The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels
of James Purdy
A survey of the novels by this unduly neglected American writer, with special attention to the novels of the 1950s and 1960s.
When James Purdy died in 2009 at the age of 94, most people who still recognized his name surely judged that he had long outlived whatever relevance he and his books might once have had. Although he published almost 30 books, according to the James Purdy Society website only 9 of them remained in print, and these did not include the novels that won Purdy an early reputation among them Malcolm, The Nephew, and Cabot Wright Begins. That these books were at the time of his death apparently not much valued highly by publishers seems compelling evidence either that the American cultural memory cannot sustain a writer without at least one book that made it "big" or caused some notable scandal, or that Purdy's work doesn't deserve continued recognition.
While the first explanation is unfortunately probably true enough, it doesn't satisfactorily account for the neglect of James Purdy, whose novels during the 1960s, at least, were reviewed by prominent critics and remain sufficiently provocative in subject and theme that readers might still find them controversial—as did some contemporaneous reviewers who dismissed them as sensational, or even immoral. As to the second explanation, no one who has been intrigued to read deeply into Purdy's singularly disturbing stories or novels would be able to say this work might just as well be forgotten. However, after reading more of Purdy's fiction, we can perhaps begin to understand why it was never entirely welcomed by the critical gatekeepers—popular and academic—who by default keep a writer's reputation alive in book reviews and scholarly journals and on course syllabi, and why it was never likely to appeal to a large audience. At the same time, we can also begin to recognize that the very qualities of Purdy's work that might explain its failure to maintain greater cultural visibility are also the qualities that make his work so remarkable—and that should win it a future audience.