All of the Monsters (In Which I Accuse James Purdy of Throwing My Four-Year-Old Child Down Two Flights of Stairs Using His Powers of Telekinesis): On Michael Snyder’s “James Purdy”
By Matthew StadlerDecember 3, 2022
James Purdy: Life of a Contrarian Writer by Michael Snyder
James’s face was animated and lively, always broadcasting conflicting signals, but one register was constant: an asymmetry of curling lips and dancing eyebrows that looked like astonishment verging on censure. Even when he smiled and laughed, which he did often and unguardedly, the cant of his brow or his drooping smile reminded you that, whatever was right then, something else was terribly wrong. James spoke his mind with ease, so you’d always know what was wrong soon enough. The key to an enjoyable encounter with James was to listen — listen and be curious and feel. As a young writer, granted the company of a titanic figure like James Purdy, I found that very easy to do.
What is the value of James Purdy’s work, and why should we remember him? Michael Snyder’s meticulously researched biography of him, James Purdy: Life of a Contrarian Writer, published in October by Oxford University Press, provides several answers. Snyder’s account is accurate and exhaustive, not surprising given that he’s a scholar (teaching at the University of Oklahoma), author of a fine biography of the Indigenous American (Osage) writer John Joseph Mathews, and an archival researcher of astonishing skill. Snyder has organized what he found during 12 years of research into an important story with enough novel detail that even a reader like me, who knew James for two decades, will find value and pleasure in reading the book. The story includes many revelations: it is where I first learned that my good friend was not 83 years old when he died in 2009 but 94, having deliberately lied about his age since his mid-forties. Snyder delivers the goods. If you’re looking for a recommendation, I recommend that you go out and buy Life of a Contrarian Writer from your local independent bookstore and devote however many days and hours you need to read it. You won’t be wasting your time.
In October 2003, I traveled from Portland, Oregon, to New York to see James on the eve of the first-ever convening of the James Purdy Society, a two-day conference held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where Purdy scholar Joseph Skerrett Jr. taught. James was not attending (for health reasons, he said, though during my New York visit I found his health good, and he let me know what else prevented him). I was tasked with bringing to the conference his greetings and gratitude. I also had with me my four-year-old child, a hearty traveler whose place in my life was the second reason I’d stopped to see James. I wanted my kid to meet the greatest living writer in English. I wanted these two defining figures in my life, my hero and my child, to meet each other. It was a pilgrimage.
James’s one-room studio apartment at 236 Henry Street was just as I recalled it from the many visits I’d made in the previous 18 years, a cluttered room full of light from its third-story windows and the detritus of a writer mining his own past and the nation’s cultural memory for the poems, stories, and plays that he had left in him. By 2003, James had written and published his final novel, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1997; dedicated to me and to my nemesis, James’s amanuensis, John Uecker), and what lay ahead was the continued fruitful production of his transgressive, grown-up fairy-tale stories (published in his final book, Moe’s Villa and Other Stories, in 2000 and, posthumously, in the indispensable Complete Short Stories of James Purdy in 2013) and the difficult task of ushering his poems and plays into the hands of publishers who would put and keep them in print.
At that point in his life, James esteemed himself most highly as a playwright. He acknowledged his success as a writer of short stories by explaining that their essence was dialogue — “real speech” — and he accepted, if bitterly, that his reputation was shaped by his novels. His poems and plays mattered more to him. In some ways, I was part of the problem, a young novelist in thrall to a decade of James’s novel writing that (I still feel) is unrivaled in the history of American letters. (Melville or Faulkner might come close.) From 1966 to 1976, James Purdy wrote and saw published Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967), Jeremy’s Version (1970), I Am Elijah Thrush (1972), The House of the Solitary Maggot (1974; his masterpiece), and In a Shallow Grave (1976) — a crucial period that Snyder places in the very middle of his book, beginning with a pivotal chapter, “Maggoty Urgings.” That two years later James gave us the sui generis Narrow Rooms (1978) is too mind-boggling to include in this list of unrivaled achievement. Clearly, he was then a visionary writer completely in touch with his source.
On May 22, 1967, Snyder tells us, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, James’s most outrageous and challenging book to date, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. There is a helplessness about the artist in the face of his real work. It’s as if the work has trapped him, and the closer he comes to knowing what he must write, the more inexorable becomes the work’s claim on him. He cannot do else but try to survive and complete it. James was keenly aware of this pressure, and he spent most of his life trying to accommodate the urgent stories that presented themselves to him. He listened to his ghosts and gave them respect. He spent the last 50 years of his life trying to do right by them, in writing.
Eustace Chisholm was a succès de scandale, a stripped-down, forceful novel that garnered as much praise as it did derision. The reception was divided, but it was always passionate. In a homophobic takedown in the journal Critic, Nelson Algren complained that James Purdy portrayed a world in which “men […] believe so firmly in both prayer and faggotry that they can go from sex to penitence without getting off their knees.” Worse (for the author), Wilfrid Sheed — also an FSG writer — panned the book in The New York Times Book Review, calling it “a form of charade or peep show […] homosexual fiction which announces itself not by subject matter but by tone.” James told FSG publisher Roger Straus that the press should react as they had when, in 1964, the self-styled “paper of record” attacked his earlier and more successful novel, Cabot Wright Begins (1965) — by sending a forceful complaint in the form of an ad — but Straus would not do it. That failure contributed considerably to James’s irrational feeling that he was the victim of a Jewish conspiracy. (Straus was Jewish, as were several of James’s malefactors, while Sheed was Catholic.) The homophobic takedowns were effective. James no longer had the cover of “genius” (a status he had enjoyed since 1956 when Dame Edith Sitwell declared him to be one); he might just be another sex-obsessed fag.
Snyder’s excellent biography both unwraps the 60-odd years prior to this remarkable decade and narrates its aftermath, which was as storied and marked by accomplishment as were the preceding decades, with enough serious incident to fill several books. Snyder deserves applause for having delivered James’s important and ramshackle life in so neat of a volume. His method is conventional and entirely effective — a well-written account of the archival record and whatever interviews the author could gather at so late a date.
Snyder began working on the biography in 2008, a year before James died. They never met, but Snyder managed to have two phone interviews before James passed. By that time, the majority of the important figures in James’s life were also dead or inaccessible. As a biographer, Snyder was greatly helped by the fact that James said and wrote so much in life. Snyder’s knowledge of not only James’s letters but also those of his immediate family and myriad colleagues (and tormentors) is unparalleled, and sufficient enough that pursuing more interviews with the man himself wasn’t needed for the task of constructing a book rich with the voice and presence of its subject. In Life of a Contrarian Writer, you will encounter the vivid, living voice of James Purdy, and the experience is unforgettable. The book delivers a steady stream of incisive, even shocking, tidbits taken from the mountains of correspondence that James left in his scattered archives. Snyder has unearthed it all.
With my kid’s hand in mine, we climbed the spiral stairs to James’s one-room apartment, bringing with us a quart of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, James’s request for a lunch date that otherwise included a vegetable soup he’d made, which was delicious. James wanted to stay home, forsaking the short walk to the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade that had been our habit on earlier visits. James had the tact and good sense to treat my four-year-old with respect and curiosity, and without questions or demands. He let the child alone while engaging both of us in a lively lunch, and then he asked me to read out loud a story that he was working on. It was “Adeline,” which appears in the superb Complete Short Stories. Read the story and imagine the scene: James lying on his bed, which took up a big chunk of the room, as my kid played at its foot with the “guys” (action figures) that were a part of our traveling kit. I read out loud this fairy-tale story about an androgynous adolescent whose beauty enchants an older painter, Bruno, who asks Adeline to “sit” for him nude, leading to a transforming gender reveal. My child manipulated the “guys” as James stretched out on the bed, his bright blue eyes sparkling, cackling with glee at the story’s sly humor. I sat in a chair voicing the protean work of a writer whom I esteemed above all other living authors: “Adeline was now both a young girl and a young man and this became for Bruno his final and greatest creation, the two were one and the one was two. The one was two the two were one.” I often wonder how my kid remembers it.
Near the end of the biography, Snyder arrives at that October weekend to recall the promising conference that was held in Amherst, with the absence of its honored subject haunting the attendees (several dozen from around the country, and one from overseas). It was a hopeful, historic-seeming occasion at which the few dozen who could make it, mostly academics, writers, and devoted readers, hatched our plan to bring as much of James’s work back into print, and into academic discourse, as we possibly could. The James Purdy Society was a labor of love with the real potential to change the (at that point) misfortunes of a great writer, and ensure that his work reached the readers who actually “got it,” mostly the young people of the near and far future who learned about literature in the academy. We did some good. Over the next two years, numerous university courses put James’s work in the emerging and felicitous context of social justice and (soon) decolonial concerns; Don Weise at Carroll & Graf brought several “lost” books back into print (including the first-ever paperback of The House of the Solitary Maggot, which had gone out-of-print after one hardcover printing in 1974); and Gore Vidal resumed his avuncular role of reminding American readers not to forsake the sui generis “genius” who had been toiling in their midst. This first-ever meeting of the James Purdy Society, on the advisory board of which I served briefly, was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with James.
The road leading there is meticulously mapped by Snyder, beginning with a detailed evocation of his subject’s historical and genealogical background. This is easily the weakest part of the book, and no one will know or care if you skip the first 20 pages to get to James’s birth (in 1914, to middle-class parents in the Midwestern small town of Hicksville, Ohio) or skim the next 60 to arrive at a chapter Snyder perversely titles “James Purdy Begins” (in which — on page 86 — he finally returns to the pivotal event that opened the book, Dame Sitwell’s grateful reception of James’s self-published stories, in 1956). In effect, Life of a Contrarian Writer begins with an 85-page parenthetical clause.
This was the first, but not the last, time I cursed Snyder’s publisher for what I believe is laxness on their part. (Snyder disagrees. His thank-yous to the press and the book’s editor, Susan Ferber, are detailed and sincere.) Oxford is one of the best university presses, earning many well-deserved laurels. Snyder was right to believe that he fared well when they accepted his book. And no one can doubt that Ferber provided the support that Snyder thanks her for. But the book’s readers face an unnecessary barrier at the very outset of the journey. One hopes they’ll be the bold, self-indulgent sort who know that the only way to read a book is for pleasure, and for pleasure alone. Snyder should be admired for his exhaustive genealogical research and his brisk review of American history in the post–Civil War period, but an attentive editor would have told him to get to the point.
Much of the material before “James Purdy Begins” is fascinating and well told, aided by Snyder’s keen Midwestern ear and curiosity about the vicissitudes of a queer, pre-Stonewall life lived in the midst of the usual family problems (breakups, betrayals, business failures, lost chances, alcoholism, and misunderstanding) and the uniquely pressured social and economic context of small-town Ohio in the first half of the 20th century; too bad if the pages lack momentum or narrative arc. Snyder focuses on the abominations of racism, classism, and a uniquely American brand of homophobic toxic masculinity while charting James’s path from a charmed childhood into difficult adolescence, and a very queer young adulthood. With James being the middle boy of three, his queerness screams from every detail and photograph in this well-illustrated book. Snyder gets it; he empathizes and serves up the details generously. Early on, when he confronts the troubled relationship that James maintained with a married, closeted love-object, the writer Wendell Wilcox, the biographer puts it just right: “Wendell was a bee in Purdy’s bonnet.” This pitch-perfect Midwestern image is very Purdian. Exactly, the reader affirms.
The remaining three-quarters of the book are lively and brisk, following James’s roller coaster of publishing ups and downs across the last half of the 20th century with an insightful account of the high stakes and his brave, unique, and often reviled contributions. For instance, of James’s stories from the late 1950s, Snyder says, “Long before the term ‘magical realism’ became known in the United States as a literary genre, Purdy translated magic realist strategies from a visual medium to literary form.” And of his masterful 1964 novel: “Beyond satire, Cabot Wright Begins is early postmodern metafiction — writing about writing — but nearly everyone overlooked that aspect.” This part of James’s protean invention was also evident in the miraculous decade of 1966–76. Both claims shift the critical record and are merited by the work. It’s not just that Snyder is a tireless researcher; he reads the evolution in James’s work with an insight and acuity born of his sensitivity to both literary innovation and to the issues of race and class that shaped the best of James’s writing. Michael Snyder is clearly the biographer James Purdy needed. Which makes it all the more grating to encounter an unevenness that one normally expects an editor to spot and iron out — for instance, Snyder’s summary of post–World War II Rome: “[G]ay creatives like Samuel Barber, Gore Vidal, Paul Cadmus, and James Merrill were ‘resident or semi-resident at this time.’” Gay creatives? Semi-resident? What stayed Ferber’s red pen at this juncture?
James’s voice is ever-present in the narrative because Snyder quotes extensively from the letters that James wrote whenever he was angry. These were primarily addressed to his publishers and critics. Snyder contextualizes these epistolary outpourings correctly by linking them to his childhood habit of writing “anonymous, anomalous letters” in which he “tell[s] [the recipient] the truth about himself” by positing vivid exaggerations rife with pseudonyms and richly invented fictional plots. These letters were often the starting place for James’s stories and plays. Jon Michaud, in a review in The New Yorker published under the puzzling title of “James Purdy Will Never Be Famous Again” (the title of my reminiscence here is an homage to that fine magazine’s schoolyard-bully headline), confessed sympathy for the editors and publishers whom James abused in his letters. Contrarily, I feel mirth, delight, and admiration reading these unbridled expressions of hostility to the soul-destroying behemoths of corporate publishing. Is James inaccurate or unfair when he complains of “[t]he cheap vulgarians, millionaires, and pimps who run New York”? Fact checkers?
In the late 1950s, Malcolm Cowley, at Viking Press, did James some typical dirt by asking him to take out all the swear words and rewrite his early novella, 63: Dream Palace (1956), according to the editor’s genteel tastes — and if not, no book deal. (Cowley was a formidable foe; Snyder reports that Jack Kerouac removed gay sex scenes from On the Road because Cowley demanded it.) When James was later asked by Viking to blurb a now-forgotten book, his reply makes me smile:
I will hate Viking Press and Malcolm Cowley as long as I live, and it is impossible for me to believe you could do anything honest, decent or in the interests of American literature. I am giving the advance proofs which you have the brazen gall to send me to a neighbor’s dog to relieve himself on.
James’s vivid reply invites the question: who is the bigger man here, Jack Kerouac or James Purdy? Michaud’s sympathy with the target might just be a cultural difference — operate inside of moneyed publishing, and you’ll feel a twinge of pain when the arrow splits its target; but step even a minim outside of that privileged circle and you might react the way I do, by admiring James’s honesty. As Snyder quotes James, in a letter to his agent, “You say consider the publishers’ point of view. I say fuck the publishers.”
James Purdy’s vituperative letters ought to be collected in the same way that Nietzsche’s aphorisms or Basho’s haikus are — as exemplars of a form. The twin engines of their force are the writer’s self-awareness and his merciless honesty. Trying to extract himself from New Directions, a press that supported him early on but that he outgrew, James addressed its managing editor, Bob MacGregor:
If you think you can continue this persecution of me (and I can just see you shaking your heads as you apply the standard clichés of psychoanalysis here) by holding back my just ownership of the rights to my books you are quite mistaken. You will either return the rights or you can devote the rest of your lives to hearing from me. Jay [James Laughlin, founder and publisher of New Directions, heir to a steel fortune that kept the press afloat for the 36 years it took them to turn a profit] with his wealth and his power can use the grossly unfair methods of the publishing world to keep my books while neither you nor he do a thing in the way of promotion or advertising. […] If you and J. want to go on with your pious declarations of concern for my well-being while gouging and bullying me out of what is mine, very well. But you are in then for a hot summer, and I intend to spend all my energy, all my time, all my talent in bringing home to you the injustice you are doing. I will never rest until you return to me my rightful ownership of my books. Never, never, never!
James’s letter delivers raw emotion, lucidly expressed, as is true of his angry letters generally. They are deeply self-centered, hurtful, mean, and indulgent. But are they inappropriate or without cause? No. Of course he was impolite, ill-mannered, even unhinged. But was he wrong? Looking closely, one finds that everything he says is true. Snyder’s comment: “Such tirades contributed to Purdy’s reputation among some gay creatives as a ‘bitch’” — that again? Where is the editor who should politely suggest that “gay creatives” is neither a relevant nor a meaningful characterization of these people? It is, unfortunately, a tic (and an easily corrected one). Or this: “Purdy ushered in the 1980s decade by signing with Viking Press.” Dear editor, where is your counsel?
Horribly, James’s tirades sometimes went beyond his condemnation of the terrible acts of his foes into anti-Semitic slurs that were hard to bear, or even make sense of. He would praise Gordon Lish or Bettina Schwarzschild in one breath and decry the “Jewish propaganda machine […] of New York publishing” in the next. However seldom delivered, James’s anti-Semitic remarks were odious and almost unbearable. To be fair, they were an inherited disability, like Tourette Syndrome. His blurted curses about a Jewish conspiracy had to be weathered, replied to clearly and firmly, and then weathered again — because no amount of correction could change what was truly a thoughtless and unreflective act. While the curses were inexcusable, friends (including me, son of a Jewish father) excused the man because his illogic and contradictions were so transparent: James’s archenemies were gentiles — the Catholic Sheed, or Laughlin, a Presbyterian; and his acknowledged greatest ally was a Jew, Bettina Schwarzschild (in James’s oft-repeated phrase, “a child of the Holocaust”).
Those who knew him forgave him because we knew that when James cursed Jews, he meant New York, and when he cursed New York, he meant power. James Purdy’s true nemesis, the defining enemy against which he raged, was worldly power in the form of money and inherited privilege. James Laughlin and Roger Straus were its pure embodiment. That New York happened to be the gathering place of these twin evils gave James the logic by which he condemned the whole city and its publishing industry. Still, however persuasive his vitriol could be, the equation was probably as unfair and odious as was his focus on Jews. Now that he’s dead, we can correct him. In life, alas, one could not (not with any lasting effect, anyway).
James railing against the noose around his neck makes sense when we realize how little power the writer retains in the publishing industry’s standard “exclusive rights” contract. As a rule, publication only ensues after the writer pledges to give the rights to market their work exclusively to one publisher. Such contracts are the heart of the “grossly unfair methods of the publishing world” that James identified and chafed against. That the noose around his neck was put there voluntarily — and in the greedy pursuit of his own power — makes his outbursts tragic. But his accusations are neither unfair nor unwarranted. The writer who signs a “normal” contract is trapped in an abusive relationship, with all the cards stacked against him. James had the poor taste and courage to point this out.
The fact that other writers hated hearing James say these things did not mean he was being “a bitch.” Their anger came because they too were trapped — they had trapped themselves — but they lacked the spine and self-respect to say so. James shouted against power; he made a scene. The writer in him rose to the occasion. Notably, James’s threat in his letter to New Directions is “or you can devote the rest of your lives to hearing from me [italics mine].” James knew that his pen was the crucial power granted to him in this shitty, abusive economy. His letter is self-aware, which gives it its strength. He notes how obvious the psychological diagnosis might be. This is a richly expressive, utterly human letter filled with brilliant insights, and sent in all earnest.
James Purdy knew how to speak from the heart. In Laughlin and, later, Straus, he met men who stood in for the greater demons in his life. James’s letters were not a communication to specific people so much as they were a tirade against cruel reality. Addressing Laughlin, he wrote,
You are the most odious person in my life. You are wealthy and powerful, but the conscience of the decent literary community will convict you and you will remain in literary history, known by that conviction. Nothing will wash it away, and your previous good actions will remain soiled by it.
James Purdy wanted desperately to live in a moral universe. But he did not. So, he screamed and cursed and threw tantrums. He used all his gifts for “bringing home to you the injustice you are doing.” (Rather different from the current fashion among writers to serve up their humble pie and express gratitude for whatever attention comes their way.) James’s honesty and courage — and above all his superb use of vitriolic English — should be celebrated, not shamed or excused.
James’s bitter expressiveness has about it the urgency and futility of the prophet, doomed to know a truth that everyone else must live in denial of. For writers to long for his vindication or to attempt to emulate him is comical to the point of cruelty. James Purdy’s work continues to curse us with its lucid, prescient imagining. His damning vision of an insane, immoral nation collapsing in the tragicomedy scripted and broadcast by its venal culture industries is old news. Cabot Wright is tame stuff now, compared to where we’ve gotten to. In the long, long decade since James died, we even elected an alleged rapist as president.
It’s a pleasure to hear this tale recounted in Snyder’s Midwestern voice. At times, the biographer’s frankness sounds like a small-town gossip letting her hair down about the neighbors. The New Yorker’s poetry editor at the time, Howard Moss, is summarized as “a closeted gay, alcoholic poet.” The frisson of Snyder’s inelegance is satisfying to a reader who misses James’s similar frankness. Like the latter, Snyder is essentially an outsider (in the context of corporate publishing), a bookish nerd from the academy. He’s bad-mannered and grating, and he has a laser eye for the truths that his sources obfuscate. He delights in gossip and puts it boldly and frankly when he has it. In this, he sounds very much like James did. As I say, I don’t think there is a better writer for this biography. James is lucky that Snyder was clued in and dogged enough to complete the difficult project, despite starting in 2008 (while completing his PhD dissertation about James Purdy).
Easily the best section of Life of a Contrarian Writer is Snyder’s gumshoe detective work on Edward Albee, whose failed Broadway adaptation of James’s Malcolm, in 1965, “diminished the reputation of the novel, sullying it, and Purdy generally, with failure.” Snyder argues that this was an act of intentional subterfuge, and he digs deep into the archive to get the goods on Albee:
This was less an adaptation than a hostile takeover. Albee sought to take down Purdy and thwart McNally [Terrence McNally, who, as Snyder also reveals, was both rival and ex-boyfriend to Albee], who had wanted to adapt Malcolm, by co-opting, defacing, and legally co-owning rights to Purdy’s signature work. Albee could then control and horde Malcolm as a “property.”
What a despicable and conniving act by Albee! And what genius! One can’t help but marvel at the elegance of its conception. In a perfect dramatic turn, Albee has grasped the very weapon that all writers suffer under — that their work becomes property — and turned it against the only writer who was bitchy enough to complain about it.
I was astonished to learn of the deliberateness and success of this subterfuge. I knew Albee too, not nearly as well as I knew James, and both men were warm and cordial to each other. As I told Snyder during interviews for his book, James never spoke ill of Albee as a person. He did share detailed complaints about weaknesses in Albee’s art and nursed the usual bruises from a lifetime of competition with a peer, but James never said anything disparaging about the Malcolm adaptation, nor did he exhibit a lingering mistrust of Albee. And James was given to dwelling on his past injuries, to the point of fixation. So, this revelation came as a complete surprise.
I never questioned the need for a complete and intelligent biography of James Purdy, but I often despaired of it ever coming to be. James didn’t court the writers who could do such a job, and the writers he did court (or, anyway, accept) lacked the essential research skills and distance from New York that Snyder has. Only one figure ever loomed as a real option (in my mind), and that was the vastly talented Kevin Killian. Kevin (also a close friend) revered James: “He is to the novel what William Carlos Williams is to poetry,” he once said, “the seed, the source, the beginning of everything.” Kevin was a skilled novelist and poet who had recently completed a long-delayed biography of the then-forgotten San Francisco poet Jack Spicer. What Kevin did for Spicer (building on the work of Lewis Ellingham), he could also have done for James, or so I believed. In fact, the effort would’ve probably killed him. It’s easy to dream of great biographies but a living hell to actually research and write them. In the end, Kevin spent a decade on his prize-winning Spicer biography (Poet Be Like God, co-authored with Ellingham, published in 1998), and went on to write more novels, stories, and poems, but never another biography. Kevin died in 2019, and I miss him terribly.
Edmund White declared — after the decade it took him to complete his superb biography of Jean Genet — that he would never try his hand at biography again: it was too exhausting. Too many competing interests held claim to too much information of crucial importance. And setting aside the social demands on a writer who needs the approval of all his sources, White gratefully collected the laurels he’d earned writing Genet (1993) and went back to writing novels: a holiday from the hell of biography.
The biographer is like the mortician who arrives at the site of a multicar accident and must separate bodies that are indiscriminately conjoined by the force of the collision. If the biographer’s subject was a fiction writer, there is the added complication that alongside the driver always rode a doppelgänger, a near-double whose identity and separateness the driver has striven throughout life to obscure — that is, the writer’s work. Amid the smear of their intermingled gore, the biographer must discern, first of all, the real identity of the driver (her subject); second, the true outlines of the doppelgänger (the subject’s writing); and third, all the other interested parties (the other cars that met in this fatal collision). Having done so, the biographer must also seduce the reader into believing that what they’re reading is an account of misfortunes that the biographer stumbled upon innocently. This is not an easy task.
Reading Snyder’s book, I can see immediately why a partial, passionate firsthand witness, as I am, could never have produced the biography required by a figure like James Purdy. A useful biography begins in ignorance and proceeds through research to a detailed picture of the facts of a life that a subject has almost certainly tried, for a lifetime, to distort. Snyder catches James in the act consistently, and he has the sympathetic good grace to praise the articulation (James was at his best exaggerating the facts of his own life) while also correcting the record. He’s not, in James’s derisive terms, “one of the sweet lispers.” The biography is Midwestern, anchored in a mind and sensibility deeply consonant with James’s, and if it lacks the persuasive cohesion of other bestselling biographies, it possesses the stubborn insistence on contrarian truths, and what James called “real speech” — plain speaking — that marked his own writing.
In addition to his surpassing scholarship and Midwestern sensibility, Snyder has another quality that makes him the best possible biographer for James Purdy: he’s young enough to understand social justice. Snyder himself rejects the term “woke,” but his scholarship bears all the marks of someone who learned enough criticality to register the social justice issues embedded in literature. “Black Lives Matter” would be a fitting title for James’s American debut in 1957 (which was, in the parlance of his time, instead titled Color of Darkness). Snyder reads him through a lens free of the heteromasculinist mythologies of “greatness” and heritage by which the canons of American literature are usually constructed. He reads James as James wrote — from below — with a keen awareness of race, class, and the toxic masculinity that punished and offended James throughout his life. It seems likely (and Snyder’s book is the first to really put the case) that 21st-century Americans will read and receive James Purdy in the way that made 20th-century America (a few critics, anyway) take a taste of his work and spit it out of their mouths. American society is catching up with one of our most visionary writers, as we often do.
Gertrude Stein presents a parallel case, one that gives hope to those of us who value James’s work. Stein, after decades of uncomprehending neglect, also enjoyed celebrity late in her life. And yet, at her death in 1946, she was little read. What of her work the public knew was collected in her diaristic accounts of the fascinating life that she led — superb books such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), and Wars I Have Seen (1945). At the same time, almost entirely out of print (or else never even published) was the core of her 50 years of experimentation and innovation, including Stanzas in Meditation (1956), Tender Buttons (1914), and the monumental Making of Americans (1925). Yet today, these books are more widely read and influential than the work that brought Stein the celebrity she enjoyed during the last two decades of her life.
James also enjoyed celebrity, and, similar to Stein’s, it came late in his life. But he never had the patience or the savvy to do as Stein did in her work: to actively teach his audience how to read him (instead, he railed against “the philistines”). Stein attended to this important work, both inside her books and outside them, as a lecturer and a teacher of younger writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald being among the best-known early ones). By the time Stein died, everything was in place. She’d written not only the work but also the key to reading it. It was only a matter of time before her influence outstripped that of any of her contemporaries, including James Joyce. (I’m clearly baiting some readers here — contact LARB to write your rebuttal — and given the comparative renown of Joyce and Stein at the time of her death, what I claim now would have been unthinkable, even laughable.) Today, the work of Gertrude Stein is in print, all the way down to her letters and occasional pieces; she is taught in every academy, even the countercultural ones; and writers of English-language literature are more widely and deeply influenced by her innovations than they are by Joyce’s.
During the last decade of my friendship with James, I was writing a novel about Gertrude Stein’s nephew, Allan Stein, and I had immersed myself in both her work and in the posthumous scholarship that has ushered her so firmly into our field of vision. I often wondered why James did not devote at least some of his energy to the metacritical diplomacy academics required by building bridges into his work, as Stein had done. He uttered useful aphorisms, but he felt that readers either “got him” or did not. Much of my dread about the need for a biographer was based on this paucity. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry.
The founding of the James Purdy Society in October 2003 marked a turn that has, I believe, culminated in Michael Snyder’s biography. Let’s hope that legacy continues. That gathering also marked a great shift in the relationship of John Uecker, James’s amanuensis of three decades, to those of us who met in Amherst. I think that John felt threatened by us. The good we could do for James’s career was becoming clearer to James. He did not attend the conference because John Uecker told him not to, but in its wake, he showed great interest and appreciation. John had portrayed the founders as ill-intentioned sycophants trying to capitalize on James’s stature, but the absurdity of that rapidly became clear. John soon began building bridges to some in the James Purdy Society while renewing his tireless work of demonizing others, clearing out the bad apples by putting poison into James’s ear. When I returned to New York to check in with James (this is a year or two later, 2004 or 2005), I encountered an atypically terse and disengaged friend. He preferred that we speak by phone and not meet at his apartment. On the phone, he let me know that he could no longer see me, nor after this speak to me, because John had told him that I supported another acolyte who had been “banished” (for the usual offenses), someone I did not know named John Hanshe.
Snyder guesses at the backstory here, but his book misses the incredible reach of Uecker’s animus. The problem might be because Snyder’s access to James’s papers was granted by his executor, none other than John Uecker himself. (All of those who support James should be grateful to John for this.) Something, maybe this, kept Snyder from learning many things John doubtless preferred remain obscure. After John embraced the James Purdy Society and commenced to clean it up, there were significant battle casualties. My relationship with James was one of them. Even sadder, and unnecessary, was James’s break with Dennis Moore, a dear, loving friend who first met James in 1993, when I and others created “James Purdy Week” in Seattle, bringing James to Dennis’s hometown for a celebration. Snyder hints at John’s role in poisoning James’s love for Dennis, and here we reenter the melodramas of the Purdian world. It makes my head spin. Now they are all dead.
I treasure my memory of that afternoon with my kid and James, reading “Adeline” to the delighted author. A strange thing happened when we were done and my child and I were leaving. James remained supine on his bed, wishing us well as we closed the door behind us and started down the long, winding staircase. I pulled the door firmly shut and turned to see my kid slip on the first step and begin tumbling down to the bottom of what to my eyes looked like an endless slide to hell. I ran to keep up, and at the bottom we held each other and cried. Thankfully, miraculously, the injury was not hellish — a broken collarbone, treated with aspirin and a sling — and after a visit to the emergency room (helped by a Good Samaritan, a passerby who walked us to her doctor’s office and commanded him to see us), we bought the fake vampire teeth that my kid wanted for Halloween, and continued on our round of visits to my New York friends. On my mind then, besides the terror of my child’s fall, was how I would ever find the time or the ability to write a biography that I feared no one else would ever write.
I was wrong in so many ways. Indeed, I was incapable of reading James with the acuity and insight that Michael Snyder brings. I was too wed to the framework of “gay literature,” by which enthusiastic publishers of my time kept trying to revive James’s fortunes in the marketplace. White, middle-class, and saddled with an MFA, I read James as an elder faggot who had said, courageously and directly, what I knew to be true (and long before I could ever say it). But, as James so eloquently reminded us, “I’m not a gay writer, I’m a monster.” The way into his work was not through the briefly relevant window of gay liberation. Indeed, among the revelations in Snyder’s biography is discovering how precisely wrong that window was. James Purdy’s subject is an unadorned humanity, which identity politics obscured. To read him as a “gay writer” is to bury his meanings, again, under the cultural junk that he tried so hard to clear away.
I doubt James would have been comfortable with the language, or many of the ideas, now circulating as “woke culture,” but when Michael Snyder reads James through that lens, the lodestone of meanings in all his best books comes lurching into view, reaching his audience, which is not gay, but human, poor, Black, Indigenous, female, trans, criminal — that is to say, all of the monsters.
Matthew Stadler is the author of Allan Stein, Landscape: Memory, The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee, and The Sex Offender. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and Ingram-Merrill fellowships, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a United States Artists fellowship in the inaugural round.
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