Essay

Innocence Lost

James Purdy’s fiction is often bleak and violent. His poetry reveals a softer side.
Black and white portrait of James Purdy in his study.

James Purdy’s first novel, Malcolm, the story of a beautiful young man who encounters a world of dangerous and grotesque comic characters while searching for his missing father, was published in 1959. The book brought Purdy critical acclaim (and was later adapted for the stage by Edward Albee), as did his next few novels: The Nephew (1961), Cabot Wright Begins (1964), and Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967). Purdy was prominent enough that reviewing Cabot Wright Begins in the New York Times, Susan Sontag called him “indisputably one of the half dozen or so living American writers worth taking seriously.” This proved to be Purdy’s critical and popular zenith, however. As the first of his novels to incorporate homosexuality as a direct plot element, Eustace Chisholm puzzled many critics, and while Purdy wouldn’t represent sexuality so explicitly again until his novel Narrow Rooms (1978), his fiction from the 1970s on attracted less and less notice. With his reputation as a novelist in decline, Purdy turned more often to playwrighting and poetry, with the latter remaining the genre for which he is still least recognized.

In his eight volumes of poetry, Purdy addresses themes that even much of his fiction only hints at. He explores same-sex desire and gay identity, for example, despite insisting that he didn’t want to be regarded as a “gay writer.” He argued that his subject wasn’t homosexual desire itself, but rather the human propensity for self-destruction and self-delusion. Purdy was generally at odds with the burgeoning gay liberation movement anyway. Narrow Rooms’s depiction of the violence and degradation among a group of homosexual men in West Virginia didn’t endear him to a gay community otherwise eager to champion gay-themed novels and self-identified gay writers.

Purdy repeatedly proclaimed throughout his long life—he died in 2009, at age 94—that whatever was known of him would have to be known through his work. Had his eccentric, uncompromising fiction sustained the critical attention it earned in the ’60s, Purdy’s aversion to self-disclosure might have served him well, and even given him a reputation for integrity akin to that of other postwar iconoclasts such as Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy. But Purdy’s long slide into obscurity was arguably deepened by his refusal to publicize himself, or to integrate into the literary culture of his time, either of which might have made him a more celebrated figure in the last decades of his life. Ultimately, he may be a writer fated for rediscovery again and again. His Complete Short Stories appeared to scattered acclaim in 2013, and Jonathan Franzen and others have praised him, but the Purdy revival this recent attention might have signaled hasn’t yet arrived. His poetry, moreover, remains eclipsed. This is unfortunate, as Purdy’s best verse is a valuable complement to his fiction, and reveals a milder, at times almost childlike, side to his otherwise mordant work. 

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Purdy wasn’t concerned with offering readers a biographical context for his fiction, which may explain why he habitually cited 1923 as the year of his birth; in fact, he was born in 1914. These additional nine years alter what contemporaneous readers would have understood about the shape of his career. For example, he began publishing rather late, when he was almost 40. His pursuits after leaving his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, were more varied and of longer duration than the later birth date would have allowed. He went to Chicago when he was in his 20s, and served in the Army during World War II, when he was almost 30. Why Purdy sought to distort perceptions of his formative years isn’t clear; maybe he simply hoped to discourage inquiry into the period.

When he did speak of his youth, Purdy recalled a time of ostracism and hardship. His father was a failed businessman who left the family when Purdy was still a boy. His mother ran a local boardinghouse. In a rare biographical sketch, Purdy wrote, “My family was real to me. I’m from a small Ohio town. And then everything since then has been unreal.” The truth of this is borne out by Purdy’s fiction, much of which is set in small, rural towns almost certainly based on Findlay, where characters chafe against the constraints of village life. Numerous critics have labeled Purdy’s characters “grotesque” in the vein of fellow Ohioan Sherwood Anderson and the Southern Gothic fiction of Flannery O’Connor. For all their eccentricities, however, Purdy’s characters are realistic, not merely symbolic.

After graduating from high school, Purdy attended Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, where he earned a degree in French. He then enrolled at the University of Chicago. He became associated with the home salon of the surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie on Chicago’s South Side, through whom he met several people who later inspired characters in his fiction. (Abercrombie appeared as herself in Purdy’s 1997 novel Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue.) Following his service in the Army, he was hired to teach Spanish at Lawrence College in Wisconsin, where he worked for 10 years. It was then that Purdy dedicated himself to becoming a published writer. He met with little success, though, placing only a couple of stories in minor magazines. With assistance from a Chicago patron, he privately published a selection of his stories in Great Britain. The book impressed the English poet Edith Sitwell, who hailed Purdy as “one of the greatest writers produced in America in the past hundred years.” She helped him get the book republished, along with a novella, as 63: Dream Palace. It appeared in the United States as Color of Darkness (1957).

Purdy’s novels vary in form and approach, although in general they alternate between a kind of bleakly funny satire and what the critic Don Adams identifies as “allegorical realism.” The distinction between the two modes is never clear-cut, and some of the novels could just as plausibly be called farce, while others might be described as romance, and still others as a blend of tragedy and melodrama. Whatever the label, all of Purdy’s fiction shares certain signatures: character types recur, extreme situations often lead to a moment of violent reckoning, and, in some cases, characters achieve grace by confronting their illusions.

Readers of Purdy’s fiction might be understandably skeptical of his poetry, both because of his emphasis on dialogue and because Purdy’s prose style isn’t conspicuously “lyrical.” The poetic qualities of his fiction derive more from integration of structure, mood, and milieu than from language. It can be disconcerting to encounter in Purdy’s poetry a style that often embraces the most artificial elements of verse: rhyme, metrical regularity, and a traditional formal order. Rather than evoking the psychological and emotional turmoil of his novels, many of Purdy’s poems are almost dainty in their descriptions of pastoral scenes and in their naïve expressions of delight with the world. Indeed, it’s somewhat startling to read from the author of Malcolm and Narrow Rooms a poem about “Wandering Willie,” who along with “late-kept Kate” are “in heaven tonight with fresh shortcake.”

Purdy wrote lyric poems throughout most of his career, although he confessed that he might have stopped had the composer Richard Hundley not set one of the poems (“Come Ready and See Me”) to music in 1971 and encouraged him to continue writing. Nonetheless, Purdy struggled to publish his poems and bemoaned the hostility of editors and critics. Several of his chapbooks were privately printed or appeared only in limited editions. His Collected Poems, published in the Netherlands in 1990 in an edition of about 750 copies, has long been out of print. At barely 140 pages, it isn’t a hefty volume, and the brief poems afford readers an immediate synoptic handle on Purdy’s verse.

The first group of poems in the book is from The Running Sun, which Purdy privately printed in 1971. These untitled poems are those of a nature poet, although as would be expected from Purdy, it’s nature rendered with occasional dark undertones: “Wicked sounds haunt the glen tonight / voices from non-human throats /clear cries of splendid pain.” Other poems use nature imagery to create a much more sanguine (for Purdy anyway) tone:

I’ll mail lilacs & lilies
& roses to you,
& great big hats
with ribbons of blue.

This pattern runs throughout the poems of The Running Sun, some of which encourage readers to “sing with the meadowlarks and call with the jays,” while others acknowledge that “you know as well as I / the clouds will gather and cover the sky.” Formally, the poems are traditional—although none quite so much as “I’ll mail lilacs & lilies”—and set Purdy at odds with the main current of postwar American poetry. The “hidebound literary establishment,” as he called it, ignored his poetry even more resolutely than it ignored his fiction.

Composer Robert Helps was one of the few who took Purdy seriously as a poet. In 1972, he adapted five poems from The Rising Sun into a song cycle. In Helps’s compositions, these poems, which could strike readers as a type of “light verse,” or even as conventional love poems, assume added gravitas. Their lyrical qualities complement the musical movement of the art song, and vice versa, rather than strain after a more direct lyricism that ultimately seems contrived. One of the most oft-performed of the songs adapted from Purdy’s verse is the aforementioned “Come Ready and See Me,” based on the poem that appeared in Mr. Evening (1968). In this case, the poem isn’t so much contrived as transparent in its sentiment and simple in its form, somewhat reminiscent of  “Come live with me and be my love,” the opening line of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Purdy’s poem concludes:

Come home while the years have days,
before time runs out.
Don’t stop to think of anything like doubt.
Come before the candle’s snuffed out in the black.
Come home, you’re all I’ve got.

Purdy suggested that many of his poems “are [deliberately] like a child would write” and that the failure to appreciate this technique partially accounted for his poetry’s critical neglect. Many of his poems do assume an attitude of extreme ingenuousness, almost as if teasing readers accustomed to Purdy’s tales of corrupted innocence. For example: “Flowers at my feet whisper sweet / summer’s soft breath will find me / Shadows of trees with the greenest of leaves / birds send their messages before me.” Perhaps these guileless poems are Purdy’s way of recapturing a childhood that he felt he had missed, as some of his later autobiographical writing suggests. Yet, a careful consideration of the innocuous imagery reveals disturbing undercurrents:

The Dead
thought a long time
before coming back,
but the child in the old house
cried so hard
that at last one of the younger ones from Across
came in for just a moment
& stroked his head and said:
Dry your face.

Is this act of kindness (“for just a moment”) meant to console the child? Or is it an aberrant gesture by a young ghost that will ultimately do little to protect the child from the presence of death?

Some of the poems do incorporate themes and images consistent with the predominant vision in Purdy’s fiction. “The Brooklyn Branding Parlor” represents the eponymous establishment as “a temple of torture” in which the victim “is tied to an iron halter / & chooses the instrument of his pain.” That “the parlors change their site nightly / like a wandering medicine show” suggests that Purdy intends his evocation of the branding parlor to signify on a broader emblematic level, with its young men submitting to Christ-like suffering. In much the same way, the plots and images in Purdy’s fiction carry allegorical, and often specifically religious, implications. “Are You in the Wintertime” is a characteristic expression of Purdy’s essentially tragic worldview:

Whatever the summer has said
winter will correct.
Whatever spring gave
summer will crowd. . . .

While many of Purdy’s poems are conventional in form, others take fewer pains to be obviously “poetic” and instead adopt a loosely structured version of free verse that’s closer to the common practices of modern American poetry. Some even attempt modest formal experiments, such as “Suns will rise and suns will set,” with its final line (“but the dead will lie just where they plopped”) printed upside down to represent the buried dead. The last four lines of “Faces of Girls” imitate in their placement the “turn” of the girls’ faces to gaze at the sun:   

all
   turn
         to follow
                     Phoebus Apollo.

In addition, the book’s several prose poems, particularly those from the latter part of Purdy’s career, sketch brief narratives or anecdotes. “After” tells the melancholy story of “Ada,” who believes her life is over when her children leave home (and who, at the poem’s conclusion, finally “sank into the cool earth’s shade”).

The most interesting of Purdy’s poems, however, are those simply labeled “miscellany” in his Collected Poems. Apparently none were published even in literary journals, although “My Greatest Pains” was printed in the Netherlands, and three others later appeared in the Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature (1998). That these poems would be included in an explicitly gay anthology isn’t surprising, since they invoke homosexuality more directly than any of the other poems in Purdy’s oeuvre. All of these uncollected, miscellaneous poems treat same-sex desire openly and as something natural. “Do You Wonder Why I Am Sleepy” illustrates Purdy’s uninhibited approach. The poem’s speaker invites in “a young hustler barely 19 / but with / body and face of a 14-year old.” The boy tries to entice him but soon leaves because, as the speaker says, “I asked nothing of him.”

Even here, few if any of the poems are of the “confessional” variety in which the speaker is a stand-in for the author’s personal experience. Several are written from the perspective of “Jan Erik,” whom most readers would likely regard as a fictional character, but which actually refers to Jan Erik Bouman, Purdy’s Dutch publisher. In “Jan Erik, Alone,” the speaker says he “can only tell the Moon / how much I love a young carpenter.” In “My greatest pain,” he declares that he suffered when “my young lover / slept / The smile which crossed his lips / was sweeter by far / than any he ever gave to me.” However much the Jan Erik persona may be based on the real-life Bouman, Purdy’s purpose is clearly to invoke the depth and desperation of a lovesick man, a state no less profound—or profoundly abject—when the object of that love is another man.

“In a Deep Slumber” begins, “I dreamed of Lars / He appeared just as he always used to be / when our love was new.” The poem doesn’t identify its speaker, but since the following poem, “The Axles,” is about “Lars and Paul,” a reader can assume that  another persona (perhaps Paul) is the narrator, and thus that all of Purdy’s first-person poems should be attributed to speakers other than himself. If Purdy is less constrained in representing his own homosexuality in these poems, at least implicitly, they nonetheless remain detached from his own experiences. Just as he claimed his biography could be found in his fiction, perhaps his autobiography is in these poems, dispersed throughout the lyrical monologues and compressed narratives—a poetic world in which gay men are depicted simply as themselves.

These miscellaneous poems make the best case for Purdy as a poet, and the Collected Poems ought to be republished and made more widely available if only for their sake. Purdy will certainly be remembered for his novels and short stories, but as with any writer whose work is sufficiently important—and I believe Purdy’s fiction is important, and will be rediscovered yet again—the full range of his work, including what might ultimately be deemed “minor,” is relevant to a full appreciation of his achievement. His poetry displays a softness that readers of his fiction might not expect. Diverging from the caustic outlook of his fiction, the poetry enlarges our understanding of Purdy’s gifts and versatility as a writer, and enhances our sensitivity to his artistic vision as one capable of admitting lighter tones.

Originally Published: March 11th, 2019

Daniel Green is a literary critic is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016). His essays and reviews have appeared in scholarly and general-interest publications. He has written previously on the work of James Purdy, including “The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels of James Purdy”...