On the George Washington Bridge Project: James Purdy

13Mar09

In which The Gay Recluse becomes increasingly obsessed with the George Washington Bridge.

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(American gay fiction writer and flickering beacon during the Dark Ages of post-war American fiction) James Purdy died today, and as so often happens, The Times obit neglected to explicitly state that he was gay/queer/homosexual/vext. Not that you could really hide it in Purdy’s case, given that the subject matter of his books so often dealt with such themes, and to be fair, the obit did not fail to discuss his work in these terms.

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But according to our friend John — who is in a position to know such things — Purdy spent a lot of time ‘chasing after young men many decades younger than him,’ which I suppose is simply beyond what The Times is about to include in any obituary. Still, it’s fun to imagine: “As a gay man who lived in New York City for close to sixty years, Purdy was never partnered, but ravished approximately 40,682 men — many barely out of their teens! — and in his later years was never seen without a posse of young admirers.”

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Although the obituary makes the case reasonably well that Purdy was an Important But Neglected American Writer — which is true (and if you haven’t read him, we recommend starting with Eustace Chisholm and the Works) — there is a somewhat disturbing soullessness to the piece as a whole, a hovering ‘lonely bachelor’ aura that makes it feel just a little sad/stereotypical, as if Purdy was ‘a lonely and bitter homosexual’ without a trace of love or passion in his life. (Who knows, maybe that’s true.)

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Or maybe I’m just thinking about how I would want my own obituary to be written, i.e., even if I had written 20 novels that were/were not critically acclaimed, and even if I didn’t have a boyfriend/partner/spouse/husband (something ‘culturally sanctioned’ for The Times to mention) I would still want a few words dedicated to some aspect of ‘being human’ or perhaps just being ‘alive’ (by which I mean a capacity to feel/love, even if it’s not necessarily feelings for another person).

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E.g., “An admirer of the Brooklyn Bridge, Purdy was known to make a point of walking across it at least 300 times per year.” Or: “In addition to writing books, Purdy collected flower-themed stamps, for which he held a lifelong obsession.” Or: “Purdy had a beagle named Stanley who for many years never left his side, and was often seen dining with him in restaurants.” Or: “Purdy loved nothing more than a good salad!”

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When I read about death — and particularly about that of an artist or writer — I want to see some signs of ‘real life,’ some indication that perhaps this person was a ‘lil obsessive’ and not just a robot in the bourgeois capitalist society/factory in which we’ve all been slated to pass these recent decades; if it’s not there, the risk is that you put down the paper (a metaphor) and think ‘what’s the point?’ which is a completely different level of neglect, and one that none of us really deserve.



5 Responses to “On the George Washington Bridge Project: James Purdy”

  1. Interesting thoughts on Purdy (whom I always thought was a “purdy” good, though not a very good, writer). Obits are weird, aren’t they? So “after the fact” and rather useless on some level. The Times, being such a mainstream paper, I don’t think you ‘ll get what you want there, or in any similar media source. Maybe one of the gay publications will give a more rounded, nuanced and personal obituary. It would be nice….

  2. 2 Paul Smith

    The Times obit. on James Purdy was not a complete wash, considering Mr. Purdy is basically a has been, out-of-print author. I think if readers want to pay homage to Mr. Purdy, then take the Times article as an introduction and go get his books. Whatever the details of his personal life shouldn’t matter as we assess his art. And true is is that perhaps he lived with an abiding loneliness and never had a satisfying love life either. Millions upon millions can empathize without thinking it a ‘gay stereotype’ that he suffered in this way.

  3. 3 Matthew

    Purdy was – and IS – far from a “has been, out-of-print author.” Beyond opinion, this is simply untrue factually.

    Numerous books of his have remained in print in English, including Malcolm, Eustace Chisholm, In a Shallow Grave, Narrow Rooms, The Candles of Your Eyes, Garments the Living Wear, and Out with the Stars. In the last decade, there were new publications such as Gertrude of Stony Island Ave and his last collection, Moe’s Villa and Other Stories, which was first published in England and then here in America by the same publisher that reprinted Jeremy’s Version, The House of the Solitary Maggot, Narrow Rooms, Eustace, etc. Purdy mind you has also been translated into over 30 different languages and is well known and respected in Europe where literature is less under the dominion of the NY Times bestseller list. Thus, while he may not have been a counter-culture icon, he is far from a has been author and is actually more prolific than most writers from his generation.

    His personal life should be of little interest; it is his work that is part of our heritage and Purdy always said in interviews that he wasn’t interested in biography, that his life was in his work. At least the obituary was respectful. Considering Purdy’s disdain for the literary establishment and the media, that’s a boon. A new generation of readers needs to encounter his work as in recent decades it has certainly been neglected here in America.

    • Thanks for responding to that ridiculous “has been” comment so forcefully and coherently, which spared me the agony of having to do so! I agree that the obit was generally respectful, but I’m not sure that I completely agree with the idea that we should set aside Purdy’s ‘personal’ life, even if he requested we do so, simply because too few lives of gay men — and particularly artists/writers of his stature — are critically/thoughtfully examined, and I think it’s simply unrealistic to expect that any artist can exist in the literary canon without this kind of scholarly treatment/insight. At any rate, let’s hope a new generation of readers will pick up his books and help to elevate him to a place where he belongs in post-war American lit.

  4. 5 Matthew

    I wasn’t insisting on setting his personal life, let alone his sexuality aside, or expecting that it will not undergo scholarly treatment. In saying that it is in his work, it is acknowledging it, acknowledging how it is made into myth by the artist as opposed to indulging in the desire to unearth the personal life of an artist for other motives.

    It depends on what one is interested in when speaking of this and why one is interested in it. Many may have purely salacious interests, or are simply be interested in base gossip, which is the antithesis of Purdy’s whole ethos. If Purdy resisted biographies until his death, and if most if not nearly all of his generation have perished, its doubtful we’ll learn much of his personal life that isn’t already in the letters which have been in archives for decades. When asked if he was gay in an interview, Purdy said there was no such thing, which is not a denial of an erotic ethos, but a refusal to capitulate to a simplistic mode of identity. One sees this again and again in his work as well. It may for many be a quick and seemingly secure way of solidifying an identity, but if I’ve learned anything from Purdy, one of the things is that that is purely an illusion – there is no secure identity.

    To reflect further on Paul’s comment, If we limit our understanding or view of any artist to America alone, our comprehension of that figure will be sorely limited, especially someone like Purdy, who was so well received in Europe. The status of a writer certainly shouldn’t be based on books being in print. If we take that as a barometer of value, then Stephen King trumps most. This would be a purely capitalistic way of assessing value or artistic merit and it is to negate the power and value of the few. If Purdy is receiving accolades from Bowles, Vidal, Williams, Parker, Rorem, etc., what greater sign of merit is there? As Paul said though, the Times obit can act as a catalyst for generating further interest in Purdy and that’s vital.


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