In the early 1920’s, Wyndham Lewis began to discern the makings of a trend. Virtually everywhere he looked—and particularly in novels, newspapers, and magazines—Lewis found writing that retailed the wonders of childishness, precocity, and primitive energy; that implied, too, that life was quite finished at, say, 35.
Lewis devotes The Doom of Youth (1932) to exposing this “nursery-philosophy in operation.” He discusses, among other things, the writing of one Godfrey Winn, a wellknown Fleet Street columnist who regularly treated the public to gooey meditations on why, for example, he “should like just to stay nineteen.” Lewis also devotes several sections of the book to gatherings of recent newspaper and magazine articles that deal largely with the assorted physical drawbacks of aging, and that he suggests speak “in loud tones, for themselves.” One announces “THE WRINKLE MENACE”; another demands “DO YOU FEAR FORTY?” Others claim that “YOUTH IS AT THE WHEEL,” that “YOUTH IS RESTLESS”—tired of “The Mess of the World For Which Generations of Elders Are Responsible.” “The Boys and Girls,” asserts another head, will “Put Things Right.”
In The Doom of Youth, Lewis contends that this rampant “youngergenerationconsciousness” began because, in the wake of the First World War, “everyone wished” to “blot out the past” and “to be, as it were, new born.” But he also insists more expansively—and perhaps less convincingly—that firmly behind the spread of “youth-propaganda” was a junto of monopolists and magnates who schemed to create a fad-obsessed consumer culture, and so shrewdly enlisted the popular press—”the propaganda department, as it were, of Big Business”—to trumpet repeatedly the latest theories, the newest products, the hottest cinema stars. As importantly, such stories helped “Big Business” remind its “herds in office, workshop, and factory” that, since their ultimate worth was wholly related to their nimble youthfulness, they ought to shut up and be happy with whatever work they could secure once they found themselves on the far side of 30. Lewis argued that these sinister business interests aimed ultimately to put the wages of all workers who hit 29 or so on a diminishing scale, and to recruit ever-increasing numbers of stupid and eager adolescents, who could be run cheaply and quietly, like machines. Thus “youth,” though apotheosized, was in the long run “doomed.”
Whatever its more immediate causes, the modern cult of youth that Lewis described grew even more pervasive as the nations of Europe and North America began to rebuild at the conclusion of the Second World War. By the mid-1950’s, scores of novelists and script and jingle writers were advertising the message that no fate is worse than passing into adulthood; that only among the ranks of the young and the young-at-heart are found the wise and truly alive; that, in sum, younger is indisputably better.
Indeed, in a 1953 Commentary piece, the drama critic Henry Popkin pointed to several popular novels and plays—including Truman Capote’s The Glass Harp—which centered on childlike men and women and which tended to urge “a wholesale flight from the reality of our lives”—a flight to “the solace of sentiment, childhood, and the world of dreams.” Popkin suggested that this artistic “back to the cradle movement” was developing largely because for an increasing number of people, life in the postwar era was becoming increasingly complicated and tense. “I don’t mean to say,” wrote Popkin, “with Arthur Miller, that the trouble is the shadow of McCarthy over the land. No, the trouble is McCarthy and everything else. We live with the atomic bomb and under a permanent threat of war. Who wouldn’t rather be eight years old?”
Of course, it was also in the 50’s that manufacturers and advertisers in Europe and America began to more carefully analyze consumer markets, and to realize that the free world was quite full of impressionable teenagers with spare cash on their hands. Thus, the men in the music industry took to pressing and promoting rock records around the clock; moviemakers began cranking out low-budget sagas that featured flatteringly portrayed adolescents mixing it up with obtuse and frequently tyrannical adults. In fact, in many such films it is the young who must straighten out their elders. In The Giant Gila Monster (1959), for example, a misunderstood hot-rodder unsuccessfully tries to convince the adults in charge that there really is a large, shifty-looking reptile hanging around the outskirts of town. In The Blob (1958), a young Steve McQueen is shunned when he claims to have come across some fast-spreading, man-eating gelatin from Mars. In Shake, Rattle, and Roll (1956), a noisy disc jockey and his high school pals successfully persuade a group of square grown-ups, led by the redoubtable Margaret Dumont, that rock ‘n’ roll is safe, hygienic, and here to stay. They succeed, of course, and in the film’s closing scene—a scene reprised with slight variation in dozens of later rock films—both teens and adults are shown at the big dance hopping about to the big beat of a driving band.
Nearly all of the adult authority figures in Nicholas Ray’s more artful Rebel Without A Cause (1955) are similarly unpleasant and ineffective when contrasted with 17-year-old Jim Stark, the film’s principal “rebel.” Jim’s father wears a frilly apron and scurries around the house in mortal fear of his wife, who does little but nag and whine and speculate aloud about what the neighbors are thinking. Jim—famously portrayed by James Dean—is frustrated, sullen, and prone to running around with guys who steal hubcaps and wear black leather jackets and rolled-up jeans. However, Jim does seek to maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem, unlike the wimpish Mr. Stark who scrupulously avoids making decisions and making waves. In fact, in Rebel it is the son who winds up instructing the father on the importance of “doing the right thing.” In the film’s dramatic concluding scenes, we watch a chastened Mr. Stark promising Jim that his days as a clown and a coward are over.
J.D. Salinger is a more talented writer than the poor hacks who tossed off scripts for Hollywood in the 1950’s. His 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye cannot be dismissed as nothing more than—to use Lewis’ phrase—”youth-propaganda.” But in the 50’s—and certainly in the 60’s—The Catcher in the Rye was widely perceived to be both an apology for prolonged childishness and a consummate attack on virtually all that the adult world represents. After all, the book’s 17-year-old narrator, Holden Caufield, often alludes to the precocious wisdom of his 10-year-old sister Phoebe and freely admits that he “sometimes acts like I’m about thirteen” and “sometimes like I was only about twelve.” And Holden—whose mannerisms and expressions were mimicked by literate and sensitive adolescents everywhere—repeatedly suggests that most adults are incorrigibly “phony.” Certainly, after Holden Caufield, there begins in American fiction a long line of young, often similarly preppy antiheroes; and most—like Benjamin Braddoek in Charles Webb’s The Graduate—appear utterly unwilling to tolerate the suppositions and customs that are at the center of their parents’ world.
During the late 60’s and early 70’s, books and plays and big-budget films that celebrated the wisdom of the young while exposing the follies of their elders were simply everywhere; what Lewis had labeled “youngergenerationconsciousness” was at an all-time high. This, remember, was the period of The Graduate, Getting Straight, Hair, Easy Rider, Alice’s Restaurant, and Zabriskie Point. It was the era of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Youth International Party, whose well-publicized leaders did much to make popular the phrase “never trust anyone over 30.” Yippie Jerry Rubin, for one, promised the Yale Daily News in 1970 that he and his followers were “never gonna grow up. We will always be adolescents; we ain’t never gonna be rational.”
The economic and political power of youth and the influence of youthful tastes was then everywhere in evidence during the 1960’s. Clerks and salesmen in Dubuque and Kokomo started showing up at parties in Nehru jackets, “granny” glasses, and flared trousers. Academics everywhere switched from tweeds to, say, railroad jackets and beU-bottomed jeans. Goodyear used rock melodies and dancing girls in miniskirts and white boots to sell radial tires; General Motors sold Oldsmobiles as—yes, Youngmobiles. Even Richard Nixon sought a more youthful “image” as he set out to woo the young. He turned up on the aggressively hip Laugh-In and entreated: “Sock it to me.” He told Republicans convening in Miami that he would always “tell it like it is.”
In 1969, the perceptive literary critic John Aldridge attacked the American youth cult in a short but insightful book entitled In the Country of the Young. Aldridge asserted that the “current young” were not “the most generally magnificent generation ever to grace human history.” He found too many of them ill-educated, self-righteous, and politically naive—and, as a result, much too fond of “authoritarian and bureaucratic plans for the renovation of the world.” Aldridge resented the way in which the young and their publicists, in creating “the prevailing fashions in manners, morals, dress, and personal hygiene,” had succeeded in “democratizing the human body and evolving a corporate type of norm of female beauty and male handsomeness.” He was steamed because “those of us who are now in their forties have scarcely known a moment in our mature lives when we have not been obliged to seek and shape our identities in the face of enormous moral and emotional pressure from the adolescent or preadolescent young.” Observed Aldridge: “By now the young have so intimidated us with the sheer weight of their physical and moral presence that some of us have almost been persuaded to believe that our primary obligation to society is to die as quickly as possible, so that they can inherit the earth without further delay.”
Charles A. Reich didn’t object in the least to the ever-increasing influence of youth in American culture. In The Greening of America—a huge best-seller in 1970 and 1971—Reich, then 42, made it perfectly clear that the people he listened to with the most respect were people much younger than himself In the tradition of Rousseau and Oscar Wilde, Reich appeared to believe that age corrupts, and that middle-age corrupts absolutely; that frequently from the lips of the young come words of undiluted wisdom. He praised what he called “the new generation” for developing “a new consciousness” that emphasized “self,” impulsiveness, and play; for attacking “authority and hierarchy”; for eschewing business suits for “hippie clothes”; even for sparking a renewed interest in “genuine, old-fashioned, unhomogenized peanut butter.” “AH people,” Reich concluded, “must be helped to regain the condition of youth.”
During the 1970’s, the sort of cliche-ridden political activism that Aldridge scored declined markedly, perhaps because a large portion of the nation’s political Utopians were themselves caught up in the great diet and exercise craze. Indeed, during the 70’s, it often seemed as if all Americans over the age of 25 were not only suddenly—and understandably—interested in maintaining good physical health, but were sweating hard to regain the very condition of youth. The 70’s and the 80’s will long be linked with Jimmy Carter in jogging shorts and Jane Fonda in leotards; with face-lifts, tanning parlors, and fruit juice bars; with an epidemic nostalgia for the 50’s and early 60’s, when the postwar Baby Boomers really were young and snug in a world of teddy bears, tail fins, dungarees, and pompadours.
As the English critic John Sutherland has pointed out, it was also during the 70’s that “the American persuasion industry” became even more skilled at inducing in adults “the appetites, enthusiasms, and loyalties of their kids,” and in pushing products with “all-generational appeal.” Hence the high profits for the operators of “theme parks” and the manufacturers of candy bars, soda pop, and T-shirts bearing slogans; for the producers of rock records and videos. (MTV says it shoots for “the 13 to 34” market.) Hence, too, the enormous success of moviemakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who concentrate on turning out such widely hyped, cartoon-like vehicles as Star Wars, E.T., and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Indeed, Spielberg—a man in his mid-30’s—stands as the perfect representative of these youth-conscious times. In 1982 he told Time magazine that “his mental development stopped at 19” and that he “seldom turns off the TV set in his Coldwater Canyon house.” He also happily reported that he “owns twelve video games and plays with them for an hour a day.”
Not surprisingly, children are consistently sentimentalized in the films that Spielberg directs or produces. These boys and girls are not only witty and cute, but are so astute that they simply don’t require adults for even minimal guidance. In fact, in such Spielberg films as E.T. and The Goonies, we again see children taking it upon themselves to save the day. Nowhere in Spielberg’s movies do we find an adult character remotely like Lewis Stone’s white-haired Judge Hardy, who lost neither his patience nor his bearings as he helped Mickey Rooney keep his nose clean throughout the Andy Hardy series of the 30’s and the early 40’s. Nor do we see characters like Mary Poppins or Caractacus Potts—the wacky inventor in Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—who manage to get along unusually well with children without losing their status as admirable, if eccentric, role models.
But then, since the early 70’s, mass market movies with domestic settings or romantic themes have focused decreasingly on interesting characters who are 35 to 40 or more and who look, act, and talk like grown-up men and women. By and large, Hollywood simply no longer makes movies like—take your pick—Adam’s Rib, Gentleman’s Agreement, Rear Window, Executive Suite, The African Queen, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The World of Suzie Wong. After the late 60’s it could provide few good roles for talented performers like Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, and Audrey Hepburn.
Instead, in such films as Porky’s, Glass, Footloose, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, parents and teachers appear as lechers or hypocrites or tyrants; in Secret Admirer and the enormously successful Back to the Future, among others, they are clods and mumblers and suffer much when compared to their adolescent children, who know how to be cool-headed and socially deft in critical situations. In dozens of other popular films that focus primarily on the infatuations and sexual escapades of teenagers, adults play virtually no part at all. In Risky Business, for example, a high school senior converts the family Cape Cod into a profitable suburban cathouse while his parents are conveniently gone on a lengthy summer vacation.
Admittedly, a strong case could be made that such films as Risky Business and Secret Admirer are essentially accurate in their depiction of the ways in which perhaps a majority of adults and their adolescent children interact—or fail to interact—in the America of the 1980’s. For as Paul Goodman complained 25 years ago in Growing Up Absurd, “our abundant society” does not abundantly provide adolescents and young adults with “real opportunities for worthwhile experience”—with civilian roles that are responsible, respected, and conducive to “growing up.” Instead we herd even the most restless and the least clever of them through a largely inefficient elementary and secondary school system that in most places probably stupefies far more than it stimulates. Too, we are a nation in which the typical citizen now spends around six hours a day staring at his television set. In such an environment, communication between the generations is not likely to thrive.
Certainly television—with its constant barrage of tips, tales, and bits of gossip—has been a key factor in diminishing the social role of the elderly. In primitive societies—and in small-town America, once upon a time—the alert old assumed the valued task of passing on their knowledge of ritual and lore to their community’s younger members. Now television imparts general values and—through its comedies, dramas, and advertisements—reveals which patterns of behavior are socially acceptable, and which will lead to failure or success. In the television age, the old function as just one more demographic block to be lured into collecting an endless stream of “new” products that promise slimness, energy, regularity—in a word, youth.
There is, in fact, a tendency in recent American movies to depict most favorably those grown-up characters who either act like youths or who aggressively seek rejuvenation. Consider Cocoon. Don Ameche and the other retirees who are at the center of this film’s action are in relatively good mental and physical health, but they are shown to be quite useless until they begin taking laps in a swimming pool that contains water that has been rendered powerfully rejuvenescent by a secretive but cordial group of spacemen. (Plausibility is now even less in fashion than old age.) Newly frisky, Ameche & Co. are shown at the end of the film abandoning earth—and with it their children and grandchildren—in order to fly with the friendly aliens to Antares, a planet where youthful vitality supposedly lasts for hundreds of years.
Consider, too, Blame It on Rio, the slick Stanley Donen production that remains popular with renters and purchasers of video cassettes. Here Michael Caine appears as a 43-year-old businessman who—while on vacation in Rio de Janeiro—enters into a partly romantic, largely sexual relationship with his best friend’s 15-year-old daughter Jennifer. Initially Caine is reluctant to begin the affair, for Jennifer still calls him “Uncle Matthew”; she wears an orthodontic retainer and sleeps with a teddy bear. And like most 15-year-olds, she’s as hollow as a jug. But she is also curvy and pretty and persistent in her belief that a man heading for 50 is not too old to “get crazy” with a girl too young to drive. Indeed, Uncle Matthew—after going crazy—concedes to Jennifer: “I hope I’m as smart as you when I get to be your age.”
As Neil Postman points out in The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), commercial television has been no better at featuring adults who are both mature and comfortable with their maturity. Most game shows, for example, include contestants who “are selected with great care to ensure that their tolerance for humiliation (by a simulated adult, the ’emcee’) is inexhaustible, their emotions instantly arousable, their interest in things a consuming passion. Indeed, a game show is a parody of sorts of a classroom in which childlike contestants are duly rewarded for obedience and precociousness but are otherwise subjected to all the indignities that are traditionally the schoolchild’s burden.”
Network TV’s comedies and melodramas, notes Postman, are also full of characters like Archie Bunker, Laverne and Shirley, the gang from The Love Boat, and the 30-year-old “Fonz”: characters who, as Postman puts it, “can hardly be said to be adult characters, even after one has made allowances for the traditions of the formats in which they appear.” “With few exceptions,” observes Postman, adults in television “have no politics, practice no religion, represent no tradition, have no foresight in serious plans, have no extended conversations, and in no circumstances allude to anything that is not familiar to an eight-year-old person.” In the early 80’s, Postman could point only to the prissy Felix Unger in reruns of The Odd Couple as a TV character “who is depicted as having an adult’s appetite for serious music and whose language suggests that he has, at one time in his life, actually read a book.” As Postman accurately puts it, “the majority of adults on TV shows are depicted as functionally illiterate, not only in the sense that the content of book learning is absent from what they appear to know but also because of the absence of even the faintest signs of contemplative habit of mind.”
This widespread extolment of juvenility and juveneseence has surely contributed to all sorts of anxieties and neuroses. After all, in its crudest form, “youth-propaganda” says to the old: you are superfluous—dross. And it confuses and deludes the young by telling them: you are for but a brief time blessed. Pimply and clumsy adolescence is— believe it or not—the high point of human existence. Indulge, therefore: “party.” You will never know such pleasure; you will never be as wise. Or as John Cougar Mellencamp succinctly put it in his hit single “Jack and Diane”: “Hold on to 16 for as long as you can.” (An older and wiser Mellencamp now apologizes for the implications.)
It would seem safe to contend that this continuing preoccupation with what Lewis called “Peter Panism” has contributed much to the further vulgarization of American culture. For culture—at least as Matthew Arnold understood it—requires a knowledge of the past and a respect for tradition. To thrive, it needs large numbers of citizens who are not only literate, but also passionate about preserving—and making widely available—the best that has been thought and known in the world. In contrast, the American youth cult generally celebrates schmaltz and schlock. Largely because of it we have become what the biographer and music critic Albert Goldman has not inaccurately described as a “civilization that survives through the incessant recycling of cultural waste products: cast-off clothes, old comic strips, rerun (or remade) movies.”
Until his death in 1957, Wyndham Lewis worried about the disastrous political consequences of rampant “youngergenerationism” in the political democracies of the Western world. In the 30’s—as order in Europe gradually disintegrated—Lewis observed that what demogogues and would-be tyrants most craved in a population was precisely what “youth-propaganda” in the long run promotes. Demogogues and autocrats, observed Lewis, craved the “mechanical Infant-Robot,” the “standardized Peter Pan” who “learns nothing and forgets everything.” Autocrats can do much with “a mind without backgrounds, without any spiritual depth, a flat mirror for propaganda, a parrot-soul to give back the catchwords, an ego without reflection.”
Of course, Lewis was phlegmatic by nature; in his own young adulthood he spent a lot of time—perhaps too much time—brooding over Friedrich Nietzsche. Against him we can place Professor Reich, who argued in The Greening of America that a nation preoccupied with youth was a nation that was destined to remain vigorous, colorful, and constructively innovative. Let’s hope old Charlie was right.