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The West Virginian

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 agreed. “Insufferably smug,” he writes, “[Purdy] is not.” The call for Renewal continues to be touted on talk shows, and the author labors, in interviews, at refining his theory of irony; he’s once again a student at Yale, pursuing “Law and Forestry.”

When the Purdy boom was at full tide, chat rooms hummed with messages about adolescents such as himself ignorant of life because cosseted in private schools (“life has been far too cushy for them”), and with denunciations of “elite” Ivy League graduates “completely out of touch with the real world.” Factual mistakes, vacuous comparisons, and careless phrasing by Purdy’s critics combined with verifiable fact and his moralistic bent to create an impression that here was a child of entitlement worth resenting.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was among the error-prone. He wrote that Purdy “went off to Phillips Exeter Academy at age 14” and thence to Harvard. Others built on the mistake, boosting Purdy’s snob appeal. An Exeter teacher, quoted on the Net and elsewhere, likened the lad to a master of the universe: “I feel like I have met a young William Buckley.” Speaking of Purdy’s father, a farmer whose land was taken over in a Pennsylvania airport expansion, Time referred to “the family’s ancestral acreage.” Some pages in Purdy’s book leave the impression that he enjoyed a subsidized Wanderjahr through Central Europe (were his appointments with Polish political leaders and writers set up by European agents of the “ancestral acreage?”). The author’s own biographical notes reported that he’d worked as a canvasser-lobbyist for an ecological group—obviously not a real-world job. Exeter, Harvard, ancestral acreage, Europe, Knopf, public interest lobbying, Yale Law—these aren’t easy to connect with the author’s assertion that “wherever I found myself, I came as a visitor…but never actually a member.”

Gatsby, though, was an Oxford man; this is America. After a bleak three years in a Charleston, West Virginia, public high school—the only student in his class who had previously been schooled at home—Purdy wrote to Exeter (“the only private school I ever heard of”), and was given, at seventeen, a senior year scholarship. The school’s enrollment of 1,000-plus annually includes about forty students with a one-year ticket; most of the forty had finished high school elsewhere; chances are good that Purdy, not a postgraduate or (in school parlance) a “4-year upper” or “3-year upper or 2-year upper,” met few students at Exeter with a weaker claim than his to “membership.”

When he graduated and scholarship money ran out the youngster returned to West Virginia to a job as a carpenter. The ancestral acreage there consisted of a 100-acre farm—no indoor plumbing until 1989, no tractor—bought in 1974 by his hippie parents; they were resolved, in his father’s words, “to pick out a small corner of the world and make it as sane as possible,” and had home-schooled both their children. He saved his wages—self-financed the backpacking trip abroad. Now came Harvard (thereabouts he probably did have, for some, a Gatsbyesque identity—the Exeter man who wasn’t one). He wrote an honors thesis on Montaigne, started writing for publication (essays in The American Prospect, work on versions of For Common Things), and he was on his way.

The biographical detail matters because the author’s feelings of being a nonmember seem to encourage him to take himself seriously: to publicly wrestle with his own political frustration when it strikes, to raise his voice in rebuke of behavior that angers him, and, when discouraged, to turn to literary and historical works for help, although the anguish they address hugely outweighs his own.

One bout with frustration on which Purdy reports involves mountain stripmining in West Virginia and starts with the arrival of Bruce Babbitt, in 1996, at one of the state’s largest mines. The interior secretary helicopters down to a spot where “mountaintops across thousands of acres had been dynamited and bulldozers had pushed the shattered earth into the surrounding valleys, leaving a plateau of shale and clay…some grass [and] a few tough locust trees [that] stood as much as twelve feet high.” Immediately on ascending a podium the secretary begins talking humbug: “the miracle that we see upon this ground today”…”a better landscape than it was before”…”a much more diverse landscape, a savannah of fields and forests coming back”…”closer to the landscape that existed here a thousand years ago than the unmined landscape,” etc.

Purdy listens and burns. It’s not just that Babbitt’s words are “contradicted by everything he saw around him, everything he must have seen on his flight to the mine, everything the most ignorant naturalist knows about the growth of landforms.” It’s that the unreality in the secretary’s chatter perfectly matches that of the environmentalists—Babbitt’s presumed enemies—who think “law can rework the social ecology into a more responsible form.” These environmentalists want to tax fossil fuel emissions: this will reduce payroll taxes, create jobs, fund tax breaks for research on new energy sources, persuade industries to locate jobs where they’re needed…

A commendable idea, says Purdy—but who really trusts legal fixes? “We do not live in a way that either invites or promises to uphold a ‘responsible economy’ that is merely legislated.” To the contrary: we pretend that “we can become responsible without changing ourselves, just by changing the prices of things.” Such pretense, Purdy writes, produces fantasies about a world minus contradictions, dreams that absurdly inflate expectations and end, when truth dawns, with people believing that “public speech” can never “touch reality,” and that “public acts” can never “preserve or better it.” Nobody can oppose, in good conscience, environmental conservation—or prosperity—or efficient energy production. The problem is that

The higher the level of abstraction, the more of these good causes it is possible to support at once: the further a person is from any particular place, the less conflict he is likely to see among them. Babbitt was able to support all of them concurrently, without blinking. So do the advocates of…the carbon tax. Such comprehensive advocacy excites suspicion, and rightly so. Unearned optimism ends by earning skepticism, or even by licensing despair.

Earlier sections of For Common Things examine other “exemplars of the therapeutic approach to politics”—proposals and characters notable for “their high profiles, moral impeccability, and vacuity.” Among them are Hillary Clinton (the politics of meaning) and Bill Clinton (community service and other “initiatives”). Part of Purdy’s quarrel with apologies to blacks for slavery, such as Clinton’s, runs as follows:

The idea of an apology does not address a ten-to-one disparity between white and black household wealth, or an equally unsettling disproportion between black men who go to prison and those who graduate from college. Sentiment in itself does not alter the social world….

The invocation of apology suggested that white Americans could enjoy the cleansing of conscience that actual apologies begin. It offered a way of feeling better without doing better…. This politics offers goodness, magnanimity, even absolution, all without work.

When presidents, first ladies, cabinet secretaries propagate an empty politics, what are people who don’t want to believe “life is a hustle” to do? Purdy finds some help in Czeslaw Milosz’s portraits of tortured idealist-officials turned torturers; the carefully rendered stages of their descent into unreality suggest to Purdy “the moral necessity of ‘the passionate pursuit of the real,’ an attention at once generous and severe toward one’s surroundings.” He becomes better informed about the temptations of unreality by examining the psychology of his hustling classmates—people locked in “a despairing formula: ‘You can’t change the world, so you might as well get ahead in it.”’ He returns often to positive examples, his parents among them: grownups who avoid talking humbug and live with complex double truths, home-schooling their children and simultaneously battling on school boards and at the statehouse for financing that will improve public education. And he ponders the feasibility of a “politics not so much of transformation as of maintenance, of tending to human possibilities more than radically reworking them.” Much of his writing on these matters is clearheaded—energized by the “visitors”’ sense that things could be different around here, hostile to the “members”’ conviction that nerds alone want change.

But the “young Walter Lippmann” never really emerges, I’m sorry to say, in For Common Things. The book has too much platform sonority, too many quotations fresh only to the author (“There is nothing new under the sun”; “Whosoever would be a man must be a nonconformist”), too many eye-glazing sentences:

The more common badness becomes, the more keenly we appreciate goodness.

It is urgently important that we practice responsible thinking about technology.

A marriage of commitment and knowledge produces dignified work.

For it is not too much to say that there is no good, or beautiful, or healthy thing in the world that does not depend for its origin and continued existence on the well-being of a host of other such things.

Moreover the book has a very shaky design. A twelve-page “Preface” explains that For Common Things is “one young man’s letter of love for the world’s possibilities,” denounces irony (“the ironic individual…disowns his own words”), and remembers growing up in West Virginia sun and shower. The adjacent five-page “Introduction” discusses Emerson and Tocqueville on American individualism and restlessness without plausibly connecting them to the rest of the book. Chapters One and Two, said to be devoted to “describing and diagnosing irony,” aren’t. The first has fewer pages on irony than on TV shows and books about angels, and on magazines that present the worlds of business and technology as settings for heroic individualism; the second loses irony altogether in favor of “the eclipse of…Promethean ambitions” in politics.

Purdy has a weakness for I’m-from-Mars introductions of classmates:

Just over a year after graduating from Harvard, I met a former classmate at a birthday party in New York City. He is a warm young man, sincerely affectionate toward other people and sincerely hopeful that they should like him. He was eager to tell me about his first year as…an investment banker.

Purdy is far out of his range when he dwells on suffering and wickedness. Charmingly loving to his mother, father, and sister, steaming ahead in law and forestry, memory stocked with pretty pastorals (“We slathered [mud] across our naked bodies, and wildflowers that we arranged in my sister’s hair”), he seems unacquainted with grievous distress. Listening to him on the subject of evil (“We need to take account of the essential depravity in human character”) is like listening to a neck harmonica version of Faust.

Finally there’s irony. According to Purdy’s concept, irony is a synonym for cynicism, skepticism, or narcissism, or “a way into a broader argument about indifference,” or “a fear of betrayal, disappointment, and humiliation; and a suspicion that believing, hoping, or caring too much will open us to these.” He seems unaware of irony as a means of holding dim outlooks and wilted language in precise, sustained focus, for perusal and edification. In a post-publication interview in the Baltimore Sun Purdy said, in the voice of the convert, that “irony generally is a friend of the human spirit.” A half-dozen pages from the end, his book contrasts “our contemporary irony,” which “is a static irony, a way of staying unmoved by our neighbors, the world, ourselves,” and “irony [that] is ecstatic, in the etymologically strict sense of drawing us out of our stasis.” There’s a hint in both the interview and the contrast between the static and the ecstatic that Purdy will be writing more about irony.

Unmoved by this prospect, I as a former English teacher am nevertheless stirred by memories of hours spent interesting groups of undergrad-uates in distinguishing straight talk from irony, irony from sarcasm, and so forth. Among the hundreds of young scholars meant to be improved thereby were possibly a dozen who gave a rat’s ass about the matter—and yet most of the oblivious have thrived withal, better perhaps than the elect. Witlessness about irony isn’t life-threatening.

On the other hand, it’s not a plus for anyone writing about irony. When Purdy began slogging at this book, Linda Hutcheon was putting in print her Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony1—a work noting in its introduction that the Modern Language Association bibliography listed close to 1,500 entries, under irony, for the most recent decade. Irony’s Edge itself is a rather long-winded, self-indulgent tome, but its section on “the contradictory functions and effects of irony”—“The ‘Devil’s Mark’ Or The ‘Snorkel of Sanity”’—could nevertheless have straightened out some of the confusion in For Common Things.

Last fall William Chaloupka published Everybody Knows, a provocative study of political cynicism and pessimism that could also help Purdy.2 By presenting models of “sustained liveliness,”Chaloupka writes, “cynicism offers the promise of culture and sociability, even if this promise is, perversely, not based on the values of community and civic belief.” And he adds: “To say that an entire culture tends toward the ironic would not quite capture the right sense of shared and persistent disbelief. The phrase ‘cynical culture’ makes sense in a way not quite captured by irony.”

A night or so wrestling with Chaloupka and Hutcheon, a season with Dryden, Swift, Gibbon, Stendhal, and Henry James, and a weekend with meta- and meta-metafictionists from John Barth to David Foster Wallace—these might make Purdy’s further musings on irony and political depression tolerable.3 But it bears emphasis that the foregoing recommended reading list, like others, carries in it, together with the inevitable condescension, a measure of hope and faith in the potential reader’s future. Purdy is a writer who not only can tell the difference between political thought and Bruce Babbitt singing on the savannah or Clinton apologizing for slavery, but who cares sufficiently about the difference to work at spelling it out both for himself and for his reader. I worry about his gaucheries, in short, but find it hard not to wish this young man well.

  1. 1

    Routledge, 1994.

  2. 2

    Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America (University of Minnesota Press, 1999). Disclosure note: the author, whom I don’t know, mentions an essay of mine favorably.

  3. 3

    On the contrast between Purdy’s view of irony and that of the metafictionists, see A.O. Scott, “The Panic of Influence,” The New York Review, February 10, 2000.

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