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James Purdy: Cabot Wright Begins

When I first read this book, it impressed me as one of the finest novels of the second half of the twentieth century and nothing has changed my view since. It is not a particularly easy book but, if you have read any of his other books, you will find the familiar themes of lack of communication, a person’s identity defined by others and satire, this time on the American (or, more specifically, New York) publishing industry. The story is relatively straightforward. As with other Purdy heroes, Cabot Wright loses his parents early on (both are killed) and is brought up by Mr. Warburton whose name and behaviour remind us somewhat of Daddy Warbucks. Cabot becomes a Wall Street Tycoon. He turns to a psychiatrist to help him out of his chronic fatigue which his Wall Street job gives him. The psychiatrist, Dr. Bigelow-Martin (clearly modelled on Wilhelm Reich who was very much in the news at that time for his theories on orgone energy), does help him but, in true Purdy fashion, Cabot does get rid of his conventions but, however, becomes a serial rapist, his way of communicating. His rapes are not vicious. Indeed, most of his victims seem to welcome it. He ends up raping more than 300 women but is caught when one of his victims, a religious woman, does not welcome it. He is caught and sent to prison. The novel starts on his release from prison.

Bernie Gladhart, unpublished writer, has been persuaded by his wife, Carrie, to go to New York and find Cabot Wright soon after his release, and write his story. Bernie writes some notes, goes to New York and happens to find Cabot Wright, now staying in a rooming house in New York. The publisher, Princeton Keith, seeing the potential in the story, gets hold of the manuscript and asks Zoe Bickle to help rewrite it. Cabot is happy to collaborate, not least because he is tired of everyone’s different view of him and wants to get the one, correct view out, a standard theme of Purdy. Indeed, he feels getting the correct story out will help cure him. But, of course, this is not going to work. The New York publisher wants a commercial story and Zoe eventually realises that Cabot’s story is not commercial. At the end, Cabot seems to be on the way to finding out who he is. He has refound laughter, got rid of the psychological baggage he got from Warburton, got rid of his TV (a key image in Purdy’s books), sold his house and is finding out what makes him tick. He is no longer a collection of people’s views of him. He is, as he says, I.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Farrar, Straus, Giroux