It's a Saturday night in late September and Jedediah Purdy is standing on a beach not far from New Haven, Conn., describing the fickle currents, not of literary celebrity, but of Long Island Sound.
Purdy, who is wrapped in nothing more than a towel, knows. Moments ago, he was swimming in the moonlit surf, in a place of dark eddies beyond some rocks, just enjoying the twinkle of nearby Lighthouse Point, when he suddenly felt himself being dragged out to sea.
"Can you imagine the headlines?" he asks me in a voice so crisp that his tongue seems to iron out every word--"Cornpone Prophet Sunk by the Weight of His Own Self-Importance." Purdy laughs with his entire body, bouncing from foot to foot. "Or how about this," he chuckles: "Amateur Prophet Way Out of His Depth."
That Jedediah Purdy, just 24 years old and a few semesters out of college, can imagine his life in headlines is not entirely a testament to youthful egotism. Purdy, after all, has written a book that is viewed as a frontal assault on irony, supposedly the defining feature of our times. The slender volume, "For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today," and its young author have been the subject of pieces in Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, Salon and Time, among others--all within the two months since this fledgling adult became a first-time author.
Purdy has been dismissed as a "cornpone prophet" by Harper's critic Roger D. Hodge, and passionately defended by Time critic Walter Kirn, who dismissed the Harper's attack as "reeking of the quippy, jaded wit Purdy fears the nation is mired in."
He has been patted on the head by New York Times writer Marshall Sella, who proclaimed him a "sincere young man," and pilloried by Joel Stein, a young columnist in Time who wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece titled "In Defense of Irony." TV Guide has already asked Purdy to review several network shows for their irony content--presumably to warn folks against it.
According to his detractors, Purdy is not supposed to have a sense of humor. But here he is, being funny, hopping around in a towel on the beach at midnight. Jed, as he likes to be called, first hinted at the possibility of a swim over e-mail, describing past Byronic dunks, before suggesting coyly that I join him. It has not escaped him that I too am 24. Nor has it escaped me that most reporters are not given this sort of access. Purdy has brought me here for a reason (although not the one that may first leap to mind when dealing with 24-year-old men).
I have reasons of my own for wanting to meet Jedediah Purdy. For one thing, he has been anointed the latest in a long line of generational spokeskids du jour. For another, it is my generation he is supposedly speaking for. While reviews of Purdy's book, a philosophical treatise on politics and culture, have run the gamut from gushing to vitriolic, the fact is that Purdy the Persona has been gobbled up by trend-mongers everywhere. Purdy thinks he knows why.
"Because of this irony thing," he explains, "I stepped face first into the Zeitgeist."
In the first line of his preface, Purdy declares, "This book is a response to an ironic time." He goes on from there to make an argument that has been freeze-dried into a nifty slogan: "Purdy is against irony."
Irony (which Purdy defines as "refusal to believe in the depths of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech--especially earnest speech") was not invented in the late 20th century, but it certainly is a specialty of our era. Enshrined in defining bits of popular culture, such as "Seinfeld," "Late Night With David Letterman" and "Saturday Night Live", irony has seeped into our hearts and minds to an unprecedented degree. By protesting, Purdy challenges a communal attitude both strangely comforting and oddly disturbing.
So when the critics and pundits got wind that some upstart with a big vocabulary was calling them out, they responded with either giddy hopefulness or sadistic glee.
Though Purdy's book is clearly about much more--his main point is an impassioned plea for renewed commitment to, and belief in, grass-roots politics as a way to improve the world, "a way of thinking, and doing, that has more promise of goodness than the one we are now following"--the critique of irony is what most resonates. As a 22-year-old reader commented in an Amazon.com review: "I wasn't aware of what made me feel uncomfortable about my generation until I read Purdy's book. There is a nastiness and insecurity that has reached every crook and cranny of our lives."
I read Purdy's press coverage with some sympathy and not a little jealousy-tinged contempt. There he was "contemplating a jar of tea" in the New York Times Magazine as I drank my mug of stale coffee. There he was in Time standing somberly, arms crossed, like a figure on a medieval sarcophagus. After weeks of hearing about him, I got my hands on an actual copy of his book. I was reading it on the subway to work one day when my roommate pointed to the cover and groaned. "That guy?" he said, speaking for the common mass of uncelebrated and ironic Gen-Xers. "I hate that guy!"
But who was that guy?
Voice of a Generation?
I e-mail Purdy, who is in his second year at Yale Law School, and we arrange to meet on a Saturday afternoon in front of Sterling Library, the cathedral-like building in the center of the Yale campus. As the bells from Harkness Tower chime 1 o'clock, I catch sight of Purdy leaning awkwardly against the granite parapet. When I call his name, he steps forward and waves.
Later, when I ask Purdy's friends and professors to describe him, the first feature they invariably mention is his voice. Jace Clayton, one of his undergraduate classmates at Harvard, remembers meeting Purdy freshman year and wondering if he was British. Purdy's voice is high and clipped--it can dip into a wistful windy softness or ricochet against the roof of his mouth like a manic rubber ball. Even his professors at Harvard found it striking. "He has a peculiarly mannered way of speaking," explains Pratap Mehta, Purdy's senior thesis adviser at Harvard. "It's not the way undergraduates usually speak, in long sentences."
Purdy's voice, in the literary as well as the literal sense, has been at the center of the debate over his legitimacy as an author. Is it a presumptuous affectation or an authentic idiosyncrasy? Critics have been hoping that the answer to this question will reveal whether Purdy himself is the real thing--that is, the genuine purveyor of a new worldview.
As for first impressions, beyond his unusual style of speaking, Purdy seems like an ordinary Yale student. He is medium height with the type of square, sturdy build that is complemented by his Birkenstocks. His hair, which has been described as a sort of humorless helmet, is actually anarchic--a few reddish brown strands rear up, Alfalfa-like, from the top. Purdy's broad face bears a slight resemblance to that of Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman--there is something puckish about his smile and out-turned ears.
He has large nostrils that seem to sniff the air around you for its intellectual vintage. When he is thinking about something complex, he likes to rest a few fingers against his brow and can do this while he is walking. Purdy's walk is jaunty and at the same time corked as if he were constantly fighting not to be launched off his feet.
After he mentions the possibility of a late-night swim, Purdy takes me to meet his 22-year-old sister, Hannah, a student at Yale's architecture school. A recent graduate of Brown University, she is happy to take a break from her work in the model shop to talk about her brother. Like Purdy, she has reddish hair and a sturdy figure. Unlike him, her voice is low and she occasionally uses the word "like."
"People are taking Jed's book very personally," she explains over the drone of saws. "To have someone younger point all this stuff out, it's really a blow to their--ego? Help me, Jed, I need a word."
"Self-conception?" he offers.
"A blow to their self-conception," she concludes. Turning to her brother, she adds: "You want to show interviewers a lot of things. But you don't always show them facets that complete your personality, like how funny you are."
"I do come off as hyper-verbal in a way that seems compulsive," concedes Purdy, before adding, "but I actually drink my tea as often as I contemplate it."
"The preface of Jed's book made him look like he never did things as a kid like play with war toys," complains Hannah, "which he did all the time."
Much has been made of Purdy's unusual childhood. Raised in rural West Virginia and home-schooled until he was 13, Purdy has been portrayed as a cultural Rip van Winkle who slept through the disillusionment of the late '70s and '80s and woke up in the '90s with his idealism miraculously intact. As the story goes, Purdy's parents forsook the outside world, moved to the wilds of Chloe, W.Va., and brought up Purdy and his sister in barn-raising utopian bliss.
What is less commonly mentioned is that Purdy's mother, a lawyer, came from an affluent and highly educated Delaware family, one that Purdy describes as "emotionally disconnected." "For my mother," Purdy explains, "raising us this way was a very conscious reaction to what she thought was hollow and unhealthy in the way that she was raised."
His father, a carpenter and former social worker, grew up in a Presbyterian farming family in Pennsylvania. "Mom's very verbal, intellectual, a little mercurial," Purdy says. "Dad's less intellectual but low-key and very honest."
His upbringing was unusually rustic by contemporary standards, though it was not the pop-culture vacuum that has been popularly reported. "I played Little League. I saw 'Star Wars.' I blasted my Nirvana album," Purdy protests.
But despite these resume items, there is still something a little strange, a little otherworldly about Jed Purdy. It comes out in some of the stories that Hannah tells. "Last Christmas," she explains, "we rented the movie 'Happy Gilmore' and we said, 'Jed, you want to watch?' And Jed said, 'What issues does it deal with?' "
"That's a little embarrassing," he chuckles.
If Purdy can embarrass himself among Ivy Leaguers, three years at Calhoun County Public School could not have been easy.
"Outside I was a happy high school student, but inside," he confesses, "I felt hollow."
Purdy is the first to admit that this could be the standard refrain for any sensitive teenager, but he still refuses to celebrate public high school as the sort of character-building boot camp of American myth. Purdy's insistent sensitivity has infuriated critics like Salon writer Caleb Crain, who wrote, "It is one of the advantages of a traditional education that children who suck up to adults too cravenly are methodically cornered and beaten by their peers."
Although Purdy seems to have missed out on Crain's "Clockwork Orange" version of the American playground, he claims to have faced his share of tormentors at Calhoun County High. "There were hierarchies of cruelty," he explains, "and I had to do a lot of work to make myself invincible to them. After that, Exeter meant a lot to me."
Exeter is Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, one of the nation's most elite prep schools. Through family contacts, Purdy met an Exeter admissions officer, and translated that into an acceptance there for his senior year. Though he was escaping public school purgatory, going to New Hampshire meant leaving West Virginia, a place that Purdy eulogizes in his book with unabashed ardor. When I ask him if he still misses it, Purdy lets loose with a verbal sigh. "The sense of feeling alien," he explains, "becomes less proportionate with time."
After leaving Hannah at the architecture school, we walk over to the two-family house on Orange Street where Purdy lives with his roommates, both classmates of his from Harvard who are also students at Yale Law. Purdy gives me a tour. Like most houses where Yale graduate students live, Purdy's is poorly insulated, with large windows and sloping wooden floors. Purdy's room is austere--there is a double bed, a rag rug made by his grandmother and two bookshelves with works by authors like George Orwell and the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. But there are also signs of unintellectual life--a Pink Floyd CD and a 20-pound barbell that Purdy confesses to using occasionally.
Back downstairs, in the living room with its topographic map of West Virginia and coffee table stacked high with New Yorkers, roommate Marco Simon is describing his memories of Purdy at Harvard. "Jed was a campus character," says Simon, who is lanky and blond and wears a Save the Rain Forest T-shirt. "He would have been on the short list of classmates of mine who'd write an important book early."
Purdy arrived at Cambridge in the fall of 1993 after a year spent traveling in Eastern Europe and working as a carpenter in West Virginia. Mehta, Purdy's adviser, describes him as something of a legend in the Harvard social studies department. "I just remember walking into the room that first day of class with Jed and within five minutes, I had the sense of talking to a colleague."
Starting in his freshman year, Purdy wrote for the Prospective, Harvard's progressive student paper, but he is infamous for a letter to the Harvard Crimson denouncing the annual ritual of freshmen gathering to watch, and eviscerate, the movie "Love Story," a custom Purdy felt was "cold" and "self-satisfied."
"There were people even then who would have taken shots at Jed," concedes Simon. "If you look at Jed in the wrong light and don't know who he is, you can find him annoying or self-righteous."
Although they seem to understand how easily Purdy invites derision, his Harvard friends all describe him in the same fiercely loyal terms. "Jed turns some people off who are willing to try to make sense of him too quickly," explains his classmate Brady Case. "He speaks in a way that may be seen as odd, even affected. But he desperately wants you to talk." In an e-mail, Jace Clayton, the classmate who initially thought Purdy was British, wrote, "The Jedediah of the press is a bit Puritanical, and a bit Emersonian, and probably feels threatened by rap music. The Jed I know is funny, complex, far from bloodless, and I could probably convince him that Jay-Z's alright. I don't think he'd come with me to a concert, though." Clayton's message captures the difficulty of describing someone who, while not a humorless intellectual as charged, is clearly different from most people his age.
For one thing, most people his age are not the subject of massive media attention. Purdy estimated that by mid-October he had been interviewed 20 to 30 times. What he calls his "book duties," including a four-city promotional tour, have taken up 20 to 30 hours per week. Purdy has seen his name and book parodied everywhere from "Saturday Night Live" to a Village Voice article on the spring fashion shows titled "For Common Threads," which suggests that irony is the only appropriate response to the season's styles.
"The mocking spirit of much of the reception of the book has begun to wear on me in the last week," he writes in a recent e-mail, adding that "the book's intentional vulnerability creates some burdens."
And Purdy is aware of his own vulnerability as a public figure. "In a time when celebrity gets more attention than product," he concedes, "I must be a convenient biography. But the way that my personality has been made the issue has given me this weird identity static cling, this public alter ego that people think they know. It's a public alter ego that I can't control and it gets beaten up when I'm not looking."
Purdy suggests we take a walk up East Rock, the hill overlooking New Haven. Before we set off, he again mentions his plan for a midnight swim.
Jedediah Purdy is far from the first young author to publish a book that becomes part of the Zeitgeist, nor is he the first to pay a price for it. In 1971, Joyce Maynard's generational memoir "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life" appeared in the New York Times Magazine and became a sensation. Maynard, now 45, is arguably the grand dame of late 20th Century literary prodigies. But critics have panned her less-than-charming adult confessionals, most recently a memoir in which she discusses her affair with reclusive author J.D. Salinger, as shameless attempts to recapture the attention once paid to her for her self-exploitative juvenilia. A few days after meeting Purdy, I decided to give Maynard a call.
"I definitely paid a price for my early success," she told me from her home in California. "It created an enormous amount of resentment. People felt, 'Who does she think she is? Why is she on the cover of the New York Times and not me?' I still encounter a lot of people today who know me only through that article and it left a bad taste in their mouth."
I ask Maynard if she feels she was victimized by a media eager to capitalize on her youthful persona. "I wouldn't say that," she replies. "I wouldn't say that there's this big, bad media out there. This idea of a generational spokesperson is a fraudulent concept, of course. But it's the way of the marketplace."
A Work in Progress
Jedediah Purdy has me out on a ledge. We have climbed to the top of East Rock, Purdy philosophizing the entire way in the gentle and slightly didactic manner of a one-man PBS station as I pant, out of shape, beside him. Finally, he is ready to rest, and of all places he has chosen a narrow ledge with a dizzying albeit panoramic view. It's a warm September day, the last lethargic rays of summer sunlight stretching from the west. To the northeast, I can see the bluish-gray slick of Long Island Sound and beneath us the city of New Haven, looking peaceably miniature. Purdy has chosen this place to discuss the criticisms of his book. One of these, as voiced most conclusively in Harper's, is that the righteous musings of young people like Purdy are not worthy of publication.
"The vantage point that the book is written from," counters Purdy, "is not so much elevated as preliminary. The book is much more a description of a nascent young person's sense. The fact of its being preliminary doesn't make it illegitimate. But what do you think?"
I have read "For Common Things" carefully as both a journalist and a 24-year old and find Purdy's description of the book accurate. It is not, as Purdy himself is the first to admit, a fully realized work. The book has been pilloried for its easy dismissal of pop culture, its occasionally preachy tone and an invective against irony that seems both oversimplified and self-righteous in the early chapters. These are all fair criticisms. But what Purdy has generally not been given credit for is the refinement of the irony debate in the second half of the book. In the later chapters, he distinguishes between positive and negative forms of irony, clearly indicating that he is not against irony wholesale. That reviewrs have ignored this more complex analysis is something that bothers Purdy greatly.
"The first chapter is read as an anti-irony screed," he claims, "And then people attempt to deduce the rest of the book. They get the idea that I'm an anti-ironist. I wish I had been more careful about that."
Mehta also feels that the book has been sold short by critics who are judging it as a major treatise on American culture rather than as one young man's public meditation.
"It's hard to describe this book to a larger audience," he explains. "You're always asking, 'So, what's the bottom line?' "
The bottom line, for publicists and press alike, is that in order to sell, Purdy must be portrayed as the young sage who has come to save us from the perils of irony. Leyla Aker, Purdy's editor, worries that that kind of hype will somehow compromise him. "Any time something is written by an author in this generation," explains Aker, who is herself 27, "the media treats it like a Rosetta Stone. Everybody is desperately trying to get a handle on Generation X. They think, 'Now we'll finally understand what these kids are thinking,' and all it is is the opinions of individuals."
Purdy's friends and teachers are adamant in their belief that to read "For Common Things" in order to find a bottom line is fundamentally to misread it. They may be right, as the book is most interesting as a progressive and ongoing argument rather than as a complete one. Though there is much that is overwrought and tedious, there are passages where Purdy's sensitivity and erudition seem to presage great things. As David Bromwich, an English professor who has taught Purdy at Yale, explains, "the book gives a point of view of which something might be expected in the future."
But what does the future hold for a writer who makes a name at such an early age?
Purdy claims he is not worried about his 15 minutes of fame coming to an end. "I would be more worried," he tells me, on the walk back down East Rock, "if I had any ambition to be a generational spokesperson or literary celebrity or even exclusively a writer. The book is there and whatever limits it has, it's a good book and I have other things to do. I have law to learn. I want to spend some time doing legal work around environmental or social justice issues. The book is leading to a sequel but one that's going to be work as well as writing."
It is only later, over a glass of Chardonnay, that Purdy confesses, "It would be a cruel irony to write a book at 32 that I thought were a much better book than this which was ignored because the author was 32 instead of 24. The question is whether you can combat that danger with substance."
The substance of Purdy's first book came out of an article he wrote for the American Prospect, a liberal journal based in Boston. Last year he expanded the piece and submitted it to a literary agent, who sold it to Knopf after rejecting a smaller offer from another publisher. Purdy says his agent, Bill Leigh, thought he could start a bidding war with the manuscript but Purdy himself demurred, believing that "it was not the way to find a publisher for a serious and personal book." So when Knopf offered Purdy a $50,000 advance, his agent ratcheted it up to $75,000, and a deal was made.
According to Knopf, the first printing of the book was 35,000 copies and it has recently gone back for an additional printing of 5,000.
"The first question that people are inclined to ask me," claims Purdy, "is 'Who put you up to it?' " But the question that I really want to ask Purdy is why he put himself up to it. As we near the bottom of East Rock, where the late-day sunlight falls through the trees in amber squares, Purdy offers up this: "The book was shaped by the experience of staking an enormous amount on romantic hopes and romantic relationships and finding their limits. My original first line was, "This is a difficult time for writing love letters."
The place where Purdy chooses to end our day is on the beach at Lighthouse Point. There's a chilly wind, strong enough to persuade me to remain on shore, despite Purdy's hollers that the water is fine. As he splashes about, a pale figure in the surf, his friend Katie Scharf, a Yale senior, looks on. "Jed is an incredible and bizarre figure," she says. "I think we all want to know what to make of him." Chris Elmendorf, a friend of Purdy's from law school, joined him for a quick swim but is now back on land. "I think the force of Jed's book," he ventures, "is in its hopefulness and romance and conviction. It's so clearly the statement of a person who's young and is announcing to the world what he hopes for."
But what does Purdy hope for? In a word, commitment. Why, Purdy asks in his book, can't we all just start believing in, and working for, the common good again? "The truth," he writes, "is that the possibility of a decent life is partly an achievement of political and public institutions, and that ignoring these is the surest way to hasten their decline."
Back on shore, wrapped in a towel, Purdy elaborates on why he wrote the book. "One of the things about being romantic by nature," he explains, "is that you want to be able to commit yourself in an intimate way. I hoped on some level that the book would be a way to connect with the people who read it." In "For Common Things," Purdy refers to the project of the book as "one young man's letter of love for the world's possibilities," the vestige, perhaps, of his original opening sentence. It is this phrase that best embodies Purdy's intent--the desire that all authors, particularly young ones, have to connect. For Purdy, always a bit strange, always the immigrant in his own land, the need to connect is personal as well as intellectual. As Bryan Garsten, a classmate of Purdy's at Harvard, puts it: "Jed was different, intriguing but slightly out of place because of it. He sees cosmic meaning in little details. I think he'd like to know that he's not the only one doing that or else he might think he's making it all up."
What responsibility do we have to answer Purdy? What obligation do we have to all the 24-year-old authors who are trying to assess the world without fully knowing it? My own feelings, even as someone implicated in the debate, are as mixed as those of classmates like Garsten. When I ask him how he feels about the charge that 24-year-olds should not write books, Garsten gives an answer that perfectly captures my own equivocal response. "There's something to it," he says, "but I don't like it."
I don't like it either. I don't like it because it presumes that the only valuable voice is the one fully formed. But I also don't like the way that young authors are often hyped and their ideas reduced to trendy and inaccurate sound bites. Both camps dismiss youth in all its complexity. Perhaps it says something about America that our image of young people must be simple or nonexistent.
Jed Purdy has brought me here to the beach for a reason. He wants me to come in--into his Saturday night, into the water, into his mind and soul at 24. But like everyone else, I hesitate at the edge.