James Purdy

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I’d like to write a little essay on James Purdy who died recently.  It seemed fortuitous he came to my awareness.    Purdy said, Never censure yourself.   Then, he was never recognized and was bitter.  His homosexual novels written mostly in the fifties and sixties are now considered heroic works of a persecuted man.  I’ve just read Eustice Chisolm and found it a fascinating read.  Much of Mellville, the Bible, even Flannery O’Conner and Anderson and McCullers.  That old mid or southern Appalachian twang, what today would be regarded as a quintessential mid-American or rural style of speaking, which would be considered anachronistic yet charming today.   However, the structural elements were superb, the story structure is tight, told well by a narrator who is Purdy himself.  Gay love and denial back in the late Thirties with a sprinkle of sadomasochism and unresolved endings.  The violence is horrifying though told in an understated yet poetic way that conveys the horror worse than if it was clinically displayed.  He punished his homosexual lovers in the worst way but I think he was symbolically mirroring the culture Chicago 1939.  And the entire world for that matter. He wrote what came to mind he noted in one interview and didn’t care if the critics liked his work or not.  He even feared their acceptance indicted him a failure.  He had great disdain for commercially successful novels and felt USA culture sought the trivial and the sensational in its artists.

Purdy is a great writer in my view on a par with Vidal, Capote… that league.   I think I only have to have read this one novel to understand his style and message.   I learned from him.  What?  I can’t put it into words.   Perhaps the Paul Cadmus illustration Playground on the paperback cover says it all. 

I also had a chance to re-explore the life of Paul Cadmus, whose Playground adorns the cover of the ’84 paperback.   He had quite the gay life while always playing the crowd about his homosexuality.  For that era in which he flourished, the thirties through the nineties, a long career, his work stands out by its excellence and courage.  I see a very striking resemblance to the Thirties work of Guston.  The full Renaissance body renderings and colors, although the latter projected more into issues of like war.  That Guston went through so many radical changes is a testament to his greatness:  figurative murals into the The War followed by early New York abstract expressionism and finally his cartoon style for which he’ll be remembered.

I just have to throw in Guston.  He really informs me.  That means I developed my own cartoon style long before him but his breakthroughs really confirmed my own imaginary images


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