James Purdy: Life of a Contrarian Writer 
by Michael Snyder.
Oxford, 444 pp., £27, January, 978 0 19 760972 9
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James Purdy​ ’s literary career comes with its own creation myth. He had been making no headway until in 1956 Edith Sitwell read a privately printed book of his stories and, ravished, threw herself into finding him a publisher and an audience. In one version of the event, Don’t Call Me by My Right Name, the book Purdy sent from America to Italy, made the last stage of its journey supernaturally, materialising by Sitwell’s bedside when she woke from a nap. Purdy then sent her a copy of his novella 63: Dream Palace, also privately printed, about which she was even more enthusiastic, acclaiming its first sentence as ‘in itself, a masterpiece’. Her excitement persuaded Gollancz to publish a volume containing the novella (and borrowing its title) along with nine stories.

The novella’s first sentence reads: ‘“Do you ever think about Fenton Riddleway?” Parkhearst Cratty asked the greatwoman one afternoon when they were sitting in the summer garden of her “mansion”.’ I don’t know that any opening sentence can be considered in isolation a masterpiece, but this one certainly serves notice of a stylised view of the world. Themes that recur in Purdy’s later work include power struggles (liable to sudden inversions), extreme emotional states (also subject to reversal), and polar contrasts of riches and poverty, youth and age. Moments of poetic magic rather than developments in plot or character make the experience of reading compulsive: ‘“Who is this?” she said, putting her hand on his face as one might touch what is perhaps a door in a dark house.’ The last word of 63: Dream Palace was ‘motherfucker’. Sitwell herself was apparently not inhibited from intoning it in a restaurant, as if it was no more troubling than ‘knickerbocker’. Gollancz replaced it with the metrically equivalent ‘little bugger’, not as cowardly a substitution as the author of this biography, Michael Snyder, seems to think. ‘Motherfucker’ was taboo, but also unfamiliar in a British context. ‘Bugger’ was a robust stand-in.

Snyder starts his book with Sitwell’s epiphany but acknowledges the exaggeration behind Purdy’s claim that she had saved him from giving up writing altogether. For years his agent had been submitting stories for publication, with occasional success, and the two books Purdy posted to Italy (one of which was financed by his lover at the time, the other by a wealthy friend) had been sent out to many literary celebrities. Carl van Vechten was converted even before Sitwell and remained a champion.

Purdy was born in Ohio in 1914, the second of three sons. His father, William, was a banker unwisely turned property developer. After William lost large sums of money, Purdy’s parents divorced, and his mother, Vera, began running a boarding house. Richard, his older brother, had a successful stint as an actor before alcoholism ended his career and forced him to return home. Snyder refers to him as ‘an aspiring actor and gay youth’ who felt stuck in a conservative Midwestern town, but there is no follow-up on this broad hint. The youngest brother, Robert, stayed in Ohio. James described him as a ‘Babbitt’ – a smug materialist. He too was a published author, though his book was called The Successful High School Athletic Programme. Purdy remarked that if Robert or his wife, Dorothy, ever read a book of his they would have had ‘a horror stroke’.

Snyder’s procedure as a biographer is to herd miscellaneous facts, more or less in sequence, into paragraphs without much sign of an underlying argument. Links, when they appear (‘Also a bit grisly, Purdy caught herpes in his eye …’), can seem to parody the whole notion of linkage. He casts about wildly for information, however inconsequential, that might spark a reader’s interest. ‘Harold and Virginia Knapik, as it turned out, were undercover CIA. Another unusual thing about them is that they were first cousins – his brother was married to her sister.’ Not only irrelevant but nonsense – that’s not what constitutes first cousinship. Of course, there are respectable ambitions for a literary biography beyond offering an absorbing narrative, notably to make a case for the value of a writer overlooked or gone out of fashion. Here’s Snyder’s angle: ‘Opening doors for later writers, Purdy boldly pushed the envelope in subject matter and literary strategy, following the frankly homoerotic early stories of Tennessee Williams.’ Hmm – if you’re following in the footsteps of an earlier writer can you be said to be opening doors? And if Purdy was bold to follow in his wake, how is Williams’s own courage to be assessed?

Williams’s story ‘One Arm’ (1948) is about a promising boxer called Oliver who has an amputation after an accident and starts to sell his body. He isn’t particularly shocked to learn his ‘commodity value’, but what is referred to as his ‘speechless self’ moves towards destruction. Drunk, he kills a stockbroker on his yacht and is sentenced to death. During his trial he receives letters from old clients, men for whom he remained fixed ‘as a planet among the moons of their longing’. The soupy-spiritual letters enrage him and he tears them to pieces, but others begin to have an effect. They are described as unpaid bills, representing not money but outstanding feelings. He puts a sheaf of them under his pillow. ‘The doomed man’s brain grew warmer and warmer with a sense of communion’ and he starts to write replies. He lies naked on his cot in the July heat, and his one large hand ‘made joyless love to his body, exploring all of those erogenous zones that the fingers of others, hundreds of strangers’ fingers, had clasped with a hunger that now was beginning to be understandable to him’. This is described as a resurrection, but it’s a cruel one, since it can lead nowhere. He takes the letters with him into the death chamber, closing his thighs on them as he sits in the electric chair.

Here homosexual desire is offered nothing as feeble as sympathy or respect, but is shown as powerful, able to transform the condemned man, though hardly to redeem him. Purdy’s early stories have nothing so fierce to show. He took more risks in his first novel, the picaresque-satirical Malcolm (1959), but his novel-writing career amounts to a series of lurches towards explicitness and even extremity, alternating with retreats to safer ground. His second novel, The Nephew (1961), is the most consistently acclaimed of his books, and is written in realist mode. The oppressive smell from the ketchup factory that the residents of Rainbow Centre can’t ignore during the summer months may seem an expressionist touch, but it corresponds to the conditions of life in Bowling Green, the town on which Purdy based it.

Again Snyder hails the bravery involved: ‘The topic of same-sex love and desire was edgy for a novel published nine years before the Stonewall Inn protest. It was also risky, given the neglect and criticism Gore Vidal and James Baldwin suffered after publishing their gay novels, The City and the Pillar (1948) and Giovanni’s Room (1956).’ But Purdy’s method is anything but confrontational, using elderly Alma Mason as the point of view. Alma’s nephew Cliff may or may not have been living a secret life – the emphasis falls on her attempts to discover the man she thought she knew. She encounters coded messages and speaking silences: ‘It was exactly in the little they said that Alma read the much that was there.’ The result is closer to Henry James than to Genet.

Snyder makes no reference to Purdy’s close contemporary John Horne Burns, whose 1947 novel, The Gallery, had negotiated a sure-footed path through the competing claims of directness and prudence (it became a bestseller). The gallery is the Galleria Umberto 1 in Naples, a monumental shopping arcade, at least half-ruined when Burns first saw it as a GI in 1944, and a place of assignation, trade and worship, ‘a living and subdividing cell of vermouth, Allied soldiery and the Italian people’. It can seem as if life handed Burns his book on a plate, but literature doesn’t work like that. The Gallery has a subtly unwelcome message for an American readership, that it was the occupying forces, not the country being liberated, that represented decadence. One episode in the middle of the book, ‘Momma’, described the activities at a gay bar, but its placement gave reviewers the option, which they exercised, of not mentioning it. The narrator slyly reveals that he may be a customer at Momma’s:

I remember lying there, lost and wondering. I put my hand out to encounter another hand, already reaching for mine. My mouth went out exploring, only to meet another mouth working towards mine in the darkness. In that kiss I felt as though my tongue had at last articulated a word I’d been striving to pronounce all my life long. In those long kisses there was nothing brutal, nothing rapacious, as mad love is supposed to be, so that the lovers lacerate one another’s lips. I think we were both a little sad when we kissed. In those kisses we tried to heal each other’s souls.

This register, so non-committal as regards gender, would attract notice and comment if it came on page 1, but by virtue of appearing on page 306 it has to be assimilated into a mass of pre-existing impressions. Readers aren’t lazy, exactly, but there are things they can choose not to notice.

Burns wrote two more novels, weak and parochial compared to The Gallery, and for the rest of his life bit every hand, whether it planned to feed him or not. He had the excuse (if it is one) of alcoholism, and drank himself to death before he was forty. Purdy’s name, though, must be added to the short list of 20th-century American writers to have had an untroubled relationship with alcohol. He alienated people the hard way, sober. Snyder documents any number of rancorous exchanges with publishers, editors and agents – it isn’t clear that he ever understood the status of a contract as a legally binding document. The delayed arrival of the recognition to which he felt entitled made him unappeasable when it came.

There were nasty homophobic elements in reviews of his work; Alfred Sundel used the word ‘faggot’ seven times in one paragraph while summarising 63: Dream Palace. But if there was repression there was also promotion. Purdy benefited indirectly, like many writers of his time, from the CIA funding of magazines and publishing houses (New Directions and Secker among them), and from such entities as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He died in 2009, long after this became known – did he ever realise how much he owed to state agencies he regarded as hostile or indifferent? His martyred claims of solitary struggle ring hollow. Bitterly he complained as the grants and fellowships rained down on him.

After the low-key triumph of The Nephew, Purdy rebounded towards provocation. Cabot Wright Begins (1965) was calculated to give offence, with its tale of a serial rapist made into a media darling. But there was safety, too, in terms of genre: satire with its distortions and exaggerations, the tastelessness it requires, can offer useful protection against the morality police. That there was in Purdy’s literary make-up a need to go too far was evident in the novel he wrote next, Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967). His publisher, Secker, was troubled by the ‘strong pornographic and sadistic elements’ in the manuscript, and eventually rejected it (Cape stepped in). Purdy’s mother and father had never been readers of his books, but it is plausible (as Snyder suggests) that he was disinhibited by their deaths – parents remain part of the jury pool as long as they’re alive.

Eustace (or ‘Ace’) is an aspiring Chicago poet scrawling his supposed epic on old newspapers, perhaps an artist in the making but with his ideas about life already fixed in a number of departments. When his unfaithful wife returns to him, repentant, he takes her back but only as a tenant who must pay rent. By giving her the marital bed he has an excuse to share the davenport with his male lodger. Not that he is a sentimentalist in his estimation of either gender:

Some asshole comes into a room wearing pants or a skirt as the case may be, and says, ‘Ace, I love you, I love you, Ace,’ and then they pour me the poisoned cup, urging, ‘Drink this, Ace, it will do you so much good,’ and of course you know me, can’t refuse a gift, and I take a sip and say, ‘But, lover, this foaming potion is poison’ … They know me, I’m game for poison and it does me all the good I can get from it. So I always say to my poisoner, ‘All right, give me some then on account of I’m game that way,’ and they go ahead and give me it.

Eustace admits that love exists, but thinks it a rarity and not necessarily a blessing. He sees the signs of it in two acquaintances, Amos Ratcliffe, a beautiful and prodigious teenager, and Amos’s landlord, Daniel Haws.

Amos is open about his feelings for Daniel. ‘“I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m in love with Daniel Haws and I’m going to tell him … I testify to love on account of I treasure love,” Amos intoned, releasing the words reluctantly, as a suspect at last admits a crime to some threatening police sergeant.’ The concluding analogy sneaks back in the doubts that have been banished from the declaration. Daniel is barely polite to Amos by day, even if at night everything is different. Daniel sleepwalks, and in this unconscious but revealing state visits Amos’s bedside, where he shows signs of a wondering tenderness. This ‘night-time caller’ is as different from the daytime Daniel as a dream is from everyday reality. There is fascination and excitement for Amos in this strange situation: ‘He knew that in about six hours a sleepwalker wearing Daniel Haws’s face and body, but with a different soul, would visit him in his cubicle, smooth his hair, mumble words of blind affection.’ Amos wants to weld these two souls into one, though the success of this experiment isn’t guaranteed. Amos is no pushover physically (he possesses ‘vivid musculature and a hard fist’), but Daniel’s violent streak is very near the surface.

Daniel rejects Amos’s love without quite being able to deny his own. His desperate solution is to re-enlist in the army. Posted to Biloxi, Mississippi, and helpless ‘in the arms of the dark bridegroom, the army’, as Eustace puts it in a letter, he meets another version of sexualised fate in the form of the sadistic Captain Stadger. With the correspondence between Daniel in Biloxi and Eustace in Chicago, not to mention the letters to Amos from his mother that Eustace finds and reads on the sly, Eustace Chisholm and the Works moves towards being an awkward sort of epistolary novel. Eustace’s notional centrality depends on his status as ringleader or at least chronicler of the disparate souls around him, something that loses relevance as the book goes on. Amos’s character shifts sharply, no longer a pure lover destined for one man but a seducer across a broad front. He captivates a millionaire with no previous responsiveness to his own sex, but who is soon saying, ‘I just love you, that’s all there is to it, and I could drink your come in goblets,’ a style of compliment that is unlikely to catch on.

Reviewing the novel for the New York Times under the headline ‘An Alleged Love Story’, Wilfred Sheed compared Purdy to ‘a down-at-heel Iris Murdoch, working seedier equations’. Sheed may have been thinking of The Bell (1958), in which the character of Michael refuses the love of Nick, despite returning it. Nick kills himself as a result. The moral logic of Murdoch’s novel requires Michael to acknowledge his fault, in which the gender of the loving parties is neither an exacerbating nor excusing factor. It doesn’t require him to be tortured and disembowelled, the fate meted out to Daniel Haws, who does remarkably little to resist it.

Amos’s end is perfunctory and happens offstage. Purdy contrived a magnificent final paragraph, capable of making the reader forget for a moment the lack of balance in the previous hundred pages, as Eustace is reconciled with his wife:

Staring at her dumbly, he stirred, pulled her head down towards his mouth, covered her neck with silent kisses and then slowly, like all the sleepwalkers in the world, took her down the long hall to her bed, held her to him, accepted her first coldness as she had for so long accepted his, and then warmed her with a kind of ravening love.

Purdy’s next novel, Jeremy’s Version (1970), was based on stories told him by his grandmother and great-grandmother. It was family legend that his great-grandmother Nettie had Ojibwe blood, and over time Purdy came to lay more stress on that suppositious heritage. His antisemitism, though, more than kept pace with this sense of pride in First Nation ancestry. Gordon Lish, an admirer whose principles as an editor were influenced by the example of Purdy’s style, grew tired of mentioning his own Jewishness every time a prejudicial remark was made, and let the friendship lapse.

If dark family saga​ was an unacknowledged retreat, then the comic fantasia I Am Elijah Thrush (1972) was a knight’s move forward and sideways. Purdy had written a graduate thesis on Ronald Firbank at the University of Chicago, and was able to deliver all the required lightness and absurdity. The aged Elijah Thrush, also known as the Mime, is in love with his great-grandson, named only as the Bird of Heaven, and also coveted by his old rival Millicent de Frayne. They might be Oberon and Titania, far gone in decrepitude but still wrangling over the Indian boy. Elijah’s glamour doesn’t leap to the eye: ‘There seemed to be no bone structure, indeed no skin, for what uttered the words was a kind of swimming agglutination of mascara, rouge, green tinting, black teeth, and hair like the plumage in a deserted crow’s nest.’ On stage in private performances, virtually naked, he makes a marginally better impression: ‘He surprised us by leaping without the least warning, almost like an athlete, to the very front of the stage, whose papery boards gave back creaking echoes. Then coming to a full halt before the footlights, with closed painted eyelids, he let his admirers feast upon his face.’ Elijah is a fantasticated version of Paul Swan, whom Purdy met in the late 1950s, a time when Swan was giving dance recitals (in his seventies), though he hired Carnegie Hall instead of performing at home.

The Black narrator, Albert Peggs, was also based on a real person, John Carlis, a poet, painter, and the protégé of a Chicago socialite. When Sitwell read Purdy’s early stories she assumed that he was Black, which could be put down to lazy patrician exoticising if Langston Hughes hadn’t made the same mistake. (Hughes was impressed in particular by ‘Eventide’, in which a woman realises that her light-skinned nephew has thrown in his lot with the white world, the proof being that he has had his hair straightened. She must carry the bad news back to his mother.) In the narrator’s stylisation there is observation as well as projection: Millicent had ‘examined my body in detail, marvelling at its variegated colour, not at all like the chocolate pie she assumed it would be, but more like certain half-active lava beds, here a touch of coral colour, there a laughing kind of pink, and beneath, angry earth tints.’ Along the way there are plenty of warnings that this narrator and this writer are not to be underestimated: ‘I admire the violence and insurgency of my present-day “brothers” (a word I grin at nonetheless), but I can only live and be what I am, a desperate man, but a comfortable one.’

The imp of the perverse that had led Purdy to depict Daniel Haws emerging from the Biloxi woods with his arms full of entrails had not permanently slackened its grip. In 1978 he published Narrow Rooms, which was turned down in Britain by W.H. Allen and eventually came out from Black Sheep Books of Godalming. It had a rough ride elsewhere too, its German translation becoming the subject of a prosecution for indecency brought by a women’s group, during which every word of the novel was read out in court. This is one of the few points in Snyder’s book where not enough information is supplied. What did this group object to? Mailer’s An American Dream – that would be understandable. But Narrow Rooms? This is a book in which women play minor roles and remain unmutilated.

The first half of the book reads like a forerunner of Brokeback Mountain. Sidney De Lakes undoubtedly killed Brian McFee, though there was no obvious quarrel between them, indeed there had been closeness, but is released from jail with a pardon. His rehabilitation is held back by the presence in the area of Roy Sturtevant, who bears a bitter grudge against him, but helped along by the companionship he offers to another young man, Gareth Vaisey, who is more or less catatonic after an accident (involving a horse, a car and a train) that killed his father and two brothers. The companionship turns sexual. Gareth’s catatonia improves.

Sixty pages in, Purdy produces a superb rhetorical flourish: ‘Behind this story so far is another story, as behind the girders of an ancient bridge is the skeleton of a child which superstition says keeps the bridge standing.’ This back story, though, is more of the same – more obsession, more love-hate, though with an added element of mind control. The reassuring elements of the setting, such as the folksy local doctor, Sidney’s strait-laced but devoted brother, even Gareth’s mother (who will permit almost anything that helps her son), all fade away, leaving scenes of grotesque excess.

Katha Pollitt, in a review for the New York Times that sent Purdy ‘through the roof’, pointed out that although the characters are supposedly driven by physical compulsion they remain curiously disembodied. Perfectly true: the four young men are hard to tell apart. Purdy was offended by her summary of the novel as ‘a tale of love among the bondage-and-discipline crowd’. He insisted in an interview that the characters don’t even know they’re homosexual. ‘I think that would come as an amazement to them. They’re so busy loving and hating one another they don’t know it has a name.’ This is directly contradicted by the text. Sidney has an argument with his brother Vance on exactly this subject: ‘I don’t believe you’re queer anyhow, or gay, or whatever they call it,’ Vance says. ‘Prison made you think that.’ Sidney replies: ‘Oh, Vance, Vance … I am, I am, I am.’ And how about the moment, relayed in flashback, when Brian explains that he is controlled by Roy and is effectively his slave? Sidney ‘was not sure now whether Brian had reference to the sex magazines he had been showing to him in which there were photos depicting older men having power over younger ones and beating them with chains and so forth, or whether he meant something even more sinister and real’. Not much amazement left there.

Purdy’s imagination drifts rather flatly towards the atrocious, and hideous events unfold in an atmosphere of lurid calm. Roy rapes Gareth on Brian’s grave, which seems to do him the world of good. Sidney has to recognise that ‘the boy was “better”, if by better one means collected and clear-eyed if irritable, and manly, sharp and nasty, sneering and proud, the way a young man in the country probably ought to be. And maybe like a tiger that first feels the coming of his claws.’ In the notorious climax of the book, Roy is nailed to a barn door and left there overnight. Here too a perverse lyrical impulse manifests itself. Having dreaded driving in the first nail, Sidney finds he wants to cover Roy’s body ‘with nails so numerous that he would look like he was clothed in an iron suit composed of shiny little silver heads.’ This isn’t quite the torture-porn scenario it seems. Its ‘victim’ has devised and insisted on the whole ordeal (including the exhumation of the long-dead Brian as some sort of witness), not as a source of pleasure nor means of atonement, but to break an unexplained occult pattern. As for why it would seem a good idea, having thrown off the social stigma of homosexuality, to hold tight to its aura of metaphysical evil … I can’t help you there, though the notion persists in the very striking novels of Dennis Cooper.

Purdy went on writing novels into his eighties, and Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (1997) brought about a modest revival of his reputation. It’s irresistible to see the book as a homage to the painter Gertrude Abercrombie, an early supporter of Purdy’s in Chicago. On one occasion Purdy kept Abercrombie company while she had an abortion – hard to imagine a greater non-sexual intimacy between a man and a woman, and an experience he gave to Amos in Eustace Chisholm and the Works. Gertrude in the novel is a painter with a considerable reputation, but she is now dead and the narrator is her mother, Carrie, who realises that she never knew her. Not only that, but ‘I had never, like other people, lived.’ A Jamesian donnée, if rather an insipid one, with Carrie sifting through all her assumptions, ‘searching’ her narrowness and understanding the limitations of (fine phrase) her ‘slipshod sanity’. At the last moment the story is forcibly aligned with Greek myth (‘The search of Demeter for her Persephone is ended’) to provide retrospective reinforcement for a weak piece of construction.

Snyder links Purdy’s portrayal of his friend as a doomed and sozzled nymphomaniac (‘She had no night without love!’) to a dispute over another portrait, the painting of Purdy by Abercrombie that she asked to borrow back for a retrospective in 1977. He refused, something she lamented (‘It wouldn’t have hurt him to lend it to me’) and she died soon afterwards. Purdy instead sent a poem for inclusion in the exhibition catalogue. Biographers may legitimately see themselves as making the case for their subject’s defence, and Snyder does his best to put this ungenerous moment in context: ‘Purdy knew she had been ill and perhaps feared his portrait might never be returned.’ If that’s the best you can do, it’s probably better not to try.

It was short fiction​ that first got Purdy attention, and he didn’t stop writing and publishing stories. Naturally he complained when the New Yorker rejected ‘Eventide’. He claimed the reason given was that ‘You don’t even know how to write,’ something that would have broken with the magazine’s almost oppressive tradition of suavity. Naturally, he also complained when the magazine took ‘About Jessie Mae’, decrying the slickening effect of William Maxwell’s interventions. This was the first and last time his work appeared in the New Yorker. The range of periodicals that published his work, however, is extraordinary, from Esquire and Mademoiselle to the gay glossy Christopher Street. The barn-door crucifixion from Narrow Rooms appeared in Penthouse – of all places – for a fee which enabled him to turn down a university residency he had been about, unwillingly, to accept. The shock of this windfall briefly jammed the complaining mechanism.

It’s tempting to compare Purdy’s career and temperament with those of his contemporary John Cheever – that emblematic New Yorker contributor. Both were from comfortable backgrounds until unwise investment impoverished the family and the parents divorced. Purdy’s mother took in boarders to make ends meet, Cheever’s opened a gift shop. Asked about his sexuality in the 1990s, Purdy could reply with evasive bravado, ‘I was born out,’ while Cheever could never integrate private desires and public persona. When, occasionally, Cheever represented homosexuality in fiction it was as an aspect of human experience that need not produce a shift in identity, until in Falconer (1977) he found a paradoxical liberation in writing about imprisonment, where homosexuality is situational (even if authentic for some participants). He had taught writing workshops at Ossining Correctional Facility – Sing Sing – and queasy modern consciences might wonder if he hadn’t exploited his students’ life stories to spice up his own work.

When I was looking for material to appear in an anthology of gay and lesbian fiction for Faber (published as Mae West Is Dead in 1983), Purdy’s ‘Some of These Days’ was an obvious choice. This sly monologue moves by small steps from realism to something very different without any of the lurches that can disrupt the experience of reading his novels. The speaker is fresh out of prison, where he has suffered a beating, and sets out to find his old landlord. ‘I didn’t want anything to do with him physically again, I had kind of grown out of that somehow even more while in jail, and wished to try to make it with women again, but I did require my landlord’s love and affection, for love was, as everybody was always saying, his special gift and talent.’

His search is made harder by the fact that he can’t remember the landlord’s name (that beating). But then he recalls him frequenting porn cinemas on Third Avenue. He starts going there himself, letting himself be handled but constantly describing and asking after his landlord – ‘or, as I whispered to myself, my lord’. The admission fees are hiked and his begging brings in very little. He stops eating and soon becomes too weak to leave the cinema. Taken to hospital and asked his name, he at last remembers the landlord’s but instantly forgets his own. He gives instead the name he has just remembered. A doctor tells him he is dying and asks if there is anyone he would like to be contacted. His own name returns to him, and he gives that as the name of his landlord, asking also for paper and pen. He writes the story we have been reading, and signs it:

and so with some effort I wrote my name on the only thing I had to leave, and which they took from me a few moments ago with great puzzlement, for neither the person was known to them, and the address of course could not be given, and they only received it from me, I suppose, to make me feel I was being tended to.

The loveliness of the cadence disguises the moment the narration steps off a soft cliff, as the convict continues to make marks on the paper he has just handed over.

It’s clear after only a few pages of Contrarian Writer that Purdy was impossible to deal with, but that doesn’t mean he was always wrong in his disputes with editors. He was right in the case of ‘Some of These Days’. Lish rejected the story for Esquire, saying that the narrator didn’t sound like a convict – as if prison was an upside-down finishing school turning out a standardised product. Realism isn’t even the underlying mode of the story, but there was nothing wrong with Purdy’s ear, which he tuned (as he told John Cowper Powys in 1960) by listening to the way petty criminals expressed themselves in night court.

Year by year the acknowledgments pages of books become more voluble in their thanks. Pride of place in Snyder’s long list goes to his editor for the countless improvements she made to his manuscript. Can this mean that she goes along with his ideas about what makes people first cousins, and that she endorses his description of Franco as ‘friendly with fascists’? This is not an offering from some obscure outfit operating in the wilds of Godalming, but from Oxford University Press, whose objective as stated in the front matter of the book is ‘excellence in research, scholarship and education’. It’s good to be reminded.

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Vol. 45 No. 12 · 15 June 2023

Adam Mars-Jones, writing about James Purdy, mentions that Gordon Lish was ‘influenced by the example of Purdy’s style’ (LRB, 18 May). Indeed, as I reported in my biography of Raymond Carver, published in 2009, Lish imitated Purdy in ‘every respect’ for his sense of the ‘dark, the unexplained, the uncanny’ as he took his scalpel to Carver’s manuscripts and tried to create the ‘New Fiction’ he had promised to the publisher of Esquire, Arnold Gingrich. Heavily edited, ‘Are These Actual Miles?’ – the first of Carver’s stories to appear in Esquire – became ‘What Is It?’ Carver told his first wife, Maryann Burk Carver, that he’d change the story back when he could afford to do so. He restored his original title in the collection Where I’m Calling From, but he never chose – or bothered? – to restore the text.

Carol Sklenicka
Jenner, California

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