Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World. By Jedediah Purdy. Knopf, February 2004. $14 (paper)
Five Shades of Shadow. By Tracy Daugherty. Nebraska, March 2003. $27.95
The idea of America is wrapped around the twin poles of freedom and optimism. In a land where all persons are created equal, possibilities are infinite and available to anybody willing to work hard enough to make his or her dream come true. This buoyant spirit explains why Yankee ingenuity has always believed it could fix whatever is broken, often with a wad of chewing gum and a well-placed prayer. It also explains why the world’s huddled masses have always beaten a path to our doors. Boosters of the national myth love nothing better than a chance to repeat these uplifting platitudes. By contrast, America’s knockers are quick to remind soft-hearted patriots that complexities—to say nothing of contradictions—have always dogged America’s heels. Currently, the Pledge of Allegiance is under attack because it includes the phrase “under God” and therefore should not be recited in the nation’s public schoolrooms because it violates the separation between church and state. As this squabble unfolds in the courts, I find myself increasingly worried about another phrase—”with liberty and justice for all”—not only because the condition it describes is a logical contradiction (if there is “liberty” for all, how can there then be “justice” for all?), but also because what and connects are words that demonstrate just how foolish (and potentially dangerous) abstractions can be.
Granted, American versions of tragedy have surfaced from time to time—one thinks of pinch-faced New England Puritanism or of the darker shades that resonate from novels by Hawthorne, Melville, and Faulkner—but the main road of our popular culture tends toward the upbeat. The lesson that tragedy preaches is that that which must be, cannot be; and that that which cannot be, must be. As Americans, we prefer believing that things will somehow manage to work out—and in most Hollywood movies they do. F. Scott Fitzgerald knew better, which is why he ended The Great Gatsby with the image of boats beating hopelessly against the current. As Americans, we have been taught to run faster, to paddle harder, with the supreme confidence that in our great country, effort is rewarded.
In recent years a series of disasters has sorely tested America’s faith in itself. During the 1960s and ’70s I learned to equate the words “We interrupt this program …” with news of the latest assassination: first John F. Kennedy, then Malcolm X, followed in short order by the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. For my students, “breaking news” is likely to haunt their adulthoods as CNN announces yet another terrorist attack such as brought down Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Building or Manhattan’s World Trade Center towers. The books under discussion here are ruminations about America at a time when militant militia groups make no bones (or excuses) about their hatred for our government, and when terrorists around the world dream about bringing the West, with its spiritual corruption and materialistic excess, to its knees.
Enter Jedediah Purdy, who burst onto the national scene at the tender age of twenty-four with For Common Things (1999), a scold of a book that was “not amused,” as Queen Victoria liked to say, by a youth culture awash in cynicism and debased irony. Movies such as “Dumb and Dumber” and television shows in the “Beavis and Butthead” mold were easy targets, but when he put “Seinfeld” between his crosshairs, the result pushed reviewers into a tizzy, some praising the dewy-eyed Purdy, who sported a pageboy haircut that ached to be rumpled and a baby face that oozed innocence, while others found his pinch-faced pretentiousness hard to swallow. For Common Things was partly autobiographical (we learned how Purdy was homeschooled by hippie parents and how he made his way from Exeter to Harvard, then to Yale Law School) and partly a philosophical rumination on the culture of irony. Purdy’s book made a large, public splash, and funding from think tanks (e.g., the New America Foundation) quickly followed. Thus was Purdy able to travel—to Egypt, Indonesia, China, India, and Africa—in pursuit of an answer as to why so many foreigners simultaneously emulate America and harshly judge it, why they are gaga about American films, blue jeans, and popular music and yet willing to count themselves among those who felt that America got what it deserved on 9/11.
Purdy is at his best when he describes the people he meets on his travels and when he gives them the microphone. Here, for example, is what he learns from Ingy, a young, very emancipated lawyer he met in Cairo. She “wants work that challenges, engages her, and makes her learn” (p. 6). What she has is a career rather than a job, and for her, being a lawyer is her identity, one she effortlessly combines with being a devout Muslim. It is hard to imagine a more enlightened, more appealing person than Ingy, and we are glad that Purdy had the chance to know her. At the same time, however, she can throw off comments that put the kibosh on Purdy’s simplistic view that multiculturalism eventually makes for tolerance and peace:
- “Osama is a defender of the Palestinians,” Ingy announces and then follows the bald statement with an even balder one about the unending hatred of Arabs for Israelis, “Of course, as Arabs we hate Israel. But that hatred for Israel we do not feel for the United States. And of course, people like me think that the way Osama did it was criminal. He should have attacked the White House. Then, no one could have said it was murder.” (p. 7)
With friends like Ingy, the United States doesn’t need enemies. I say this knowing full well that at the coffee stalls just down the street, many Egyptians, less educated than she, believe in their hearts that it was the Israeli secret service that brought down the World Trade towers.
And here is a large, bearded man with whom Purdy strikes up a conversation outside the National Mosque in Jakarta: “Americans are a great people… . Really, there is no conflict between Muslims and Americans. The conflict that we both have is with the Jews. I have been reading about the Illuminati… .” Then, worried about the reference he has dropped, he mutters, “But perhaps you are Jewish,” quickly shaking Purdy’s hand and hurrying out of the mosque (p. 200).
For his part, what Purdy does is follow this dramatic moment with several pages explaining who the Illuminati are rumored to be and why this conspiracy theory is especially popular in the Moslem world. Indeed, “explanation” is what ruins Purdy’s book, for he simply cannot resist the impulse to show off how well he can navigate through the history of ideas and what he can make of the post-9/11 world. Had Purdy been more modest, restricting himself to the sources of American attraction and repulsion around the world, he might have ended up with a shorter, more telling book. But Purdy has a habit of straying off point as he waxes eloquent about globalization, liberalism, and the nature of modernity. These are, as they say, Big Subjects, and mostly what they do is give Purdy a chance to quote liberally from the likes of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Henry David Thoreau. At one point he throws together Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and the authors of the Federalist Papers to ruminate about historical memory. He asks Americans to “invite the spirit of these past figures—assembled, no doubt, by the needs of our present exigency—to instruct and judge us, so that we can instruct and judge ourselves” (p. 300). His conclusion, when all the name-dropping is over, comes to this curious, altogether muddy sentence: “There is no Age of Reason, and history can have no end that is happy; but in every time, in the peace between memory and oblivion, still lives the hope of earth” (p. 303).
Purdy is certain that “being America,” with all the ambivalences that the phrase packs, is how best to describe the contemporary world. He is less sure, however, about why it is that young people anywhere on the globe know that mastering English is their ticket out of the squalid conditions that would otherwise be their lot, yet these same people also reserve the right to hate the “English” of what they consider to be an imperialistic New World Order. Sometimes the word that Purdy is fumbling for is “jealousy,” but in a brain stuffed with industrial-strength speculations, he often races past the obvious. Being America best serves those with a Cliffs Notes sensibility because Purdy pads at least one-third of his pages with bits of history and pieces of ideas—all laid out in encyclopedia-ese. I grew up with mind-numbing sentences such as “Tin is the major export of Bolivia” (part of me wonders, fifty years later, if this is still true); Purdy’s book is awash in contemporary variants, such as “Because national identity is a condition of modern life, the question is not whether you have it but how to cultivate it” (p. 102) and “Christian involvement in American foreign policy is a long tradition” (p. 117). No doubt Purdy hopes that one of his trenchant remarks will take hold and lead to a career as a Beltway talking head. But if it is true that Purdy wears his vaulting ambition on his sleeve, it is equally true that a pundit like George Will continues to enjoy baseball games and a good night’s sleep. He is not worried about the likes of Jedediah Purdy. Even more sobering, Purdy is no longer quite the phenomenon, the story, that once made him a media darling for fifteen minutes.
As for Being America, it is often tough sledding, not because it is a captive to high theory but because far too many of Purdy’s conclusions are contradictory or just plain silly. It is probably best to regard Being America: Liberty, Commerce, and Violence in an American World as a reference book rather than the extended philosophical rumination he had hoped it would be.
By contrast, Tracy Daugherty’s Five Shades of Shadow concentrates on the grief that the Murrah bombing brought out:
- I’d spend the next three years scouring this valley [Oregon’s Willamette Valley], its connections to the rest of the West, the routes that led out of it to Oklahoma, Texas, California, and back again. I’d comb it over and over, for an understanding of disruption while, in my weakened heart, love and grief embraced. (p. 4)
Phrases this nicely turned run rings around Purdy’s crabbed efforts to explain why much of the world was glad to see America get its comeuppance on 9/11. The twenty-five personal essays that, taken together, become Five Shades of Shadow are about the places and people—the ghosts, if you will—that haunt Daugherty’s memory and the “shaping sensibility” (Judith Kitchen’s term) that arranges the various pieces into a satisfying whole. Like Purdy, Daugherty traveled, but despite some time spent in Nicaragua and Yemen, it was Daugherty’s extended encounters with America that provide the backbone of his ruminations:
- To know my country better, I’d forced myself to face America’s toughest facts: self-loathing, violence, unspeakable grief, poverty and uprootings, a history of hardships that connects us all on one level or another. These things weren’t going away, and they were things I needed to learn. Oklahoma’s recent (and ongoing) suffering had personalized them all for my family and me. (p. 260)
For Daugherty, rubbing his thumb along the surface of a stone taken from ground zero reminds him of the violence doled out by a former American soldier gone bad. But if Five Shades of Shadow is out to explore what happened to the America he knew as a child and to “understand” Timothy McVeigh (if such an understanding is possible), the routes Daugherty takes are circuitous. For example, he is currently the director of the creative writing program at Oregon State, where Bernard Malamud once taught composition courses and wrote a satirical account of the institution as it then was, called A New Life (1961). Daugherty might have shared his feelings about what filling Malamud’s large shoes is like; instead, he points out the shivery connections between Timothy McVeigh and William L. Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries and an assistant professor of physics at Oregon State University from 1962 to 1964. As Daugherty would have it:
- If a novel is to be judged on its ability to influence people, to touch their emotions and thoughts [arguments he had made earlier when defending Steinbeck’s
Grapes of Wrath
- ], then Pierce may have far outstripped his more literary fellow alum [i.e., Bernard Malamud].
The Turner Diaries,
- narrated by a white supremacist during a U.S. race war, includes a chapter on the annihilation of a federal building. The weapon of choice is a truck bomb made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. (p. 88)
Daugherty fell in love with language by listening to country music, and the love affair only deepened over the years.
- I was hooked [Daugherty recalls] by the simple beat of the songs, thumping like an old, flat tire; thrilled by the testimonial nature of the lyrics. Though I didn’t understand the tales of squandered love, loneliness, and loss (only my divorce, thirty years later, pressed those matters fully under my skin), I caught the confessional tone. I recognized the similarity to church-talk, to whispered conversations among serious adults, and knew something important was being witnessed to. (p. 10)
For Daugherty, country music is a more reliable source of truth than, say, all the writings of Burke and Adam Smith put together. No doubt Purdy would roll his eyes at the very suggestion that popular culture can provide a more reliable guide to the perplexed than the Great Books. But in Daugherty’s capable hands, what he points out about the arc of Merle Haggard’s music is dead-on right:
- In 1969, President Richard Nixon sent Merle a note of congratulations for his swipes at draft dodgers, campus radicals, and hippies in his most famous song, “Okie from Muskogee.”
- Donald Hart, a former mayor of Bakersfield, once said, “I think Merle Haggard summed up our philosophy here. We respect and love America, its flags and its symbols. We believe in paternalism, a strong family … and the merits of good old hard work.”
- Thirty years later, a year after Timothy McVeigh destroyed the Murrah building, Merle released a CD entitled, simply,
- , like a diary heading. Most of its songs were reflective, highly personal, uncertain—much more tentative than his, or the nation’s, sixties swagger. (p. 13)
Reflexive, highly personal, and perhaps most of all, uncertain also describe Daugherty’s prose as he remembers how his family moved from Oklahoma to the oil fields of West Texas, and how large measures of despair were more than balanced by large measures of resolve and deep-seated faith. In recent decades, the decline—indeed, the virtual disappearance—of the small, family farm has radically altered the landscape of mid-America. One consequence is that fertilizer, once a staple of farm life, has become an essential ingredient in the making of terrorist bombs.
In addition to a finely tuned ear, Daugherty brings a deadly eye for detail to his portraits of towns one cannot find on maps. Here is what he says about Hydro: it is “no longer much of a town—more like a chalk outline of a body lying in the road” (p. 193). And here is how he writes down Texas extremists of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church: they spurn “ ‘unclean products’ such as caffeine, white flour, milk, and sugar. In Keene, north of Waco on I-35, there are no McDonald’s or Dairy Queen, no burgers, Cokes, or fries.” Fundamentalists, whether they show their heads in East Texas or in Afghanistan, know what images of America are worth banning.
It was Hemingway who once pointed out that fascism is the politics of disappointed people. Much the same thing can be said—and, indeed, is said—in the books under discussion here. Daugherty makes for the better read because he writes with the blues on his mind. Purdy, by contrast, rattles on about sorrow until he ends up giving the blues the blues.