‘Teenage kicks’ [review of Jon Savage’s Teenage]

“I am tired of my obscurity. I mildew in the shadows,” confided the seventeen-year-old Marie Bashkirtseff to her secret journal in 1875. “Am I mad? Or fated? Be it one way or another, I’m bored!” Contemplating her looks in the mirror, Bashkirtseff reflected that one day she felt “quite beautiful”, the next day “a figure not even Satan could recognise”.

Thus begins Jon Savage’s painstakingly researched and far-reaching “prehistory of the Teenager”. Its narrative ranges from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War, when Americans began to use the word “teenager” to describe young people between the ages of 14 and 18, and the magazine Seventeen was launched on the marketing premise that this age group in the US now had a spending capacity of $750m.

The teenager has always eluded both legal definition and biological categorisation. Adolescence is a nebulous, in-between condition, an amalgam of peer pressure, social fashioning and market opportunism. Even nature applies its laws unevenly at this time of life: during the period that Savage examines, the average age that boys and girls reached puberty fell by two or three years. And yet for those who go through it, adolescent angst seems real and exceptional enough. So the figure of the teenager is a ripe subject for the kind of richly detailed cultural history that Savage provides, exploring the real lives of young people against the changing meanings and mentalities swirling around this new concept of “teenage”.

The most surprising and enjoyable details in this book are those, like Bashkirtseff’s journal, that seem to belong to a much later era. An American high school girl, discouraged from going out with a “young blade in a rakish car”, screams at her father: “What on earth do you want me to do? Just sit around at home all evening?” This clichéd manifestation of the generation gap occurred as early as the late 1920s, as recorded in Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929). Almost as long ago (1932), the Ladies’ Home Journal posed a dilemma that seems straight out of Jackie magazine circa 1972: “Does a girl have to pet to be popular?”

Savage’s story unfolds as a series of ideological skirmishes between different movements with competing designs on youth. In the ascendancy at the beginning of his book are the many efforts to discipline and coerce young people into becoming ideal citizens, beginning with the muscular Christianity and sports ethic of nineteenth-century English public schools, and filtering down the social classes (but not to the very lowest ones) in the form of pre-military cadet organisations like the Boy Scouts.

Behind this militarising impulse were fears about juvenile delinquency, which acquired all the ingredients of a moral panic over a century before the first ASBO was served on a happy-slapping hoodie. As Savage perceptively writes, the foul-mouthed, feral teen gangs who terrorised city streets in Europe and America at the end of the nineteenth century “both reflected and inverted their militaristic society: their war was not against a foreign power but adult authority”. The attempts to corral youth into the adult version of militarism found their most perverse expression in the Hitlerjugend, the Nazis being pioneers in promoting themselves as the party of youth. The Hitler Youth movement was a strange mix of discipline and indiscipline, which emboldened young people to take revenge on “the liberal-bourgeois hypocrites” of the Weimar era by breaking the windows of teachers who had given them low grades.

While all this was happening, though, a disparate group of bohemian artists and writers reacted against the militarism with a quite different conception of youth. In the 1870s, British public schoolboys who were sick of the “Vitai Lampada” ethic began appropriating the classics syllabus to create a new aestheticism based on an alternative system of values to those of Christianity, the playing fields and the military. Although Savage invariably leaves the modern parallels to the reader, their heirs are clearly the pale, interesting brigade who would later smoulder in suburban bedrooms.

In the middle of these two extremes, a more socially consensual narrative of youth gradually emerged. The American psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, whose work is a running motif in this book, laid the foundations for government policy on adolescence by extrapolating a discrete category of social being from the biological changes of puberty. In his 1904 work, Adolescence, Hall drew heavily on Darwin for his theory of “recapitulation” – the belief that the development of each individual mirrored the evolutionary development of the species, from primitivism to savagery to maturity.

Hall saw adolescence as “a new birth” which contained “the bud of promise for the race”, but he also characterised it, after Goethe and Schiller, as a period of “storm and stress”. So he believed that a feature of any enlightened civilisation was the protection of the adolescent from adulthood. Hall the disciplinarian, who advocated regular cold baths and physical exercise for the young, vied with Hall the romanticist, who called for society to prolong adolescence as a kind of sanctuary from the harsh demands of capitalist society, even up to the age of twenty-five. “For the complete apprenticeship to life,” he wrote, “youth needs repose, leisure, art, legends, romance, idealization, and in a word humanism.” The interwar era saw the first, Hall-influenced efforts to treat adolescents in a benevolent rather than coercive way, with the founding of the US National Youth Administration and Britain’s Youth Service. The school leaving age was extended into the teenage years and, just as adolescent self-mythologising had first emerged in the English public schools, this expansion of compulsory education consolidated the idea of a “teenage”.

Savage argues that adolescence became tied into a new ideal of universal equality, a “cohort politics” that connected teenagers with other marginalised groups like the urban poor, blacks in the segregated American south or a criminalised, underground gay culture. Whether teenagers were really as oppressed as these groups was a moot point. In January 1945, the New York Times magazine published a distinctly wussy “Teen-Age Bill of Rights” which aptly conveyed the difficulty of seeing this increasingly privileged and affluent group as a persecuted minority. It called for “the right to have rules explained, not imposed” and “the right to be at the romantic age”.

Ultimately, Savage concludes that this political take on adolescence was no match for “the dreamland of American consumerism”. An affluent juvenile workforce, with disposable income to spend on an emerging consumer culture, began to form in America and elsewhere long before the media invention of the teenager. In the 1870s, the young could buy products like dime novels and magazines aimed specifically at them. Hollywood manipulated adolescent wish-fulfilment from the beginning. Weeklies like American Girl and Everygirl were dispensing advice about dating and fashion to anxious pubescents in the 1930s. A recurring lesson of this book it is that the youth market is always more precocious than you think.

By the mid-1940s, these many ideas about youth “had been boiled down to just one: the adolescent consumer”. For Savage, the formation of the modern teenager answered one of the key social questions posed during the first half of the century: “What kind of mass society will we live in?” The answer was one defined primarily by “pleasure and acquisition”. The teenager thus emerged as a central figure in postwar western society, with all its good and bad points: narcissism, materialism, liberalism and social tolerance.

Teenage’s synoptic approach contrasts with Savage’s brilliant (and brilliantly titled) book, England’s Dreaming (1991). That was an equally big book but with a smaller canvas and shorter timescale – so what started out as a biography of the Sex Pistols became about a whole political-cultural moment in late-seventies Britain. By contrast, the range of reference in Teenage – Oscar Wilde, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Rupert Brooke – goes far beyond teenage culture and can be a bit dizzying at times, making suggestive connections where causal ones would have threaded the narrative together better. The constant flitting between events in America, Europe and Britain, although justified by the global origins of these new ideas about youth, makes for a similar bittiness. But such are the inevitable difficulties of combining careful scholarship with sweeping popular history – at which Savage still shows himself to be one of the most skilful exponents around.


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