James Purdy, controversial author of underground classics
NEW YORK - Author James Purdy, a shocking realist and surprising romantic who in underground classics such as "Cabot Wright Begins" and "Eustace Chisholm and the Works" inspired censorious outrage and lasting admiration, has died.
Spokesman Walter Vatter of Ivan Dee Publishers said that Mr. Purdy had been in poor health and died yesterday morning at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. Reports of his age have differed, but according to his literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, he was 94.
Mr. Purdy published poetry, drawings, the plays "Children Is All" and "Enduring Zeal," the novels "Mourners Below" and "Narrow Rooms," and the collection "Moe's Villa and Other Stories." Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years. In the spring, Ivan Dee will issue a collection of his plays.
Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Dorothy Parker were among his fans, but Mr. Purdy won few awards and was little known to the general public. He spent his latter years in a one-room Brooklyn apartment, bitterly outside what he called "the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy, and stagnant New York literary establishment."
Interviewed in 2005, Mr. Purdy recalled being "exposed to everything" as a child, and his books revealed the most detailed awareness of sex, violence, race, class, familial cruelty, and romantic longing. His work was labeled gothic for its extremes of emotion and physicality, but in his own mind, there was no sensationalism, just the impulse to write what he knew.
Mr. Purdy was born in Fremont, Ohio. An early muse was a landlady to whom he wrote hate letters. "My mother was both horrified and amused that I would write these terrible things about real people," he said, adding with a laugh, "We never showed them to the landlady. She might have had a stroke."
A break came in his early 30s when through a mutual acquaintance he was introduced to Osborn Andreas, a Chicago businessman and literary critic, who agreed to privately publish a story collection, "Don't Call Me by My Right Name."
Others soon learned about him, including British writers Dame Edith Sitwell and Angus Wilson, and his official debut, "63: Dream Palace," came out in 1956. He followed with such novels as "The Nephew," "Malcolm," and "Cabot Wright Begins," stories of innocent young men, needy older women, and, in the case of "Cabot Wright," literary elitism, sexual violence, and indiscreet bodily noises.
Rarely were reviewers so divided. Orville Prescott, New York Times book critic, labeled "Cabot Wright" the "sick outpouring of a confused, adolescent, and distraught mind" and complained of Mr. Purdy's "obsessive concentration on perverted and criminal sexual activities."
But Susan Sontag, writing in the Times six days later, likened "Cabot Wright" to Voltaire's "Candide" and praised it as a "fluid, immensely readable, personal and strong work."
His most influential novel, "Eustace Chisholm and the Works," was published in 1967.