was to "banish shame".
He had maintained throughout his career that he was being assessed in terms of the nature of his subject material and not in terms of the value of its content.
Purdy wrote anonymous letters from the age of nine. His first was written to his mother's landlady who, in young Purdy's view, was grasping. Countless thousands have been written since, many now owned by persons who have no idea of their provenance or value, although the style is inimitable. This features some of Purdy's drawings, which have attracted some attention.
Purdy continued to dictate and to draw nearly every day until his death at 94. After several years of declining health, he fractured a hip and died in Englewood, New Jersey, on March 13, 2009.
The American composer Robert Helps (1928–2001), a close friend of Purdy's, used Purdy's texts in two of his works, The Running Sun and Gossamer Noons, both of which have been recorded by the soprano Bethany Beardslee.
The American song composer Richard Hundley composed many songs to poems of Purdy, his friend as well of several decades in New York City. Some of his more magnificent works set to Purdy's poetry like "Come Ready and See Me", have been praised as true classics in the medium of the American song.
For nearly 50 years he lived and wrote in a small apartment in a Brooklyn Heights landmarked building surrounded by dozens of framed boxing prints from the turn of the 20th century. The bare-knuckled champs in the makeshift outside rings of their day.
In an autobiographical sketch in 1984, Purdy stated, "My work has been compared to an underground river which is flowing often undetected through the American landscape".
He received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle in 1991.