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James Purdy Papers:

An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Purdy, James, 1914-2009
Title: James Purdy Papers
Dates: 1953-1984
Extent: 89 document boxes, 2 oversize boxes (osb) (40.71 linear feet), 6 oversize folders (osf), 8 galley files (gf)
Abstract: The papers of American writer James Purdy include drafts, correspondence, publishing material, and press material relating to his novels, short stories, plays, poetry, and essays. Also included are Purdy’s drawings, works by other authors, and theater programs and other printed material.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-3353
Language: English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Spanish
Access: Open for research

Acquisition: Purchases (R2669, R3858, R4187, R4498, R7949, R8141, R8178, R7949, R8575, R8575A, R12006) and gifts (G814, G953, G1055, G1069, G1259, G1573, G1835, G1925), 1965-1990
Processed by: Katherine Mosley and Bob Taylor, 2015

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center

James Otis Purdy was born in Hicksville, Ohio, on 17 July 1914 as the second of three sons of William Purdy and his wife, Vera Cowhick Otis. The family moved to Findlay, Ohio before 1920 and within the next several years James’ parents divorced. Vera Purdy and her sons continued to live in Findlay, where she operated their large residence as a boarding house.
Purdy graduated from high school in the early 1930s, and afterwards attended Bowling Green State College, graduating in 1935 with a BA degree and a teaching certificate in French. After moving to Chicago to further his education he met the painter Gertrude Abercrombie and before long became a member of the group of creative people associated with her.
Building on an early interest in reading and creative writing, Purdy’s Chicago years had introduced him to new cultural experiences in literature and especially jazz music, with its mostly African-American creators and performers. Before World War II, he had begun attempts at creative writing, publishing a single story in 1939, but the war years were largely unproductive for him.
In 1941, Purdy enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he continued to develop his foreign language skills, eventually working as an interpreter and teaching school in Havana, Cuba for a time. Shortly after the end of the war, Purdy secured a position at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he taught Spanish from 1947 to 1956.
It was only in 1946 that Purdy was able to place a story, "You Reach for Your Hat," in The Prairie Schooner. He settled in Appleton and was able for the first time in his life to set aside blocks of time for writing. Even with the production of a significant number of stories Purdy found acceptance by editors another matter: by 1955 he’d sold only one story, "The Sound of Talking," to the Black Mountain Review.
In 1956, however, Don’t Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories and 63: Dream Palace, a Novella were privately published on Purdy’s behalf, the former by Osborn Andreas, a Chicago businessman and critic, and the latter by Purdy’s friend Jorma Sjoblom. Purdy sent copies of the two volumes to various writers and critics he felt might be receptive and one of the recipients, Edith Sitwell, was so favorably impressed she began a correspondence with Purdy and persuaded Victor Gollancz to bring out the text of the two privately-published volumes as 63: Dream Palace: A Novella and Nine Stories.
The positive response to the Gollancz edition was sufficient to convince Purdy to leave teaching and become a full-time writer. He moved to New York City in 1958 and a year later began his long-term residence in the apartment at 236 Henry Street in Brooklyn.
The five years following Purdy’s emergence as a published writer found him productive and enjoying growing critical esteem and commercial success. 1959 saw the appearance of his first full-length novel Malcolm, an early take on the uncertain path of a Candide-like innocent in an unpredictable and perverse world. Dorothy Parker praised Malcolm lavishly, and Albee adapted it for the stage. Purdy followed Malcolm with another novel, The Nephew (1960), and a collection of stories, Children Is All (1961).
Paralleling Purdy’s generally well-received writing was his success in garnering grants to support his work. The National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation awarded him grants in 1958, followed by a Ford Foundation grant in 1961 and another Guggenheim in 1962.
From the appearance of Cabot Wright Begins (1964) Purdy began to leave much of his potential readership behind as his dark satire became increasingly bold. Cabot Wright was reviewed with approval by Susan Sontag for the New York Times, but the novel’s protagonist, a serial rapist, was a challenge for many potential readers. His next novel, Eustace Chisholm and the Works (1967), was polarizing with its sadomasochistic elements but, even so, failed both as a conventional success and as a succès de scandale.
With the failure in the marketplace of Eustace Chisholm Purdy terminated his relationship with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, publisher of all his novels to that point. He was by now provoked with what he saw as a monolithic New York intellectual and cultural community opposed to him and his work, and, apart from his personal respect for Robert Giroux he found the firm lacked any interest in him or his work.
Jeremy’s Version (1970) was the first part of the tetralogy Sleepers in Moon-crowned Valleys and the first of his novels to be published by Doubleday, followed in 1972 by I am Elijah Thrush and The House of the Solitary Maggot (1974), the second volume of the tetralogy. The reception of these works was not strong, and Purdy’s attitude toward Doubleday soon soured, leading him to publish In a Shallow Grave (1975) and Narrow Rooms (1978) with Arbor House.
Continuing general critical and popular indifference to his fiction made James Purdy seem ever more a "writer’s writer," appealing in general to a small audience of acolytes and receptive critics. There were from time to time, however, voices raised on behalf of his highly individual style and subject matter. Tennessee Williams praised his rarely-performed plays, and Gore Vidal found Narrow Rooms "a dark and splendid affair by an authentic American genius."
In the early 1980s, Purdy completed the Sleepers tetralogy with Mourners Below (1981) and On Glory’s Course (1984), both published by Viking Press. In 1982, the United States Information Agency sponsored a lecture tour to Europe and Israel, enabling Purdy to continue his practice of appearances before younger audiences in colleges and other educational venues.
Purdy continued to write throughout the 1980s and 1990s with little reaction from the critical community or potential readers, but as the twenty-first century began, the literary opinion of Purdy experienced a modest uptick. In 2005, author Jonathan Franzen presented him the Mercantile Library’s Clifton Fadiman Award for Eustace Chisholm, and later in the year Gore Vidal wrote a striking appreciation of his writing in The New York Times Book Review.
In 1996, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, Purdy’s last novel published in his lifetime appeared, followed four years later by Moe’s Villa and Other Stories. James Purdy continued to live and write at 236 Henry Street until moving to a nursing home in Englewood, New Jersey not long before his death, which occurred on 13 March 2009.

Dahlin, Robert. "James Purdy" [interview], Publishers Weekly, 19 June 1981
Evenson, Brian. "James Purdy,"  Dictionary of Literary Biography, v. 218, 1999
French, Warren, and Donald Pease. "James Purdy,"  Dictionary of Literary Biography, v. 2, 1978
Grimes, William. "James Purdy, a Literary Outsider with a Piercing Vision, is Dead at 94,"  New York Times Reprints []
Hawtree, Christopher. "James Purdy,"  The Guardian, 15 March 2009 []
"James Purdy," Contemporary Authors Online []
Morrow, Bradford. "An Interview with James Purdy,"  Conjunctions, Fall 1982 []

The James Purdy papers represent the years 1953 through 1984 and include manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, art works, proofs, journals, clippings, and printed material belonging to the American writer James Purdy (1914-2009). The professional and personal papers document Purdy’s evolution as a writer of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays. The papers are organized in four series: I. Works by Purdy, 1955-1984, undated; II. Correspondence, 1953-1984; III. Personal and Career-Related Material, 1958-1984; and IV. Works by Others, 1958-1984. A portion of this collection (boxes 1-25) was previously accessible through a card catalog, but is now described in this finding aid along with materials received in later accessions. During rehousing of the materials, Purdy’s labeled file folders were retained when they contain additional notes in his hand. His file titles are indicated in the finding aid’s container list by single quotation marks.
Series I. Works is comprised primarily of notebooks, drafts, proofs, and other materials related to Purdy’s novels, short stories, plays, and essays. These materials date from 1955 to 1984, and are arranged alphabetically by title. Also included are Purdy’s anonymous hoax letters, artwork, autobiographical statements, blurbs for works by other writers, poetry, satirical sketches of literary critics and figures, and statements or essays on various topics written for publications.
Of particular interest are notebooks containing drafts for Purdy’s plays Madonna and Wedding Finger and his novels Cabot Wright Begins, Jeremy’s Version, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, The House of the Solitary Maggot, I Am Elijah Thrush, In a Shallow Grave, Malcolm, Narrow Rooms, and The Nephew. Also present in the notebooks are draft fragments of other plays, poems, and short stories; story ideas; notes; quotations; doodles; publication information on stories; financial notes; and appointment and contact information.
Purdy often sent what he called anonymous and anomalous letters to friends and other recipients. These creative pieces included hoax news stories or press releases, satirical advertisements, and letters sent anonymously or purporting to be from someone else. Most of these are located together in the papers as Anonymous/Anomalous Letters, but because Purdy sometimes sent drafts of the letters to confederates in other locations who would then type and mail the letters to the intended recipients, a few are located in his personal correspondence. Among the nicknames given to friends in these mock letters are Adonis Whiteacre (Douglas Turnbaugh), Anthony of London (Anthony Harvey), Babe Helps (Robert Helps), and Baby B (Richard Hundley).
Under the heading of Artwork are drawings by Purdy, including a sketchbook and loose sketches for The Running Sun.
Purdy’s poetry is filed together and arranged by title of individual poem or group of poems. Some poems, such as "The Sea Is Swimming Tonight" and "Straightway Beauty on Me Waits," were set to music by composer Richard Hundley. Robert Helps also composed music for poems by Purdy, most notably from Purdy’s collection The Running Sun (1971); typescript and handwritten poems, a typesetting copy, artwork, and printer’s paste-ups for The Running Sun are present. Other early versions of poems from that work are located elsewhere in the poetry files; for example, several poems of a group dating from 1971 were later revised and included in The Running Sun. Of particular note is an undated hand-bound book of typescript poems and drawings by Purdy. A drawing also accompanies a group of handwritten poems dating from 1970 to 1976.
Among unidentified or untitled works are several statements or essays by Purdy regarding his own work, literary success, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, the Vietnam War, and other topics, intended for publication in various periodicals. Also present are handwritten notes and a typescript of an article for LIFE about Edward Albee’s dramatization of Malcolm. While composing his novels, Purdy would sometimes employ a stream-of-consciousness method of typing or writing a few pages to aid his thought processes. Although a few of these are found among drafts for particular works, most of these "driftings" or practice writing pages are located with unidentified typescript fragments at the end of the Works series. One such fragment (folder 3.5) contains a note that it is "gibberish but the books come out of it."
Series II. Correspondence represents the years 1953 to 1984 and runs to nearly 48 boxes. Most of this material is related directly to Purdy’s career as a writer and represents correspondence with publishers, editors, literary agents, scholars, writers, and fans. While there is little material here of a fundamentally biographical or personal nature, there are letters from friends dating from his years in Chicago and Appleton, Wisconsin, and even some with family or other Ohio ties.
Among the people Purdy knew from his time in Chicago or Appleton who are represented by a significant correspondence are Gertrude Abercrombie, Miriam Andreas, Hastings Brubaker, Jeannette Druce, Norman MacLeish, Jorma Sjoblom, and Samuel Steward. Critics, book people, and literary scholars like Len Berkman, Frank Daniel, Donald Gallup, Gordon Lish, Irving Malin, and Bettina Schwarzschild appear here, as do the writers Stephen D. Adams, Paul Bowles, Gerald Brenan, Paula Fox, and James L. White.
Purdy’s relationships with publishers were often strained and his correspondence presented here with Doubleday, Esquire, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and New Directions Publishing sometimes bears this out. These strains, as well as his generalized antagonism toward the New York critical community, are documented primarily as passing (but not uncommon) references in his own outgoing correspondence with friends and fellow writers.
Copies and drafts of Purdy’s outgoing correspondence for the period 1953 to 1972 are filed as Subseries A. For the years 1972 to 1984 outgoing correspondence is interfiled with the recipient in Subseries B where possible; otherwise they are found in Subseries A. There is also a significant amount of third-party correspondence. Such letters for the years 1953 to 1972 are present as Subseries C. For the years 1972 to 1984 third-party is interfiled with either Subseries A or B if originally found with correspondence filed in those series, but otherwise it will be in Subseries C. Correspondence from throughout the collection is listed in the Index of Correspondents at the end of this finding aid.
Series III. Personal and Career-Related Material is a variegated group comprising autobiographical statements; catalogs and brochures; clippings; daybook and calendar pages; financial material; flyers; printed invitations, advertising cards, and pamphlets; menus; notes and jottings; periodicals; programs and ticket stubs; material related to readings and lectures by Purdy; review clippings and advertisements; small press keepsakes; snapshots; and unused postcards and greeting cards, all dating from 1958 to 1984. Similar items received with early accessions were separated from the papers at that time and transferred to the Center’s Vertical File Collection.
Catalogs and brochures include those relating to art exhibitions, bookseller and manuscript dealers, housewares, and publishers. Among artists represented by exhibition catalogs are Alice Pike Barney, Clarence H. Carter, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Clifford Wright. Images of Edith: An Exhibition of Portraits of Dame Edith Sitwell (1977) includes a foreword by Sacheverell Sitwell. Booksellers and manuscript dealers include Bertram Rota, Gotham Book Mart, David Schulson, Joseph the Provider, and Sylvester & Orphanos. Among publishers are Albino, Arbor House, Black Sparrow Press, Vincent FitzGerald, New Directions, Plain Wrapper Press, Ram Publishing Company, Viking Press, and W. H. Allen. Purdy’s books are found in some of these catalogs.
Clippings dating from 1969 to 1983 and sent to Purdy by friends and correspondents cover a variety of subjects; of note are a large group regarding artist Clifford Wright.
Financial material consists of contracts, expense notebooks from 1972 to 1976, invoices and receipts, a 1972 lease, and royalty statements from 1958 to 1983. Invoices and receipts range from household bills to charges for purchases from Gotham Book Mart. New York City transit tickets are also present.
The numerous pages of Purdy’s notes and jottings present here include those with names and contact information for various individuals or organizations, as well as lists of plants, grocery lists, quotations, and other subjects. These date from 1969 to 1984 and are arranged by year. In addition, a notebook dating from 1972 to 1974 contains notes on plants, art, and sculpture.
Whole issues of periodicals include Angwamas Minosewag Anishinabeg (Time of the Indian), Atticus Review, Audit/fiction (Anne Pitrone From The Recession Diary), bits, Bright Lights, Clandestine America, Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter, Contact II, East River Review, Footnotes*, Kick, Lunch, The Morning Star People, Music Journal, Nuovi Argomenti, Paris Review, Le Promeneur, Sequoia, Sparrow, and Toucan.
Printed invitations, flyers, advertising cards, and pamphlets date from 1971 to 1984 and are arranged by year. Most of these relate to art exhibitions, readings, performances, and similar events. Those bearing handwritten notes to Purdy have been moved to the correspondence files and are included in the Index of Correspondents.
Programs and ticket stubs document attendance at film screenings; opera and other music performances; and theater and dance productions. Within those categories, arrangement is by year. Of note among film screening programs are those for Virgil Thomson Composer (1980) and You Are Not I: A Film by Sara Driver, A Story by Paul Bowles (1983).
Music programs relate to performances Purdy attended as well as those connected to his work. Venues include Carnegie Recital Hall, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, the Kitchen Center, Lincoln Center, the Montauk Club, the 92nd Street Y, the Village Presbyterian Church, and others. Many of the Purdy-related music performances featured his poems set to music by Robert Helps and Richard Hundley; among these are Helps’s music for five poems from The Running Sun and Hundley’s songs for "Birds, U.S.A.," "Come Ready and See Me," "Evening Hours," "I Do," "Jenny Wren," and "Over Green Leaves." Joseph Fennimore’s opera Eventide, based on the short story by Purdy, was performed at The After Dinner Opera Company in New York.
Of note among theater and dance programs are those for the 1979 New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur at the Hudson Guild Theater, the 1972 premiere of Williams’ Small Craft Warnings at the Truck and Warehouse Theatre, and the 1980 Harold Clurman Theatre production of Williams’ The Two-Character Play. Other playwrights represented include Edward Albee, Edward Gallardo, Henrik Ibsen, William Inge, Paul Stephen Lim, William Mastrosimone, Maxim Mazumdar, Leonard Melfi, Poty Oliveira, Luigi Pirandello, David Rabe, Gus Weill, and Romain Weingarten. In addition, there are programs from a WPA Theatre production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and several Shakespeare productions. Programs for Aegis Universal Dance and Performance Group, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, and the Pauline Koner Dance Consort are also present. Annotations by Purdy on some programs record his opinion of the performance, with whom he attended, or information about actors.
Also documented here are plays written by Purdy or adapted by others from his work. Edward Albee directed his adaptation of Purdy’s novel Malcolm at Southwestern University in 1983, and a program from that production is present, as are a contact sheet and prop list for How I Became a Shadow and a flyer advertising the premiere of True. Materials relating to the HB Playwrights Foundation 1979 production Out of a Clear Blue Sky (the one-act plays What Is It, Zach? , Now, Adeline, and Wonderful Happy Days) include a flyer, program, Purdy’s typed biographical information, and his handwritten notes on the musical accompaniment. The Iowa Theater Lab produced several of Purdy’s plays, and their newsletters, a Stories of Darkness program, and a handout for Proud Flesh are present. Programs from the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s production of Daddy Wolf and a postcard advertisement of Nightshift’s presentation of True, The Berry Picker, and What Is It, Zach? complete this group.
Readings, lectures, and appearances by Purdy between the years 1971 and 1984 are represented by flyers, press releases, clippings, and programs. Also found here are itineraries from Purdy’s participation in the University of Notre Dame Literary Festival and his international lecture tour sponsored by the International Communication Agency in 1982.
Review clippings of Purdy’s books are arranged alphabetically by title and encompass the years 1964 to 1982. Reviews of stage adaptations of Eustace Chisholm and the Works and The Nephew accompany reviews of the novels, and a large group of German press clippings regarding The Nephew are also present. A Dutch review of 63: Dream Palace by Jan Siebelink was published in Hollands Maandblad. An article, advertisement, and interview with Ric Zank relate to the Iowa Theatre Lab’s production of three of Purdy’s plays as Proud Flesh in 1981.
Keepsakes and printed greeting cards were sent to Purdy by small presses such as Bellevue Press, Cadmus Press, New Directions, Phoenix Bookshop, Plain Wrapper Press, and Red Ozier Press. These printed items include poems by Federico García Lorca, Bradford Morrow, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gil Williams, as well as artwork by Fiske Boyd, Allen Lewis, and Lynd Ward. Copies of "Tea with Alice [Toklas]" and "Mushrooms," both by Robert A. Wilson, are present. "A Christmas Recipe," written by Anthony Burgess and illustrated by Fulvio Testa, was printed by Plain Wrapper Press as a holiday greeting in 1977. A New Year’s greeting from Red Ozier Press in 1983 was written by Edouard Roditi.
A small number of snapshots of various individuals that were sent to Purdy by friends and correspondents but separated from the correspondence are grouped together by year.
Series IV. Works by Others contains materials created by writers and artists other than Purdy and is divided into two subseries: A. Works about Purdy and His Writing, 1952-1982, and Subseries B. Other Works, 1958-1984. Both subseries are arranged alphabetically by author. Among notable manuscripts on Purdy and his work are those by Stephen Adams, Warren French, Donald Pease, Bettina Schwarzschild, and Joseph Skerrett. A typescript blurb by Paul Bowles for Purdy’s novel Jeremy’s Version, a typescript review of Malcolm by Dorothy Parker, and Edith Sitwell’s typescript preface to Purdy’s Colour of Darkness are also present. Robin Gaither, a former student who had extensive correspondence with Purdy from 1979 to 1980, sent him her typescript of An Editing Project: The Purdy-Gaither Letters.
Articles about and interviews with Purdy, as well as bibliographies of his work, are also included in this subseries. Among the interviews are a copy of Jan Siebelink’s "James Purdy" published in HP in 1981 and typescripts by Charles Stetler and Gerald Locklin (1980) and Stephen Varble (1972).
Subseries B. Other Works comprises manuscripts, printed broadsides, tearsheets, offprints, proofs, artwork, and similar material by Purdy’s friends, colleagues, and others. Edward Albee’s stage adaptation of Purdy’s novel Malcolm is represented by a 1965 typescript containing extensive notes and comments by Purdy. A typescript of Richard Ede’s teleplay adaptation of Purdy’s Colour of Darkness dates from 1968. Page proofs of Three Tales (1975) by Paul Bowles and poems handwritten by Edith Sitwell in 1958 titled "The Death of a Giant" and "The Outcasts" are of special interest. A printed insert from the sound recording Façade, a reading by Sitwell of her poems to music by William Walton, includes the text of the poems. Drawings made by Ian Campbell for The Running Sun in 1971 are included in the series, as is artwork by Donald Gosaynie, Steven Osterlund, and Mylo Quam. Also noteworthy are two duplicated handwritten song scores of Richard Hundley’s music setting for Purdy’s poem "Come Ready and See Me."

For additional materials related to James Purdy at the Harry Ransom Center, see manuscript holdings for Jane Auer Bowles, Paul Bowles, Gerald Brenan, Ronald Christ, E. E. Cummings, Genesis West, Gotham Book Mart, Peter Owen Ltd., Derek Parker, Edith Sitwell, and Lee Smith.
Other institutions with James Purdy materials include the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Ohio State University, the University of Delaware Library, University of Georgia Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library (including the Frank Daniel Papers), and the University of Rochester.

Copies of Purdy’s published works and other bound volumes were transferred to the Ransom Center Library.
Portraits of Purdy and various people by Carl Van Vechten and other photographers, as well as stills from Fortune and Men’s Eyes and Color of Darkness, were transferred to the Ransom Center’s Photography Collection.
Ink drawings by Purdy and paintings by Steven Osterlund dating from 1961 to 1970 were transferred to the Ransom Center’s Art Collection.
A record needle stylus, bird wing, and Star Explorer chart were transferred to the Ransom Center’s Personal Effects Collection.
Various publications, clippings, publicity material, invitations, programs, and other minor printed matter received with early accessions of Purdy manuscripts were transferred to the Ransom Center Vertical Files Collection. However, similar materials from later accessions are cataloged with his papers and described in the Container List of this finding aid.


Abercrombie, Gertrude, 1909-1977.
Berkman, Len.
Bowles, Paul, 1910-1999.
Brenan, Gerald.
Daniel, Frank, 1900-1981.
Fox, Paula.
French, Warren.
Helps, Robert.
Lish, Gordon.
Malin, Irving.
Schwarzschild, Bettina.
Sjoblom, Jorma Jules.
Steward, Samuel M.
Yellin, Herb.


Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
New Directions Publishing Corp.
Viking Press.


Authors, American--20th century.
Dramatists, American--20th century.
Novelists, American--20th century.
Poets, American--20th century.

Document Types

Cartoons (humorous images).
Christmas cards.
First drafts.
Galley proofs.
Sheet music.
Folders and envelopes separated from materials in early accessions Container 25   
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Oversize materials separated from their original location within the James Purdy Papers Container osb 1, osb 2, osf 1-6   
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