Joan Schenkar on James Purdy: The Oddball of American Literature

Published: Jul 14, 2013

Joan Schenkar, author of The Talented Miss Highsmith, champions a long-neglected writer, now back in print.

James Purdy (1914-2009) is the Oddball of American Literature — surely one of the oddest ever to be lobbed over the National Net. He writes in a style entirely his own: that of a lavender uncle who decorates his closet with the corpses of the American Dream. His antique vocabulary accoutres these noirish creations with fanciful foulards and beautiful braces. He is nothing if not unsettling.

Purdy belongs in the company — though not exactly in the presence — of writers like Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, and Patricia Highsmith: writers who brought back from the ends of their nerves strange new terroirs with which their names are now associated. (In other work, I have given Miss Highsmith’s imaginative terrain a local habitation and a handle: "Highsmith Country." Mr. Purdy’s territory, which mixes races as well as sexual offenses, is waiting for its place-card.)

Eccentricity, wit and excellence are the private clubs to which Purdy’s clawing peculiarity and fanged approach to phrasing admitted him — and his fellow club members welcomed him extravagantly. Dame Edith Sitwell said Purdy would "come to be recognized as one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language;" Dorothy Parker opined he was a "writer of the highest rank in originality, insight and power;" Gore Vidal called him "an authentic American genius."

Purdy’s short stories have been collected and published for the first time by Norton/Liveright in "The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy." [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.], accompanied by a snappy introduction from another witty eccentric, John Waters. With this volume, and with the reissue of his 1965 novel, "Cabot Wright Begins," 

James Purdy’s publishers have done us all a favor. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]