At first he was feted. But then his novel about a handsome, Yale-educated serial rapist made him an outcast. Ten years after his death, has the scabrous authors time finally come?
On 6 August 2015, the American author and playwright James Purdy left New York for the last time. Bound for Denmark, he travelled in a small flip-top leather case with a combination lock. This was inside the rucksack of Maria Cecilia Holt, Harvard doctor of theology, who was asked to produce the necessary papers while going through security at Boston Logan airport.
Id collected Jamess ashes from his literary executor, she explains. It had been quite traumatic. So I presented security with the papers and the ashes and they said, Maam, were sorry for your loss. I began to cry. I wanted to say, Its not my loss, its yours. America is losing a great writer. Hes leaving the US for ever and no one even cares.
Holt gave the ashes to Charles Lock, professor of English literature at Copenhagen University, who put them on his bookshelf and thats where they have been for three-and-a-half years. However, on 13 March, exactly 10 years after Purdys death at the age of 94, Lock will travel with the remains to the graveyard of St Marys Church in Weedon Lois, Northamptonshire, where they will be interred next to the grave of the English poet Edith Sitwell, in accord with Purdys final request.
The idea was appealing in its sheer oddness, says Lock, who was asked to help by Purdys literary executor. I dont think theres another American writer of such importance buried in Britain. TS Eliot, of course, but hed long been a British subject.
When Purdy died, obituaries eulogised him as a unique, fearless voice of American fiction. They praised his bizarre, savage wit, his dreamlike vernacular prose and its ability to conjure up gothic midwestern landscapes of beguiled innocence, grotesque violence and gender-fluid racial and sexual obsession. But they also pointed out that this white, midwestern writer who wrote about outsiders women, African Americans, gay people, Native Americans was himself cast out by the US literary establishment.