In 2000 I had the opportunity to write a 10,000 word bio/crit piece on James Purdy for Scribner’s American Writers Series. Jay Parini, who was editor of those tomes at the time, gave me the green light when I suggested a piece on Purdy. James was always on my mind as a great writer who was under read. This would be my chance to champion his words.

In the course of writing this piece I was able to interview him on the phone for hours. When news of his death at age 94 reached me on Friday (the 13th, no less) I immediately recalled his frail yet wizened voice in my head, his words ringing clear in my memory banks, steady, sharp, ancient, opinionated and brilliant. I was saddened when the reality bit me like a hidden woods snake, I would hear the voice no more. Then suddenly, I was comforted by the memory of some wisdom Allen Ginsberg shared with me after my mother died in 1986. He said, “we’re next.”
Long after I finished my piece on Purdy we continued our conversations on the phone until the end, though trailing off in the last years as he became more frail and tired. It became increasingly difficult to catch him at a good time. I was reduced to sending him birthday cards every year in the summer. I hoped he was having a peaceful descent into oblivion.
James Purdy was never plugged into email so we wrote each other frequently. We addressed each other as “Esquire.” He sent poems and stories he was working on, signed copies of his books and advice on my own writing. Nothing was better than to see his familiar scrawl in my mail box.
We both grew up in Ohio and he often spoke on the phone about his childhood memories such as visiting herb doctors in the country with his mother who was an early believer in holistic healing (at least in Ohio). He recalled the glory days of Cuba when he lived there after WW II and how dark and exotic the gay scene was during those years. We spoke of everything from strange health cures (he drank wheat grass juice and soaked his toes in his urine), to the tragedy of the damming of the Yangtze River. James was nothing if not opinionated. Thurber was “vulgar,” Shirley Jackson and her husband had been out to get him. In fact the whole literary community, he felt, undervalued him as a writer. He did love Dame Edith Sitwell who sang his praises early on as well as John Cowper Powys. The man definitely had his A lists and shit lists but always laughed gently when he expressed himself. I hope his voice never stops ringing in my head.
So get off your ass and read some Purdy. My personal favorites, though it is hard to pick, are The Nephew, House of the Solitary Maggot, Gertrude of Stoney Island Avenue and all his short stories and poetry. Dig in. No one plundered the American Psyche like James Purdy, he was the grand daddy of black humor (but would disagree strongly when I called his writing “gothic”) and plowed his subject matter, sowing and reaping a combination of strangely dark and humorous tableaus that as far as I have seen, have never been close to being matched.
Damn James, you were my Ohio Home Boy. What am I going to do now?
Here is a favorite poem he sent me way back when. Take a bow James Purdy Esquire.
(Note; read to the tune of ‘Beautiful Dreamer.” Mr. McFist is Mephistopheles)
         BEAUTIFUL SCHEMER
         Beautiful schemer,
         have you no nuts?
         Beautiful schemer,
         have you killed love?
         Your black chevalure
         is on the block!
         & who’s auctioneer?
         Why, Mister McFist!

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DAVID C. BREITHAUPT was born in the heart of the Cold War, in 1959. He grew up in central Ohio, the youngest of four brothers. His mother was an artist; his father, a political rabble rouser. He studied fine arts in college. Lived in NYC in the 1980s where he worked in various bookstores, including the great Brazenhead on East 84th street. He was an archives assistant to Allen Ginsberg and worked with his amazing staff. Did some part-time work as a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone. Quit drinking in 1987. Fell in and out of love. Kept moving. Moved back to Ohio with his family, Christa, Kate and Jo - worked in a college library. Snuck his work into various magazines like Exquisite Corpse, Rant, Main Street. Wrote bio-lit essays for the American and British Writers Series (Scribners) on James Purdy, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch under the editorship of Jay Parini. He edited a book on the works of writer poet, Charles Plymell called Hand On the Doorknob (2000 Water Row Press). Buy it now, please. His work is in the anthology, Thus spake The Corpse vol. 2, Best of the Exquisite Corpse (Black Sparrow Press, 2000). (Please buy that, too.) Breithaupt currently lives and work in Columbus, Ohio, for a sports newspaper while making occasional contributions to his federal restitution. He just finished a memoir with the working title Dada Entry: Picasso, Proust and Federal Prison as well as a collection of short stories, My Curves Are Not Mad with an intro by Jonathan Lethem. He is looking for publishers. Thank you.

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