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Irony's Irony: Jedediah Purdy and the Plight of the Young Writer.

Mattson, Kevin

A Review of a Book and the Pseudoevent That Followed

Poor Jedediah. At the age of twenty-four, he published For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today (Knopf, 1999; reissued by Vintage, 2000). The book discussed the rise of irony and selfishness in popular culture and called on Americans to return to civic life through a reappreciation of the "commons." Purdy rambled through everything from Jerry Seinfeld, the coal tax, and Montaigne to try his hand at social criticism. The book quickly produced a rare thing today -- a controversial event in American letters. Roger Hodge, writing in Harper's, pondered why "the second and third-hand musings of a twenty-four year old command our attention." Joel Stein in Time magazine called the arguments of the book "really stupid." The publicists rushed in at this moment, treating Purdy to a full-story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Here we learned how Purdy liked to collect blueberries in coffee cans and drive his motorcycle really fast through the country roads of West Virginia. And so a quick co urse of events escalated -- from the publication of a little book of social criticism to a significant happening, from the birth of a young writer to the creation of a personality for public consumption.

It was just what Purdy needed, even if he himself did not necessarily want it. The young writer today, if he or she wants to be read by an audience of more than say one hundred people, needs to make a splash. Following the teachings of the great master, Norman Mailer, young writers need to "advertise themselves." Their writing must be bold, stark, controversial. Their books must have an easy "hook," and the authors must have something about their personal lives that can generate the necessary press stories. That is why the most famous novelist of Generation X (and, yes, I will use that much hated term throughout this essay) is still Bret Easton Ellis, a stylist who could barely keep himself from writing controversial fiction about jaded Gen X'ers who watched snuff films (Less Than Zero) or psychotic Wall Street scumbags (American Pyscho, now, of course, better known as a movie). Ellis's own life had the requisite detail of ambiguous sexuality, enough to send the press hounds sniffing. Beyond novelists, look a t our recent social and political critics. Take for instance the simplistic, yet ever controversial, book-events created by Wendy Shalit (known as a twenty four year old virgin who wrote A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue) or Katie Roiphe before her. The young writer has to be easily comprehended as the Next Big Thing, the way promoters understood the twenty-something musician and performer, Beck, as the next Bob Dylan, after the release of only one c.d. A senior editor at Knopf explained her attitude towards Purdy's For Common Things, "I thought we could reach a young audience with this book. If we got lucky, and it took off, it could be a little like The Greening of America." Purdy's writing and personality seemed to beam best-seller. The contract was readied.

Of course, some would argue that writers have always relied upon some sort of P.R. scheme. So it's important to focus on what has really changed over the years: The worlds, expectations, and norms of academia and journalism have grown further apart. In the first, jargon and self-referentiality dominate, in the second, superficiality and scandal. In the midst of this bifurcation is an increasingly illiterate audience that barely reads at all. So, the young writer bent on the honorable vocation of social criticism has a harder and harder time finding a voice or a capacity to reach a wide readership. Recently, I was at a gathering of young writers being recruited by Dissent magazine. The editors talked up their tradition of "literary journalism," a way of writing intended both to analyze and be read by more than academic peers. The young people in the room seemed bewildered, as if the term came from a foreign language. At the same time, they wanted to know more. The fact that Dissent's American readership, as th e readership for other small magazines, has declined simply highlights my general point.

How then can a young writer confront difficult and important topics without tending towards academic specialization or journalism's simplicity? Across the board, this seemed a major question posed by those who reviewed Purdy's book. Even those sympathetic to what he was trying to do argued that the style of the book seemed strained. Benjamin DeMott argued that Purdy seemed a bit too ethereal and not grounded enough in academic writing done on the topic of irony. DeMott worried about the author's "gaucheries" but found "it hard not to wish this young man well"; he counseled the young author to read some of his preferred classics and more academic work about irony (he even provided a list of books). Wilfred McKlay at Commentary complained that "if Jedediah Purdy had been my student, I hope I would have cared enough about him to say, 'Don't publish this."' Purdy, for both of these critics, had bitten off more than he could handle. Of course, if he had tried to please DeMott or McKlay, he would probably have woun d up writing an academic dissertation on "The Meaning of Irony as it Appears through the Works of 19th Century Thinkers in Boston and its Immediate Surrounds" with a requisite literature review in the beginning and footnotes throughout. The world of broad social criticism is shut off to the young writer.

The flip-side of all this relates to the strictures of popular writing. Today, confessional, autobiographical writing dominates popular magazines and trade press books. The personal enters every writing act. Nothing ensures a book contract more than either stardom previously achieved or a debauched life to be displayed. Another Gen X writer, Elizabeth Wurtzel, cashed in by publishing a book about her own struggles with depression and Prozac (from there it was onto the heights of pseudo-feminism in her second silly book, Bitch). Admittedly, Purdy does not confess or use his book as therapy. But still he suggests that he could not write about the subjects he tackles without writing about his own life. He explains that he does "not know another way of communicating this than by telling a story from West Virginia." And so we hear a fair amount about his boyhood in this state, about his hippie parents, about his homeschooling. Pretty soon, though, the reader asks: Why couldn't Purdy have written about things like popular culture's irony and environmental politics without talking about his boyhood in West Virginia?

Some would argue that a sense of place is a legitimate basis for social criticism. Think of Wendell Berry; indeed, Purdy does. He cites Berry. But Purdy did not choose to live in West Virginia, the way Berry moved from New York City to Kentucky. After all, he was born in West Virginia, so his stories become autobiographical accounts of a short life (rather than a conscious reflection on a mature choice). More so, they become depictions of an exceptional life that do not translate all too well into the generalities Purdy wants to squeeze out of them. Many critics complained about how this young writer neglects the privilege that stands behind his autobiography - his middle class parents' prerogative to drop out of mainstream life in the first place and then Purdy's own entrance into Exeter Academy and Harvard. But even if we cover our noses to the stench of white-boy, Ivy-League privilege, Purdy's inability to write about big questions without alluding to his West Virginia background demands attention in and o f itself. His penchant for the personal relates to a general tendency in American culture to think only of the personal. There appears to be no other way to make some major point without alluding to some sort of personally felt event; hence, Al Gore's recent chasing for the "human interest" side to every issue he broached in the Presidential campaign (those stories, many of them false, that he would tell). We have lost faith that readers (who seem too stupid) can understand general principles on their own terms; instead, writers must toss out crumbs of personal tidbitry. Thus Purdy feels compelled to discuss environmental despoliation by describing his walks through the hills of West Virginia.

When Purdy scaffles upwards from the realm of the personal into the ethereal zone of philosophy and public policy, he becomes inordinately vague. Benjamin DeMott simply reprinted the following statements from the book to make this point: "It is urgently important that we practice responsible thinking about technology." Or: "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 wellbeing of a host of other such things." One of my more favorite, pretentious lines is: "These may be banal examples, but precisely this kind of invaluable banality sustains our human world." Purdy moves from describing walks in the woods to abstract proclamations all too readily. Neither realm seems sufficiently developed.

Consider For Common Things's ponderings on the big thinkers of the past. In discussing Freud, Marx, and Montaigne, Purdy's treatments read like Cliff Notes. The thinkers are obviously used to provide more weight to the argument (the ever present pressure of academia, perhaps), but precisely because each treatment is so flitting, as a whole, the big thinkers appear as props instead of as masters who have much to teach us. Freud, we learn, thought that "we are all ill," Purdy explains briskly. Rousseau is cribbed in a single page, then Marx (and Marxism) is immediately cribbed in the three pages that follow. After doing a little bit of a better job on Montaigne, Purdy then quickly compares him to Camus, Orwell, and Thoreau in one paragraph. We are left feeling like we have taken a crash course in the Great Books, with the authority of these thinkers standing in for something else. The ordinary reader is left feeling bamboozled by a tradition that overwhelms without really shedding light on the book's major them es. Academic readers will simply scoff or provide the sort of counsel that DeMott already did.

Perhaps the most worrisome thing in For Common Things is how difficulties in writing have structured and limited the main premise of the book. As I've made clear, the young social critic must be bold; arguments must be stated starkly, ever mindful of the "advertisement" that will be written about them. Purdy's interpretation of irony seemed almost shrill at points, at the least, overdrawn. In fact, in his "Afterword" he admitted that the contemporary irony of a Jerry Seinfeld "is very far from exhausting the meaning of irony. The word has a rich and complicated history." Unfortunately, this complicated history had failed to come out in the book itself. Indeed, the "afterword" almost seemed to qualify the book's overall argument. Purdy admitted here that "I gave some readers the impression of self-righteousness, even smugness, the moral arrogance of the writer who can afford to feel separate from what he describes." Not surprisingly, he thought this tag was unfair, but afterwords such as the one he wrote have a tendency to make readers scratch their heads more than feel assured about the argument.

Purdy's stark argument about irony can perhaps best be noticed in the omissions he made throughout his book. There are a number of twentieth century writers (novelists and critics alike) known for deploying irony quite well, at least in a more interesting fashion than Purdy suggests. I do not mean to provide more reading requirements the way Benjamin DeMott does. Instead, I want to point out one of America's greatest ironists who certainly could have taught Purdy a thing or two and who helps illustrate the decline in the state of American social criticism. I was shocked to find no mention in For Common Things of Randolph Bourne, one of America's finest "young writers" (Bourne was in his twenties when he wrote most of his essays which were the furthest things from academic treatises). Bourne penned some of the best treatments of the ironic life that would deserve rereading today even if someone like Purdy had not come along. But now that Purdy has, they scream out for rescue.

Bourne shows (subtly) how a writer can appreciate the bright side of irony without embracing its potentially pernicious side. For Bourne, irony was inherited from the ancient "Greek spirit" that enthused in "letting in fresh air and light into others' minds and our own." Bourne thought this spirit could be recaptured by intellectually-inclined young people living in the twentieth century, for it provided a lively and critical way of engaging the world. He explained, "The ironic life is a life keenly alert, keenly sensitive, reacting promptly with feelings of liking or dislike to each bit of experience, letting none of it pass without interpretation and assimilation, a life full and satisfying -- indeed a rival of the religious life." But irony was not about the "crude dismissiveness" that Purdy condemns in his book. Instead, it represented a deeply democratic set of values. Bourne argued, "The ironist is the great intellectual democrat, in whose presence and before whose law all ideas and attitudes stand equa l." Bourne distinguished ironists from the "cynics" that he criticized -- those like H.L. Mencken. "The ironist," Bourne wrote, "is ironical not because he does not care, but because he cares too much. He is feeling the profoundest depths of the world's great beating, laboring heart, and his playful attitude towards the grim and sordid is a necessary relief from the tension of too much caring." And so, Bourne argued, we can be ironists without being smug, an ideal that Purdy seemed to forget. Instead of this nuance, Purdy gave us starkness. Such is the end-game of the well-advertised social critic.

None of this is meant as one of the many sweeping dismissals of Purdy's work. These have already been written, and I intend to recognize what might be one of the biggest accomplishments of this young author. Today, Generation X social and political criticism is not only simplistic and silly but downright conservative. Examine, for instance, the writings of Meredith Bagby. Harvard- educated like Purdy, Bagby became a hustling self-promoter, working at first with Ross Perot, then for Third Millenium (a right-wing "Gen X" front group that argues for the privatization of Social Security), and then finally as a "commentator" (read: pundit) for CNN and other mass media outlets. She just recently came out with a book entitled, We've Got Issues: The Get Real, No B.S., Guilt Free Guide to What Really Matters, which purports to be a rallying cry for this generation's political views.

In it, Bagby uses generational perspective to call for dismantling programs like Social Security and Medicare. Gen X now seems able to go it alone, without all that welfare state stuff holding us down. Bagby explains the problem in typical Gen X hip terms: "Our government is robbin' our collective 'hood by transferring huge quantities of money from young working Americans to the elderly." Bagby adds to a set of ideas developed by other social and political critics. Today, the idea of Generation X stands in for some pretty conservative ideas.

In contrast to Bagby and her ilk, Purdy refreshes. He refuses to allow the "generation card" to lead to the standard conservative litany. Instead, he tries to rethink some of the foundations of liberal political thought. At the same time, he criticizes liberals' over-reliance on law and legislation (in For Common Things, unfortunately, this led to some confusing meanderings about the coal tax as a policy). Purdy wants liberals to pay attention to local civic life and daily practices. He argues, "If law is to do some of the work that we most need, then the same work must also take place outside of law, in our own lives." Of course, Purdy leaves us, as he always seems to, with fairly vacuous prescriptions. Nonetheless, the spirit behind his argument deserves our praise - especially in an age when too many young political critics suggest that we can toss aside the accomplishments of the past (Social Security, Medicare, etc.). Purdy argues that "we need local work" but "also national policies that make themselves felt in people's lives." This is a civic philosophy that deserves the attention of Generation X - one that is both liberal and demanding of citizen responsibility and participation.

These sorts of ideas are important and deserve much more serious reconsideration than Purdy provides (to do service to them would really require another essay on my part). Rather than slamming Purdy for his shortcomings though, I think we should see what For Common Things tells us about the state of social criticism in America today, especially for a younger generation. It is hard to write without relying upon academic assumptions and insularity or journalistic superficiality. It is also hard to figure Out how young writers can write social criticism without writing so starkly. It is difficult to see how writing for a wide reading public can be done without being subjected to the inanities of the mass market. The message must flash into the reader's mind - so that's what this writer means - or else the book is destined for an immediate rendezvous with the remainder piles.

Even within these limits, Purdy tries his best to write social criticism about important issues in American cultural life. After all, there is something quite insipid about the hip irony so prevalent in American culture (though critics like Mark Krsipin Miller and Tom Frank had pointed that out before Purdy). Perhaps in the end we should take a lesson from Purdy and be thankful for small things: A Generation X writer has cut through the silly conservatism of the Meredith Bagbys of the world. Unfortunately, the burdens of writing social criticism in today's world means that For Common Things could not become a work of major significance. It awaits someone yet to come before we can be truly thankful. It also awaits some more serious changes in American popular culture -- changes that Purdy's plight and the plight of all young writers today only help to highlight.

Kevin Mattson leaves this Summer as Associate Director of the Rutgers Whitman Center to begin teaching American history in the Fall as Connor-Study Chair of American Intellectual History at Ohio University (in Athens, OH, near the border of West Virginia).. He is author of Creating a Democratic Public (1998) and the forthcoming When Intellectuals and Politics Really Mattered: The New Left as an Idea, Democratic Thought, and the Possibilities of Radical (1945-1970), a book on New Left intellectuals.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Social Policy
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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