Aided by native intelligence, an unusual upbringing and job experience, and study of a few master texts (The Captive Mind, for one), a youngster just out of college, Jedediah Purdy, teaches himself why not to give up on politics and how to resist high-fashion knowingness. The work that describes this self-education, For Common Things, reveals that he regards himself as an outsider and that, like many non-minority Americans, he’s absorbed a quantity of points-of-light uplift. His pages fall often into a sermoniacally positive mode: “I cannot help believing that we need a way of thinking, and doing, that has in it more promise of goodness than the one we are now following.” He’s a fierce scolder of elites, their cheerleaders, and their jesters, chiding Harvard students for moral indifference, Tom Peters for claiming “life is a hustle,” Jerry Seinfeld for being “irony incarnate,” and at times sounding like mid-career Archibald Macleish pounding “the irresponsibles.”
This is an exotic sound just now, hence marketable. The editor who bought For Common Things explained that “if we got lucky, and it took off, it could be a little like The Greening of America.” The book took off. A pre-publication notice hailed Purdy as “a fresh and vibrant voice calling for the renewal of commitment.” Bill Moyers pronounced For Common Things “the best book [I’ve] read in ten years.” Time, Salon, Slate, NPR, CNN, and The New York Times Magazine competed for interviews, dug for biographical detail, ran lengthy pieces. People who knew Purdy when spoke up strongly for him. (Paul Starr of The American Prospect: “The only thing I can compare him to is a young Walter Lippmann.”) The book sold out a first printing of 35,000 in six weeks.
A backlash naturally followed—harsh reviews, patronizing profiles. The New York Observer indicted the author for sanctimony, Harper’s ripped him for being against irony without knowing what irony is, The New Yorker defended irony on the ground that it can be “tremendously funny,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said that “little of what Mr. Purdy writes is new,” and a Salon reviewer accused Purdy of “suck[ing] up too cravenly to adults.” The author complained on a book tour about being branded and marketed—transformed into a bowl-cut, sunny-countenanced young man of virtue.
But Purdy’s complaints were goodhumored; The New York Times Magazine noted that his eyes “curve downward when he smiles—which is often, for he is nothing if not a courteous young man.” Was he aware, perhaps, that “a fresh and vibrant voice calling for the renewal of commitment” is an oxymoron? Did he grasp that, even if his audience is lost in fantasy, finding in him the Wholesome Young Man of its dreams, he had gotten lucky and shouldn’t whine? For whatever reason, he resumed answering questions at length and, to general relief, stopped badgering people about oversimplifying his arguments. “You seem to be taking all this with remarkable grace,” said Slate. Walter Kirn of Time …