Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World, by Jedediah Purdy. Alfred A. Knopf, 303 pages, $24.
Back in 1999, a marketably young Yale law student named Jedediah Purdy wrote a book about the corrosive effects of irony. Though his arguments were often sloppy, he managed to marry the face of a boy-band alto with the sententiousness of a Roman senator; and because America loves youth as much as a good talking-to, the book was a hit.
By “irony,” the author meant little more than Jerry Seinfeld’s perpetual half-smirk and everything it could be said to represent-but the book caught a modest backlash, and was widely read and praised. Its virtues, for better and for worse, were inseparable from those of its author, who had been raised something of a free-range wild child on his family’s farm in West Virginia. (He’d been home-schooled in a curriculum that out-Deweyed Dewey: He braided his sister’s hair with flowers, he slathered his own naked body with mud.) For Common Things ‘ main selling point, however, wasn’t the author’s colorful bio so much as his relentlessly luster-free tone. It conveyed a yokelly, down-home rectitude, and made for some timely counterprogramming. (Think of the cosmopolitan goof-offs in his peer set: Beck, McSweeney’s , Elizabeth Wurtzel.) But was it really such a penetrating take on a decline in American manners? Or just a report from the front lines of Exeter and Harvard yard, courtesy of one overweening misfit?
“It is revealing that anyone who regards his own standards a little too reverently,” wrote Mr. Purdy, “is likely to be labeled not proud … but ‘anal.'” Poor Jed–all that po-mo windbagging in the classroom, all the jazzy verbal horseplay in the dorm. But not to worry: In contrast to the fallen estate of his peers, young Master Purdy wrote as though keeping an iron compact with himself- You shall never find me irreverent or inflamed. The net result? He was never funny or passionate; and for such a young man, he often sounded like a hoary eminence, discoursing without notes. To some, the old-soul act came off as a kind of miraculous precocity. It made others of us want to don a North Face parka, ash his copy of Walden and pronounce him a total herb.
Jedediah Purdy is back, a second drowsy jeremiad in hand. (One would like to say that he’s older and less oppressively wise. But not much has changed: same deadweight moralizing, same chloroform prose.) The topic is big, but the tonal palette hasn’t expanded much. It’s still a mix of the survey course, the sermon, the confirmation hearing and the fortune cookie. (“The past makes us, but just as surely we make and remake the past.”) In the place of expertise or original insight, Mr. Purdy continues to offer his patented attitude: “I am the last sober person on earth.” One would think this posture harder to sustain when writing about globalization, a topic treated in recent months by a Nobel Prize–winning economist, an internationally renowned ethicist and a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist. But don’t tell that to Mr. Purdy.
In Being America , he has essentially plucked out of the air a few hot topics from academia-diaspora, nationalism-and mingled them with a few hot topics from the “think book” divisions of the trade presses-globalization and anti-Americanism. This plays into Mr. Purdy’s worst habit: treating every idea, no matter how familiar, as if it were original to him. “In a curious way,” he muses, “the master is both a tyrant over and a dependent of the slave”-without noting this is a founding insight of Hegel’s and, in its own way, the origin of all modern political thought. His ignorance and pomposity are of a piece. “We have not … recovered the habit of thinking carefully and without prejudice about markets,” he intones, safely ignoring shelfloads of evidence to the contrary. To sustain the elevated self-regard, Mr. Purdy must stay carefully uninformed. Near the start of the book, he sits in a T.G.I. Friday’s in Egypt and basks in the contradiction (tacky First World chain eatery, angry Muslim nation), as if this hasn’t become a trite set piece of the genre.
But Being America is no more about the post–Sept. 11 world than For Common Things was about common things. Dipping once again into the course catalog, Mr. Purdy quotes Adam Smith, who wrote that “Everyone is practicing oratory on others throughout the whole of life”; and this is the clue that unlocks the book. Being America is not about the fate of modernity, or liberty, or any of the other think-tank standbys Mr. Purdy has latched onto; it’s about the fate of a pop sermonizer named Jedediah Purdy. Like its predecessor, Being America ‘s principle task is establishing the unimpeachable probity of its author. It’s worth asking, then: What sort of an orator is this?
Rhetorical habits reveal habits of mind. “Certain personalities bring together the convictions , aspirations , and misgivings that are ambient in an era,” ran the first sentence of For Common Things (emphasis added), and he has never lost this thumping three-beat rhythm. You will think I’m fibbing, but I circled, on average, one per page in Being America -“social life, family order, and economic opportunity”; “anticipated, joined in and exemplified”; “prominent, potent and infamous.” Once you’ve noticed them, the nifty little trinities are everywhere. What do they signal? A preference for the ticked-off example rather than the hard-won intimacy, which is perhaps why the travel sections of Being America are so dull. Mr. Purdy is not gifted at portraiture, and almost none of his travelogue is vivid. As a pilgrim, as a thinker, Mr. Purdy is attracted to the facile paradox; he fills up his rucksack with flimsy examples of his thesis, then jets to the next continent.
Just as most devotees of On the Road don’t hop freight trains and live out the blues, most readers of Mr. Purdy won’t retire to small homesteads, the better to slather mud and dig tubers. They’re content to crack a micro-brewed beer, settle onto their Lakota sofa-throw and pick up For Common Things . All of which brings to mind one perceptive young woman Mr. Purdy met in Madras, who told him that America is “a lot of hype …. You brand everything and sell it to the rest of the world.” Reverence for a “dear perpetual place,” to borrow Yeats’ phrase; a sense that one’s own experience is sacred; a feeling of stewardship for the dignity of others: These are surely the essence of a good life. How awful, if the power of American mass-marketing were to get a hold of them and peddle them as if they were sneakers or beer. Oh, right, sorry-it already has. The brand name? Jedediah Purdy.
Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.