University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department


Robert A. Wilson
Collection related to
James Purdy

1956 - 1998

Manuscript Collection Number: 369
Accessioned: Purchase and gifts, April 1998-2009
Extent: .8 linear feet
Content: Letters, cards, photographs, typescripts, galleys, reviews, newspaper clippings, publishers' announcements, publicity and ephemera
Access: The collection is open for research.
Processed: June 1998, by Meghan J. Fuller

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Table of Contents


Biographical Notes

James Purdy

Born in Ohio on July 17, 1923, James Purdy is one of the United States' most prolific, yet little known writers. A novelist, poet, playwright and amateur artist, Purdy has published over fifty volumes. He received his education at the University of Chicago and the University of Peubla in Mexico. In addition to writing, Purdy also has served as an interpreter in Latin America, France, and Spain, and spent a year lecturing in Europe with the United States Information Agency (1982).

From the outset of his writing career, Purdy has had difficulties attracting the attention of both publishers and critics. His first several short stories were rejected by every magazine to which he sent them, and he was forced to sign with a private publisher for his first two books, 63: Dream Palace and Don't Call Me by My Right Name and Other Stories, both published in 1956. Hoping to increase his readership, Purdy sent copies of these first two books to writers he admired, including English poet Dame Edith Sitwell. Sitwell raved about Purdy's work and helped convince an English publisher, Gollancz, to publish and distribute Purdy's books in England. Purdy's writing was introduced in the United States a year later when his previous books were published together in one volume, Color of Darkness: Eleven Stories and a Novella (1957).

Most of Purdy's work has been the subject of mixed critical response. While some, like Sitwell and book dealer Robert A.Wilson, appreciate the artistry of Purdy's work, many American publishers and critics regard his work as too daring and risque. In a 1990 letter to Wilson, Purdy wrote, "Dame Edith Sitwell once told me I was the wrong color, race, religion, and talent ever to be accepted by the New York Establishment. I didn't understand quite the full meaning of her words at the time. Now I do. I want to leave the US eventually and never come back. But I haven't earned enough money to live here, let alone depart" (F3). Many of Purdy's letters reflect this frustration.

Despite his lack of commercial popularity in the United States, Purdy is not entirely without critical success. He won a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature in 1958, followed by Guggenheim fellowships in both 1958 and 1962. Purdy is also the recipient of a Rockefeller grant, a Ford Foundation Grant (1961), and a P.E.N.-Faulkner Award nomination in 1985 for On Glory's Course. Most recently, he was awarded a Morten Dauwen Zabel Fiction award from the Academy of Arts and Letters (1993).

Though Purdy has had much critical and commercial success abroad particularly in the Netherlands, he struggled to increase his readership in the United States. As he lamented in a 1988 letter to Wilson, "The good thing about the Dutch for me is they are very enthusiastic about my work while the American publishers seem to do everything in their power along with the New York Times to starve me to death." (F3).

Robert A. Wilson

For many struggling writers and poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, Robert A. Wilson was a familiar and comforting presence. As the third proprietor of the Phoenix Bookshop in New York City from 1962 to 1988, Wilson provided both encouragement and financial support to beginning writers. A great lover of literature, Wilson specialized in rare books and manuscripts and shipped his material to enthusiastic readers in all parts of the world.

Through the bookshop, Wilson published the work of many notable writers, including Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, and Richard Wilbur. During his twenty-six year tenure as the proprietor of the Phoenix, Wilson oversaw the publication of no less than 43 volumes.

An avid collector of rare books and manuscripts for his own personal collection, Wilson himself is the author of more than a dozen volumes, many of which he published on a mimeograph machine in the back room of the Phoenix. Among these are Auden's Library (1975); Marianne Serves Lunch (1976); Robert Haggard's "She" (1977), which Purdy praises in his December 9, 1977 letter to Wilson (F1); Faulkner on Fire Island (1979); and Tea With Alice (1978), an interview with his friend, Alice Toklas.

In 1988, financial difficulties forced Wilson to close the doors forever, thereby ending the Phoenix's fifty-six year history.

Despite a minor misunderstanding over the price of a rare volume of Purdy's Are You in the Winter Tree translated into Dutch, the collection seems to indicate that Wilson and Purdy are longtime friends. Wilson was, and by all accounts still is, a great admirer of Purdy's work as evidenced by his diverse collection of Purdy's manuscripts, published work, and ephemera.

Sources:

Metzger, Linda, Ed. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series, Volume 19. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1984. pp.389-395.

Wilson, Robert A. et al. Phoenix Bookshop: A Nest of Memories. Candia, NH: John LeBow, 1997.


Scope and Content Note

Originally the private collection of book dealer Robert A. Wilson, this collection spans the years 1956-1998 and includes .8 linear feet of letters, manuscripts, galleys, publicity fliers, publishers' announcements, and ephemera related to the work of James Purdy. It is organized into three groups of material: Letters from Purdy to Wilson, 1966-1998; Writings by Purdy, 1957-1992; and Publicity and Promotion, 1956-1992.

Series I. Letters from Purdy to Wilson, 1966-1998, are arranged chronolgically. These letters are generally brief and usually describe where and from whom Wilson might purchase copies of Purdy's new volumes, many of which were difficult to find in the United States. Though they may have begun their correspondence for business reasons, the letters indicate that their relationship was amicable; they sent Christmas and Easter cards back and forth and inquired about each other's health.

Series II. Writings by Purdy comprises nine subseries (F1-F12), Color of Darkness; Scrap of Paper; Macolm; poems, 1974-1984; Sleep Tight; Mud Toe the Canibal; Dawn; On Glory's Course; and In a Shallow Grave (film version). Arranged chronologically by the publication date of the work, each folder contains Purdy's manuscripts or galleys as well as reviews, publishers' announcements, publicity fliers and other ephemera related to that particular work.

Series III. Publictity and Promotion, 1956-1992 comprises eleven folders: 63: Dream Palace; The Nephew; Children is All; The House of the Solitary Maggot; Narrow Rooms; Garments the Living Wear; Out With the Stars; Publishers' Announcements, 1964-n.d.; Other Reviews, 1977-1991, n.d.; and Observations of American Writers, 1972. It is arranged chronologically by the publication date of the work. The last folders contain miscellaneous publishers' announcements and reviews for which there is only one piece in the collection. This series also includes Observations of American Writers, a loose leaf collection of brief essays by well known American writers in commemoration of International Book Year (1972).

Related collections:

Ms 370 James Purdy Manuscripts

Series Outline

I.   Letters from Purdy to Wilson, 1966-1998
II.  Writings by Purdy, 1957-1992
III. Publicity and Promotion, 1956-1992


Contents List

Box -- Folder -- Contents

1         Series I.  Letters from James Purdy to Robert A. Wilson, 1966-1998
          Includes letters from Purdy to Wilson, mostly detailing the availablity of certain
          rare or out of print copies of Purdy's publications.  Also provides an interesting
          glimpse into the politics of the publishing world.

     F1   Letters, Purdy to Wilson, 1966-1979
          7 items  7 pp.

     F2   Letters, Purdy to Wilson, 1980-1989
          6 items  8 pp.

     F3   Letters, Purdy to Wilson, 1990-1998
          13 items  14 pp.

1         Series II.  Writings by Purdy, 1957-1992.
          Includes material from or related to his novels, short stories, poems, and plays.
          Most of the items are either signed or inscribed. 

     F4   Color of Darkness, 1957  (13 items)
          Includes undated script bound in limp leatherette, inscribed "For Robert Wilson,
          James Purdy," a 14x22" display card for the original New York production, six
          8x10" photographs taken by Alix Jeffrey, and other newspaper clippings and
          publicity fliers

     F5   Scrap of Paper, 1967  (4 items)
          Including typed manuscript with holograph notations, Evergreen Review
          contributor's questionnaire with holograph notations, and two typed letters signed
          by Jack Phelps, Purdy's agent

     F6   Malcolm, 1969  (2 items)
          Set of 8 sample page proofs
          Uncorrected long galleys

     F7   Poems, 1974-1984  (5 items)
          Includes "Gossamer Noons," a single leaf of sheet music insert for Lincoln Center
          program, March 1978; "She Came Out of the Morning Mists," (1975) postcard
          inscribed, "For Robert Wilson, James Purdy," and galley proofs for "Olyphant" 
          signed by Purdy

     F8   Sleep Tight, 1979  (2 items)
          Ts with holograph notation
          Uncorrected long galleys for NADJA

     F9   Mud Toe the Cannibal, 1983  (1 item)
          Published story inscribed "For Robert Wilson, All Best Wishes, James"

     F10  Dawn, 1984  (1 item)
          TsS, inscribed "For Robert A. Wilson, Sincere Good Wishes, James Purdy"

     F11  On Glory's Course, 1984  (3 items)
          Includes an autographed invitation to a publicity party for the novel, a
          photocopied review from the London Times, 10 February 1985, inscribed "For
          Robert, Best Wishes, James," and the publisher's sample of page proofs 

     F12  In a Shallow Grave (film), 1988  (5 items)
          Includes a movie poster and other publicty related to the film, as well as a copy of
          the sheet music for On the Alamo by Isham Jones (1976), inscribed on the cover,                             
          "Song is said to have been played on the victrola in the novel by James Purdy, In a
          Shallow Grave (1976) but never quoted."  Also includes a 250 word explanation
          why the song was not included in the book, written inside and on the back cover.


2         Series III.  Publicity and Promotion, 1956-1992.
          Includes reviews, newspaper clippings, publicity fliers, and posters, most of which
          are inscribed or signed by Purdy.

     F13  63: Dream Palace, 1956-1990  (4 items)
     
     F14  The Nephew, 1960  (3 items)

     F15  Children is All, 1961  (2 items)

     F16  The House of the Solitary Maggot, 1974  (5 items)

     F17  Narrow Rooms, 1978  (3 items) 

     F18  Garments the Living Wear, 1989  (2 items)

     F19  Out With the Stars, 1992  (5 items)

     F20  Publishers' Announcements, 1964-n.d.  (5 items)

     F21  Other Reviews, 1977-1991, n.d.  (8 items)


2         Series III. Publicity and Promotion, 1956-1992 (cont'd)
          
     F22  Publicity Fliers, Programs, and Posters for performances of his work,
          1975-n.d. (16 items)
     
     F23  Observations of American Writers, 1972  (18 items)
          Loose-leaf pocketed portfolio created to commemorate International Book Year,
          includes a brief 2-3 page statement plus a photograph of each of the following
          writers:

          Martin A. Bacheller       Moving Boundaries
          Ray Bradbury              On a Burning Book
          B.J. Chute                Street Signs are for Reading
          Richard Condon            A Book with Glued Pages
          Nathan C. Heard           Prison and Reading
          Rona Jaffe                Writers and Writing
          Meyer Levin               Criticizing the Critics
          Vance Packard             From Shelver to Author
          Bentz Plagemann           A Return to the Story
          Peter Prescott            What "Lorna Doone" Means to Me
          James Purdy               Writing from Inner-Compulsion
          Irving Wallace            But Love is Not a Crime
          A.B.C. Wipple             You Learn a Little Something Everyday
          John A. Williams          A Mother's Conviction

          Purdy's piece is inscribed "Death to New York!  James Purdy"


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