James Purdy Burial Ceremony and Symposium

13th March 2019

14:00 – 18:00

Various - Please see below for details


Plans are now in place for the American writer James Purdy (1914-2009)’s remains to be buried at the extension graveyard, St Mary’s church, Weedon Lois, Northamptonshire, next to the grave of the English poet Dame Edith Sitwell, as per his last wishes. A memorial tablet will also be placed.

The ceremony will take place at 14:00 on Wednesday 13 March 2019 (the precise tenth anniversary of James’s death), with tea available immediately thereafter at the church. The burial has been arranged by Dr. Maria Cecilia Holt of Harvard and Professor Charles  Lock of the University of Copenhagen, on behalf of John Uecker, James Purdy’s executor.

There then follows a 2-hour symposium at the University of Northampton’s Waterside campus, running from 16:00 – 18:00, hosted in the “Town Hall” of the Creative Hub by Professor Richard Canning and Doctor David Simmons, on behalf of the Centre for Creative and Critical Writing. The event features a range of speakers, from academics and scholars to friends, associates, lay readers, and members of the Playground Theatre’s recent cast in the world-premiere production of Purdy’s play Paradise Circus, as well as its director, Anthony Gibbs.

Purdy was a trailblazing novelist, creating an idiom and genre of his own: Gothic, Midwestern, and peopled by the sexually marginal, gender ambivalent and socially and psychologically displaced. The novels, short stories and plays told, from the mid-1950s on, a truth to America which could be hard to stomach, but which was always resonant, compelling and ultimately acutely predictive. Purdy was repeatedly forgotten and then rediscovered. In 2005 he was awarded the Mercantile Library of New York’s Clifton Fadiman Medal for Excellence in Fiction by the American author of The Corrections Jonathan Franzen, who had nominated Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works. In his lifetime the author was celebrated by figures as diverse as Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal and Paul Bowles.

The extent of Purdy’s Anglophilia can scarcely be over-emphasised. It did not stem chiefly from the early acclaim he experienced in the UK, especially from Dame Edith Sitwell (who was convinced she had discovered a Negro writer of great promise). Rather, it reflected  his widespread and obsessive readings in the English literary canon across a half-millenium, also evident in the rootedness of his prose style and dialogue both in Jacobean theatre and in prose works, like the King James Bible.

Purdy may be remembered as provocative – he was the first author to place a certain swearword between covers – and envelope-pushing – as in the sensual and sexual rites-of-passage of the protagonists in his recently-published collected shorter fiction. His rendering of violence in prose was exceptionally shocking and brutal too; yet his dissection of the workings of the human conscience was just as penetrating and profound.

In our visual age, he might be one of the great “lost opportunities” to cinematic adaptation, with Derek Jarman stymied at the last moment in plans to shoot his adaptation of Narrow Rooms. On stage, a flawed adaptation by Edward Albee of the novel Malcolm prevented further adaptations from being considered, but equally stopped the theatrical world from seeing the opportunities in Purdy’s own writing for the stage.

Like many idiosyncratic literary figures of the highest calibre, James Purdy noted his marginalisation and at times sheer critical neglect with incomprehension, suspicion and sometimes anger. Yet it was what it was: he could write no other way, and about nothing else than he was disposed to.

Ten years after his death – on which, remarkably, Purdy was discovered to be over a decade older still than he had claimed – the Faculty of Education and Humanities at the University of Northampton is delighted to be part of the events which honour his last wishes and place on record Purdy’s vital contribution to world literature. James’s literary executor, his closest friends, biographer and a range of scholars, admirers and enthusiasts will be attending the burial – some flying in from the USA, Denmark and the Netherlands – and speaking at the after-service symposium.


Burial Ceremony:  St Mary’s church, Weedon Lois, Northamptonshire, next to the grave of the English poet Dame Edith Sitwell.

Symposium: Town Hall, Creative Hub Ground Floor, University of Northampton’s Waterside campus.


For further information, or to book a place at the symposium contact: Professor Richard Canning, University of Northampton: richard.canning@northampton.ac.uk




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