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Books: Optimist In a Jaded Age

7 minute read
Walter Kirn

Jedediah Purdy, 24, may have been born in the 1970s, but he grew up in the 1870s. Home was a hillside West Virginia farm plowed by a team of Percheron draft horses. School was his parents’ kitchen, his neighbors’ fields. Town was a country crossroads with two stores, and entertainment a new book from the library. And though the young man with the Old Testament name and the Mark Twain upbringing later went on to study at Harvard and Yale, mixing with the privileged and the trend-conscious, his heart remained in the hills, beneath the oaks.

Purdy’s mind, however, is another matter. With the publication of his first book–For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today (Knopf; 256 pages; $20)–the brainy nature boy has stormed the capital, panicking the languid sophisticates with an unfashionably passionate attack on the dangers of modern passionlessness. Reduced to simple headlines, Purdy’s book is a precocious diatribe against the sort of media-savvy detachment that passes for intelligence and maturity in the age of Letter- man. “The ironic individual,” he writes, “is a bit like Seinfeld without a script; at ease in banter, versed in allusion, and almost debilitatingly self-aware.” In Purdy’s opinion, the price of such crippling cleverness is social stagnation and private emptiness. Ironists waste time smirking rather than working–working to build a better world, that is. And Purdy, an unapologetic progressive, believes in a better world. Sincerely. Earnestly. Some might even say annoyingly.

Even before its publication, Purdy’s book provoked heavy return fire from the chattering classes it draws a bead on. A long review in Harper’s magazine, facetiously titled Thus Spoke Jedediah and reeking of the quippy, jaded wit that Purdy fears the nation is mired in, opened by poking fun at Purdy’s past and went on to brand him–ironically, of course–a “young sage,” dismissing his ideas as “second- and third-hand musings.” The New York Observer, a metropolitan weekly that is to the disaffected Eastern elite what the Daily Racing Form is to gambling addicts, found Purdy just as cloying and irritating. Among New Yorkers whose daily bread is irony, heavily buttered with sarcasm and ridicule, Purdy’s message of earnest civic-mindedness was as welcome as a vice cop at a bachelor party.

Purdy doesn’t wish to be a spoilsport. He’s negative only about negativity. Temperamentally, he’s an optimist who places his faith in action, not attitude. One issue close to his tender rural heart is the preservation of West Virginia wilderness from the mountain-leveling predations of modern coal mining. A student of law and forestry at Yale, he sees himself arguing his causes in court someday, but his broader goal is to spur a resurgence in grass-roots public activism. “We need today a kind of thought and action that is too little contemplated yet remains possible,” he writes. “It is the kind aimed at the preservation of what we love most in the world, and a stay against forgetting what that love requires.”

In conversation, Purdy is hardly humorless. In fact, he’s downright funny, even absurd. Cherub-faced, with a bowl-shaped haircut unsullied by the professional stylist’s scissors, he gives off a dual impression of utter youthfulness and uncanny erudition. He uses the word ontology as naturally as other young men say “dude,” but he’s quite capable of vivid straight talk. Of his idealistic upbringing he says, “There are families that eat hot dogs and families that don’t. We were a family that didn’t.” And his complaint about a tedious party thrown by his publisher to introduce him to New Haven, Conn., bookstore owners sounds a bit like Letterman: “One of the nice things about West Virginia is that you could comb the entire state and not put together a roomful of booksellers.”

The better world that Purdy fondly hopes for is based in part on the world his parents gave him. His father Wally was raised a farmer, but when the family’s ancestral acreage was taken to help expand the Pittsburgh, Pa., airport, Wally dropped out of mainstream agriculture and moved with his wife Deirdre, a graduate student in philosophy and a restless child of Delaware suburbia, to the West Virginia hamlet of Chloe. Alongside what Purdy estimates were a few hundred other local neohomesteaders, the family grew its own tomatoes, slaughtered its own cattle, and kept in touch with the wider world almost solely through National Public Radio. “Those utterly sober, almost somnolent male voices always seemed very homelike,” Purdy recalls, perhaps revealing a central influence on his own hypercivilized diction. When the family broke down and bought an old TV set to view a hotly contested World Series one fall, the device ended up in the basement, and the children allowed themselves to watch it only as payment for completed chores. “My sister and I devised a system of viewing credits,” Purdy remembers. He recalls that his credits were never used up.

A walking advertisement for home schooling, Purdy received no formal education until the age of 13, when a casual meeting with an admissions officer landed him a coveted place at New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy. Before this–except for “an hour or two a week” of what Purdy archaically calls “arithmetic”–his lessons came from random, heavy reading. He devoured everything from Hardy Boys mysteries to chunky tomes on European history. “We made pretty serious raids on thrift-store book supplies,” he says. After a brief, unfulfilling interlude in the local public school, Purdy headed up to Exeter, where he both found himself intellectually and met the cultural enemy: prep school irony.

“It was a very suave but very ignorant self-satisfaction,” Purdy says of the Exeter atmosphere. “There was this sense of casual entitlement.” Later he was admitted to Harvard, where he became, in his own dramatic phrase, “obsessed with ethics.” Listening to Purdy describe his zeal for Kant and Hegel, it’s easy to see why certain critics can’t help poking fun at him. Why so serious? And considering the status of Purdy’s heroes–from the great French essayist Montaigne to the brave Polish dissident Adam Michnik–the objects of his derision seem like straw men. Purdy singles out for special scorn management guru Tom Peters, who teaches disciples to think of themselves as commercial, brand-named products; the cyber- magazines Wired and Fast Company, which promote, in Purdy’s view, greed and self-absorption; and Jerry Seinfeld, whom Purdy calls, in a tone once reserved for Satan and serial killers, “irony incarnate.”

Despite its publisher’s hope that Purdy’s book will hit it big with thoughtful twentysomethings starved for meaning in a vacuous time, For Common Things is an arduous read that would test the syntactical skills of a tenured professor. It is not the accessible pop polemic some reviewers have made it out to be but an achingly ambitious manifesto from a very young young man who happens to be, alarmingly often, eloquent beyond his years. Insufferably smug, however, Purdy is not, particularly when it comes to his anointment as an instant wise man for the millennium. “Irony,” he elegantly reflects, “is probably the only appropriate response to walking by a bookstore and seeing your face in the window.” There–a joke.

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