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Empire’s Children

What’s behind the American cult of eternal adolescence

Let’s cut to the chase and just blame Mark Twain for everything. No, not because of Huckleberry Finn, which we all know is the best American novel ever written to feature an adolescent as its hero. That’s one reason plenty of people think it’s the best American novel, period. But it’s hardly a celebration of adolescence as an enchanted condition.

Huck moves us because of how tenaciously he’s working out the rudiments of becoming a grown-up, from his budding moral reckonings to his improving survival skills. With few exceptions, he’s learning that people are rotten. That’s bound to make navigating their—or even his—future rottenness the ultimate test of adulthood.

Twain himself was fully alert to the possibility that Huck’s later years might not be splendid. His original plan for his hero was to “run him through life,” he told William Dean Howells in 1875—a proto-Gumpian odyssey that would have, presumably, included the Civil War, among other goodbyes to naivete. By 1891, Twain was projecting an embittered sequel whose premise was as follows: “Huck comes back, 60 years old, from nobody knows where—and crazy. Thinks he is a boy again, and scans always every face for Tom and Becky, etc. Tom comes at last from . . . wandering the world and tends Huck, and together they talk the old times, both are desolate, life has been a failure, all that was lovable, all that was beautiful, is under the mold. They die together.”

Kind of a letdown for the country’s best-known teenage adventurer. It’s all the more so when you recall that not much about Huck’s formative life could reasonably be described as either lovable or beautiful. There was, to start with, the prolonged trauma of growing up in the care of vicious, drunken Pap Finn; then the killing of Buck Grangerford. (“I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.”) Even coping with the King and the Duke’s rodomontades was an object lesson in the unreliable nature of even the most casual encounters with adults on the make. All in all, only the river and friendship with Jim qualify as genuine spurs to Huck’s youthful spirit, and the river isn’t always benign.

It’s anyone’s guess, in short, whether Twain imagined Huck’s unexpectedly rosy retrospective view of his early years to be evidence of the old river rat’s senile dementia. Maybe it was meant instead as a mordant comment on how much worse Pap’s son had lived through since those easygoing days of terror, flight, family mayhem, hypocrisy, and yokel fraud. We’ll never know how seriously he contemplated writing Huck O’Bedlam, or whatever the sequel would have been called. But his most telling artistic impulses were often the fanciful, grotesque, and ultimately rejected ones. So it’s pertinent to consider Twain’s itch to ruin the life of his most beloved creation—who wasn’t Huck, at least not then. However fleetingly, something in him genuinely wanted to punish and destroy Huck’s eternally adolescent confrere and enabler, Tom Sawyer.

That’s a project bound to excite sympathy from anyone who’s ever gotten fed up with our national cult of adolescence, which began as a cult of capital-B Boyhood. Most of the Americans entranced by the fib that everything after high school is a fall from grace undoubtedly have no idea where it originated, but the Clearasil staining Mark Twain’s hands can never be wholly scrubbed away.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn sold reasonably well in Twain’s lifetime, despite mostly negative reviews. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, was the most popular book of his career—the reason Huckleberry Finn’s full title takes care to identify Huck as “Tom Sawyer’s Comrade.” Tom Sawyer remained the more cherished novel of the two in most people’s minds until the killjoy literati got busy championing Huck’s tale as an American masterpiece and demoting Tom’s antics to the cloying kid stuff they undeniably are. But even so, Huck’s come-from-behind win is largely illusory everywhere outside academia. Tom Sawyer trounces his old comrade as a pop-culture staple, whether his updated never-quite-coming-of-age saga gets repurposed in icky sitcoms or in Bill Clinton’s memoirs.

Unlike the Huck of Twain’s early schema, Tom was clearly never supposed to age. While it’s not entirely impossible to imagine him as an adult, the problem is that he’d be a hideous one: a ghastly hybrid of Oliver North (what a scamp!) and Elon Musk (what a go-getter!). Everything about him that’s actually kind of awful, from his overweening self-centeredness to his manipulative streak, is only made to appear provisionally adorable because it’s permanently preserved in puberty’s amber. Bowing to the inevitable, which in his case meant keeping his public gratified, Twain did produce two brand-preserving, fairly rubbishy sequels—Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective. Both books kept impudent and cocky Tom thirteen years old forever, with Huck (great Huck!) ignominiously reduced to second banana and slapstick narrator.

True, the original Tom Sawyer isn’t always pure fluff. Yet what plot there is in the novel revolves mostly around the murder of someone whom Twain ensures that his readers will have zero investment in and the subsequent trial—and this all comes as close to fluff as the material will permit. Nothing really transpires in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that feels consequential, morally or otherwise. Nor are these the main episodes that define the book’s influence—except at the level of providing pretexts for shenanigans that let Tom live out his fantasies. Pranks and mischief, cutely desexualized romance, companions who cheerfully double as minions—these specters of youthful wish-fulfillment fantasy all drift agreeably before us as we’re safely nestled in a carefree and idyllic environment flavored with just enough interludes of jeopardy to be stimulating instead of dull. This same low-stakes script of harmless hijinks on autopilot would go on to furnish the sturdy ingredients that sacramentalized the “wonder years” for Americans—white ones, anyhow—for well over a century. The ghost of Tom Sawyer haunts countless works of American self-mythologizing, from Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories to the many tales of energetic teen exploits in the TV era’s version of the frontier—the great hinterlands stretching from the placid sticks of Petticoat Junction, et al. to the suburbs of My Three Sons, Cosbyland, and beyond.

You could fairly object that Tom Sawyerism makes a fetish of the cusp of adolescence, not the full-blown hormonal tsunami. Fine, then; think of it as a gateway drug, because our culture imbues the rest of adolescence with the identical starry-eyed lyricism that we imagine greets its first tremulous onset. It’s just that teen angst becomes the next exalted emotional condition we’re expected to dote on, perpetuating the ultra-American fable that youth is a magical time in our lives whose intensity—and happiness, however paradoxical—we’ll never get to experience again.

However fleetingly, something in Twain genuinely wanted to punish and destroy Huck’s eternally adolescent confrere and enabler, Tom Sawyer.

Other countries don’t seem to buy into anything comparable to this brand of malarkey. The French, for instance, have very little reason to collectively cherish their high-school years; that’s when generation after generation gets implacably triaged into society’s future white-collar workers, who attend lycées, and its future proles, who go to trade schools instead. European celebrations of “youth culture” usually romanticize the charming years when everybody is finally twenty-one or thereabouts and can finally enjoy the freedoms of adult independence without yet being hobbled by adulthood’s accumulating responsibilities and steadily narrowing recourses. (Just compare, in this regard, the devil-may-care spirit of Jules and Jim to the grinding fatalism of The 400 Blows.) Only in the U.S.A. are people suckers for the idea that the jig is up as soon as you’re old enough to vote.

John Mellencamp’s 1982 hit “Jack & Diane” put the case at its most heartfelt—which is to say, its most absurd. “Oh, yeah, life goes on,” he commiserated with the song’s two eponymous teenage lovers—“long after the thrill of living is gone.” Mellencamp took it for granted that the “thrill of living” vamoosed when Jack and Diane were around seventeen. Those poor kids didn’t even make it to their senior prom before getting disillusioned.

Sex and the Tortured Teen

All the same, as bullshit artists go, Mellencamp was a relatively honest one. He wasn’t evasive about the main “thrill” of adolescence: sex. That’s true, too, of his obvious model, Bob Seger’s 1976 “Night Moves,” which explicitly—even a mite strenuously—went out of its way to deny that anything resembling True Love was involved in all that urgent back-seat fumbling in Bob’s Chevy.

This whole realm was naturally off limits in Twain’s depictions of budding teendom, although John Seelye’s revisionist The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1970) probably went overboard in the opposite direction by giving us a Huck maliciously victimized by his nearly perpetual hard-on. It’s not like he wouldn’t have been, but Seelye was a touch too pleased with his own reductive effrontery. Nonetheless, the uncensored Huck’s plight made for a dandy reminder that adolescence is a very peculiar time of life for anyone to get all blubbery and sentimental about. The wistful refrains of Mellencamp and Seger to the contrary, most of us can probably agree that it was pure hell.

European celebrations of “youth culture” usually romanticize the charming years when everybody is finally twenty-one; only in the U.S.A. are people suckers for the idea that the jig is up as soon as you’re old enough to vote.

More than any other factor, discovering our sexuality is what makes people’s high-school years so jangled, awkward, embarrassing, and occasionally frightening. But with today’s more varied garden of delights than their panic-riddled Boomer or even Generation X forebears could have conceived. Still, one imagines that this wider range of options hasn’t done a whole lot to lessen the tension, clumsiness, or howling indignity of it all.

By and large, however, it seems like the beatific pop-culture version of adolescence and high school has, even in our more uninhibited post-Twain era, been devised to miniaturize and dismiss the true scale of the hormonal tsunami. That project looks increasingly psychotic, though, as the tsunami remorselessly washes over everything from the most complex confrontations with sexual identity to the crudest anxieties about the appropriate situation in which to lose one’s virginity. And always in the background of such interior turmoil and destruction is the old American patriarchy’s ever-present threat of male piggishness (and worse) that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings gave everybody such an alarming refresher course in last fall.

When the great unnerving trials of sex and all that it implies are acknowledged at all, the results are—at most—two dimensional. Farces in the style of Porky’s or American Pie are the usual order of the day: slapstick views of run-amok teen-male horniness, all but bereft of interesting ambiguity or fun’s-over payoffs. Of course, teenagers delight in such curiously prudish displays of alleged teen prurience, maybe for the same reason their grandparents adored Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies back when innuendo about adult sexuality was as lewd as movies dared to get.

But even the crassest teen sex comedies—or maybe them especially—don’t contradict the pop-culture enshrinement of adolescence as a magical time, which is what makes the occasional, sardonic It Was Pure Hell treatment of the subject so welcome. (See, for one key entry in a surprisingly thinly populated popcult genre, Michael Lehmann’s mayhem-laden teen-angst black comedy Heathers, from 1988.) Besides serving as the main arena for our sexual growing pains, high school is also where most of us have our first encounters with social cliques, one-upmanship, entrenched spite, and Mickey Mouse officialdom. Taken together, these spiritual trials add up to a general (and far from valueless) recognition that the world is unfair. For many white, middle-class, suburban Americans—and it should be noted that the valorization of high school is an almost exclusively white, middle-class, and suburban phenomenon—it’s the closest they’ll ever come to being in the Army. (By which I mean the old not-at-all volunteer Army, which allowed the peacetime draft to toss together motley crews of strangers with very little in common except that hardly anyone wanted to be there.)

Perhaps this doesn’t supply the most attractive explanation of our long running adolescent infatuation with our own imaginary collective adolescence. But what if that’s the true reason for Americans’ otherwise baffling nostalgia? Forget the perilous amateur existentialism of the Mellencamp-Seger school of back-seat Chevy fumbling. At the time, we imagined we were taking our first brave steps toward autonomy, and to some extent—sometimes bold, more often timorous—we were. In hindsight, though, it was anything but a declaration of personal independence. It was, indeed, the last time in our lives when someone else was expected to guarantee all of our material requirements—from mealtimes to wardrobes to daily schedules. All we had to do was show up, and even that wasn’t really our decision.

We were cosseted inside a system that didn’t really make too many demands on anyone except inveterate misfits or clods. Our agency was strictly limited, unless we wanted to run afoul of the law—or of our parents and teachers, who had almost as much clout when it came to reminding us that our officers and drill sergeants were the ones truly in charge. Our cult of adolescence makes a lot more sense once it’s seen as the ideal combination of a barracks minus the uniforms and a singularly comfy womb with a view.

Seduction of the Affluent

Once upon a time—right around its inception, in fact—the Myth of The Teenager was a lot more heroic than that. The term didn’t even come into use until 1941, although “teenage” did predate it by a couple of decades. (Note as well the far-from-trivial transition from passive adjectival description to distinctive social identity.) Aside from the durable Twainian cult of capital-B Boyhood, whose innocuous mishaps and gambols Norman Rockwell went right on tenderly fetishizing for the Saturday Evening Post up until John F. Kennedy’s election, America’s only previous infatuation with youth as a special and gilded stage of life dated from the Jazz Age. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the poet of that formative modern youth culture, and he pioneered the great twentieth-century American career path of minting literary fame out of targeted celebrations of your generation’s historical novelty. But Fitzgerald’s heroes, while decidedly immature and undisciplined adults, were still at least technically adults: post-collegiate, exhilarated by cosmopolitanism and urbanity, and employed somewhere, however vaguely, if they weren’t lucky enough to be moneyed from birth. If nothing else, they had the quasi-European decency to wait until they turned thirty before mourning how the parade had started passing them by.

So there weren’t any real precedents for what happened in the 1950s. Postwar prosperity produced a vastly expanded middle class whose kids, living at a level of comfort and security unknown to the vast majority of their forebears, had disposable leisure cash to spend for the first time. Television and Top 40 radio could have been invented to pander to them—and that’s just what TV and Top 40 radio did.

More than any other factor, discovering our sexuality is what makes people’s high-school years so jangled, awkward, embarrassing, and occasionally frightening.

Midcentury teenagers were, first and foremost, a market—one defined by its tastes, whose unique cachet was that they were at odds with the adult world’s version of reality. That certainly hadn’t been true of, say, Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy movies of the 1930s and 1940s, whose view of adolescent friskiness had stayed firmly within the bounds of fun for the whole family. Getting adversarial about inter-generational relations wasn’t on the menu.

The Ike era’s postwar newbies, on the other hand, had The Blackboard Jungle (1955)—with tense young Vic Morrow flashing a knife at idealistic teacher Glenn Ford—and then, a year later, Rock Around The Clock, with Bill Haley and the Comets reprising The Blackboard Jungle’s theme song as a title hit. Boomer teens had ghoulish EC Comics, whose defanging by the newly established Comics Code Authority led publisher Bill Gaines to promote Mad magazine as his flagship title instead. (This train of unintended cultural consequences was set in motion by the postwar world’s first bona fide generational culture war, touched off when Fredric Wertham’s saliva-flecked 1954 anti-comics broadside Seduction of the Innocent launched a congressional investigation into the menace to Today’s Young People.) Postwar cultural rebels also had what were still known as “race records,” which Cleveland and then New York DJ (and future payola-scandal indictee) Alan Freed kept slipping onto the air despite Werthamian alarms raised by white middle-class parents everywhere. And all too briefly, they had Elvis, until the Army got him in 1958—and he docilely went, marring the young John Lennon’s good opinion of the King forever.

Above all, as of 1955, they had James Dean. At least among male performers, extravagant hysteria had never been an especially popular calling card in American movies—and it certainly hadn’t been deployed as evidence of beautiful youth’s unassailable moral integrity. But the more emotionally wracked and confused Dean was, the more he rebuked sedate adulthood’s crappy and unfeeling compromises. Marlon Brando had preceded him by several years, but Brando, who was seven crucial years older, was never particularly callow. Even the members of the biker gang he leads in 1954’s The Wild One are noticeably long in the tooth for their anarchic roles and contempt for authority to be all that spontaneous.

Dean, by contrast, was the tormented juvenile as suburban Christ child. Even though he was a good actor—not quite as good as Mickey Rooney, but you can’t have everything—he only got to deliver one characterization in his brief movie career that highlighted something other than caterwauling masochism. And viewers of George Stevens’s Giant, which came out after Dean’s death, were puzzled that their hero was playing someone who wasn’t all that sympathetic. Surely a mistake had been made? That was the verdict, at any rate, of the youth audience—a judgment made easier because Dean’s Jett Rink started out poor and resentful of Rock Hudson’s Lone Star State grandee. The idea that a rebel could be a villain probably made perfect sense to their parents, but not to the kids.

Dean might have disappointed his fans a great deal if he’d lived. Repeating himself didn’t interest him much, and he’d have aged out of being able to simulate adolescence soon enough in any case. But 1950s Hollywood didn’t spend a lot of time looking for ways to challenge its fireball actors; giving the snotty ones their comeuppance was the ticket. (How quickly the industry brought Marlon Brando to heel, and reduced him to an eccentric, would be a lot more evident minus the collaborations with Elia Kazan that kept his legend alive.) An adult James Dean, cast in increasingly routine roles until his sitcom finally beckoned, is depressing to imagine. He was the ultimate confirmation that alienated, tragic youth is an exalted state for the simple reason that he didn’t live to experience anything else.

Ham on Rye

J.D. Salinger, on the other hand, died at an advanced age in 2010. Almost half a century had gone by since he’d last published a book (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, paired with Seymour: An Introduction, back in 1963). But that made no difference. Like James Dean—and, for that matter, Tom Sawyer—The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield is frozen in time, forever seventeen and bamboozled by the world’s iniquities. Even a movie version might have ruined everything, but Salinger always forbade one, despite entreaties from, among others, Jerry Lewis. Who’s to say that Lewis wouldn’t have been exactly the popcult avatar Holden deserved?

Catcher is one of those novels that everybody agrees is a “classic” and relatively few people actually think is a great book. (The decline from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, to say the least, considerable.) Undeniably, the thing is exquisitely managed. Filtered through Holden’s own uncertain sense of his effect on us, which makes for a lot of sham attitudinizing, Holden’s sensitivity to adult corruption turns him into the confused teen as unanswerable judge. But he’s never crass, prankish, or shallow—when he tries, he fails at it, so we know it’s fraudulent—and those are adolescent truths as well. He’s good at spurning seedy temptations, and of course every one of them is seedy. In real life, though, he’d be a virtually intolerable prig.

Indeed, it’s with Salinger that the American mania for preserving innocence against all odds turns flagrantly neurotic. Much of the time, it’s what teenagers are most eager to lose—and not only sexually, either. But in Holden’s world, adulthood is debasement, pure and simple, and not much suggests that he’s an “unreliable” narrator: that is, that his perceptions are addled, overheated, or even excessively self-centered. A New York City boy who gets upset at the thought of children learning what the word “fuck” means when he sees it on some street graffiti is clearly in for a lifelong assault on his finer feelings. Still, Holden fervently believes that his kid sister Phoebe hasn’t been tarnished yet. As he watches her ride the carousel at the Central Park Zoo at book’s end, little does he know that she’s probably muttering “fuck, fuck, fuck” to herself and envying the sinless zygote she used to be before becoming a jaded ten-year-old.

Exempt from most of the twentieth century’s travails while enjoying vastly expanded access to its perks, America’s midcentury adolescents probably seemed to their parents like sci-fi creatures.

Salinger had seen combat and entered Dachau during World War II, and biographers have argued that Catcher in the Rye is a war novel in disguise. Yet the 1950s cult of the teenager was, in large part, a rejection of everything from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima and its consequences—and not only because it catered to a demographic too young to have served in the war. Growing up in the first generation that’s always known the world could end in a nuclear apocalypse makes hyperbolic turmoil and contempt for adult compromises rather more awkward to condescend to, after all. Nicholas Ray certainly knew that when he included a conversation about the cosmos’s doom in Rebel Without a Cause’s famed Griffith Park planetarium sequence—and pointedly had both parties taking the fiery finish more or less for granted.

Exempt from most of the twentieth century’s travails while enjoying vastly expanded access to its perks, America’s midcentury adolescents probably seemed to their parents like sci-fi creatures anyhow. No wonder the Beats, despite not being that far removed from Salinger in age, were the first American literary movement whose members behaved as if they were still in high school: a clique, in fact. When middle-class white kids moved on from The Catcher in the Rye, many of them turned to On the Road or Howl.

Then came the 1960s, leaving the kids’ elders wondering if Peter Pan was turning into Karl Marx—or whether it might be the other way around. There hasn’t been a comparable youthquake since, partly because later generations couldn’t compete with the Boomers’ raw numbers—or their sense of entitlement. Undoubtedly, Holden Caulfield would have disclaimed any responsibility for that. But this preppie’s alienated defeatism was one of the embryos of the counterculture just the same.

Arrested Exceptionalism

The myth of the American adolescent underwent a decline in the 1970s and afterward. The Boomers had been the center of the country’s attention pretty much from the moment the Beatles hit Shea Stadium, and they balked at being replaced just because they didn’t qualify as gilded youth anymore. Since they were becoming the culture’s arbiters instead, they made sure that its notions of what was hip aged right along with them, from the crypt-keepers at Rolling Stone on down. Maybe more comically, they couldn’t imagine later crops of teenagers ever rebelling against them—how was such a thing even thinkable, when they’d become the first generation ever to refuse to put away childish things?

The youth audience of the 1980s and 1990s was as much a kiddie audience as a teen audience, and it’s not as if they didn’t have fun. They turned Madonna and Michael Jackson into superstars, after all. On TV, they had Beverly Hills 90210, with posh moves and heartfelt ones playing leapfrog until you finally caught on that those were twin halves of the same fantasy. (Nobody would have cared about the heartfelt stuff if everybody had been broke all the time.) Best of all, from 1997 to 2003, they had Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the funniest and most extravagant take on teendom as a heroic duel with (literal) monsters in the medium’s history. It was all awfully meta, a genre perpetuated by Josh Schwartz’s precociously ultra-knowing The O.C. (2003-2007). But it could be that harlequinades, metaphors, and pastiche were what worked best at evoking what adolescence felt like then.

At its best, this wayward new idiom could pack in an awful lot of meaning. Oddly enough, the oughties teen series that looks most predictive today is CBS’s short-lived Joan of Arcadia, whose heroine learns she’s been chosen by God—who appears to her in all sorts of random guises, from stray urchins to senior citizens—to carry out tasks that often make no sense to her. Despite its angst-friendly premise, the show wasn’t treacly. The disconnect between pining to be ordinary and being drafted into an extraordinary role felt psychologically accurate, and Joan was believably ambivalent about the moral seriousness unexpectedly thrust upon her. In our own era, that response can’t help resonating, since it was hardly by choice that Parkland kids David Hogg and Emma González have become the best-known teens in the country. Yet we can’t help wondering how representative of their generation they’ll be.

There can’t be many people left who think of adolescence as an enchanted or magical state these days. To whatever extent it ever seemed like one, the illusion was dependent on a backdrop of privilege—material, communal, and even national—that’s largely gone the way of the Dodo. Think of our myth of teendom as the Mini-Me version of American exceptionalism, which doesn’t seem to be in very good shape anymore, either. But in both cases, the same moral holds: we probably always knew that if we ever did grow up, it would be against our will.