Return of the Jedediah

A Talk With 'Being America' Author Purdy

Jedediah Purdy: It's the kind of name you don't easily forget, especially when it's attached to a publishing prodigy. In 1999, 24-year-old Purdy published a book that made him a media star. For Common Things solemnly argued for sincerity, humility, and civic duty as a weapon against the modern blights of irony and apathy—evils embodied by Jerry Seinfeld. Frumpy stuff, but the press jumped all over it with such gusto you'd think Mister Rogers had kicked Seinfeld's butt in a schoolyard fight.

A frenzied mix of reverence and insults rained down on Purdy, culminating in a huge New York Times Magazine profile that further romanticized his short life: Home-schooled by hippie parents in West Virginia, Purdy had been separated at birth from popular culture, then scorched by sudden immersion via fellow students at Exeter and Harvard. He became such a public persona that he was eventually parodied in a McSweeney's piece called "Jedediah in Love," which pictured Purdy in a flash limo rolling down the Vegas strip, drinking champagne with hot babes and bemoaning the demise of the Sinatra era. "Things were different then," he cries. "Things were so simple."

Purdy is still a serious young man, but at 28 it hangs better on him, like a pin-striped suit he's grown into. On this rainy Sunday, he's pink-cheeked and dressed preppy casual, having taken a week off from his clerkship for a federal judge to promote a new book, Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World (Knopf, 337 pp., $24). He seems philosophical about the media's caricature of him as a pious young fogey—he's philosophical about most things. But he says he barely recognized himself in either positive or negative portrayals: "I was a punching bag, but also an iconic figure for a very simple perspective. It was a very humorless and somewhat morally vindictive and opaque character that came across. I underwent a psychic dissociation from the book in the months after it was published because of the terrible misadventures its authorial persona was having." He doesn't smile much, but a hint of a grin flutters over his lips when he tells me, "Growing up, I'd gotten the sense that being notorious would be exciting. But I definitely got that out of my system. It's actually really really not exciting."

Onion reader Jedediah Purdy: "There is no guarantee of an American future."
photo: Claudio Vazquez
Onion reader Jedediah Purdy: "There is no guarantee of an American future."

Although Purdy seems embarrassed by the opacity of his first book, Being America suffers from many of the same problems. He rambles and sermonizes ("Our actions teach others what to expect from the future"), quotes father figures such as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, and studs the book with potted histories of the countries he visits. Sometimes you wonder if the guy is trying to have his say on the entirety of contemporary politics. But mostly Being America feels like two timely (if politically confused) books crammed into one: a tirade against American imperialism and a travelogue that aims to explain why the world resents America. Purdy says he started writing the book in spring 2001, and had to shift gears after 9-11. The idea of America as empire "was so heretical that I was initially very cautious in my approach to it. But after 9-11, this question has become so familiar it's an axiom: As an empire, what are we going to do now?"

Being America is less about Americans than about the zigzagging, volatile impact of the U.S. on the rest of the world—the self-serving effects of the IMF, the surprising consequences of a global Internet, the seething resentment triggered by our cavalier actions on the world stage. The book exudes a passionate naïveté—I sometimes get the sense that Purdy's coming upon fairly obvious ideas for the first time. Then again, his innocence may mirror that of many Americans, lulled by a long spell of economic prosperity. Purdy mounts some very stark attacks on the country's current triumphalism, critiques that Americans may finally be ready to hear.

"There is no guarantee of an American future," Purdy writes. Movements like religious fundamentalism "are not the enemies of the future. Instead, they are contenders for it." He holds his sternest criticism for the Bush administration's imperial intentions. "When almost unchecked power and almost unchecked moral certainty go together, it's an incredibly dangerous position," Purdy suggests, sipping an iced tea. To underline how ridiculous and insular America's attitude is, he mentions a book a friend gave him on climate and natural character, written in the early 20th century. "It says, well, we know that the best climate for human character is England's, so from this we deduce that people in southern climates are distorted . . . " He shakes his head with bemusement. "It's like if you say American democratic capitalism is the best—now what can we proceed to deduce from that fact? It's an unwise way to go about things. It flattens out the complexity of the world, and it makes it impossible for us to see how the same person could both want to become us and want to see us blown up. Yes, that is odd, but think about the radicals of our grandparents' generation, who were building respectable lives on one hand, and on the other had a deep emotional commitment to the coming of socialism. People live in different worlds all the time."

Purdy says traveling transformed his righteous notions about America's effect on the world: "I shed this romantic idea I'd definitely held before that when it goes abroad, American culture is just corrupting—that it goes into something pristine and fills it up with junk. The most surprising thing to me is how flexible people's deep self-understandings are, and how much is up for grabs. America understands the rest of the world as this place of very stable and enduring cultures—but so much is going to change one way or another in the next 20 years, there's very little that's fixed, and shifts can come very quickly."

Just as For Common Things was a lament over the lax state of the nation, Being America returns to the need for self-awareness and political engagement. Toward the end of the interview, Purdy asks rhetorically, "How many people spend hours at Congress.gov reading committee reports, then writing their congressman?" When I ask Purdy if he does that, he looks hurt. "I don't do that!" he insists.

After a few seconds, he brightens up. "Did you see the Onion piece, 'Democracy Geek Votes in Normal Bi-Election'? It's about this guy who in most respects is normal, but he has a democracy problem. He doesn't just vote in the fall elections—he votes in the primaries and municipal elections. He's a good employee, but every few months he just doesn't show up on a Tuesday morning." So now we know: Jedediah Purdy reads The Onion. Which just proves his point about how swiftly people change. Maybe he even catches a Seinfeld rerun now and then.

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