DISPATCH FROM THE LIFE OF A FORMER WUNDERKIND
A Super-Scholar, All Grown Up and Still Theorizing
Monday, April 10, 2006
Washington, not unlike Hollywood, is a city prone to fussing over the latest bright young thing. The 26-year-old chief speechwriter. The 28-year-old at the helm of a major policy magazine. The home-schooled 24-year-old whose first book provokes a cultural maelstrom.
What happens to these wunderkinder when the fleet of flattering profiles has sailed past?
When we reached him, Jedediah Purdy, now 31, was in his office at Duke University's law school where he is an assistant professor, counseling a student in the throes of the seemingly inevitable "first year of law school crisis." In his mid-twenties, though, Purdy was one of Washington's intellectual darlings: ensconced at the New America Foundation -- a think tank that bills itself as featuring "exceptionally promising new voices" -- and named by Esquire magazine as one of the nation's "best and brightest."
Purdy attained the Eastern Seaboard thinking man's version of fame during his second year of law school (Yale) by publishing a plain-covered book, "For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today," in part decrying the modern commitment to irony. The book prompted a mile-high pyramid of publicity, at the top of which was an easy-to-mock photo of Purdy "contemplating a jar of tea" in the New York Times Magazine. Time magazine called him an "optimist in a jaded age." The critics fawned and raged, praised and patronized.
"For Common Things" got tagged in shorthand as the book that dissed Seinfeld. Result: ironic reference made to Purdy by Seinfeld on "Saturday Night Live."
"I guess I really consented to get my schooling in public," he said the other day with a laugh.
He thinks the question ("What ever happened to you?") and its insinuation that life after a youthful star turn on the Washington stage is one long, irrelevant purgatory is sort of funny. But he's an obliging guy, willing to reflect on what it's like to achieve intellectual notoriety with your first swing.
"It was a really, really interesting lesson in what the wish to be famous is about," Purdy said. Not that he expected the fame. "I think if you look at it, it doesn't look like a book you write because you want to get on the front page of things," he offered.
"The idea you have when you imagine celebrity is that a lot of people are going to know a lot about you and appreciate the things about you that you want them to appreciate. And it's like having a lot of really good friends."
"And what happens, of course, is that people know snatches and confused summaries about you, and they attach their own hang-ups or agendas to those, and you're this vehicle for other people's opportunistic sentiments. . . . And that's almost the opposite," he said.
Then there's the challenge of getting complex ideas across in a bite-size media culture. "There was something about the way the book translated into short conversations, into sound bites, that did it a lot of violence. Not that everything about it was beautiful, perfect, poised, but it was not one of those books that was a 600,000-page version of a sentence."
"And so people come up to you and say, 'Are you Purdy? I also really hate our parents' generation,' " he said. "I spent a lot of time trying to explain I hadn't meant to say what it was people thought I was saying."