- The Century's Adolescent Turn
Earlier this year, as I was preparing to teach adolescent literature for the first time, I went in search of criticism that could help me historicize the concept of adolescence. I was reasonably confident in my understanding of the historical, cultural, and literary construction of childhood, but adolescence seemed elusive; it was a liminal no-person's land and a construct that, I knew, had an even more recent history than childhood. Among the books I turned to with high expectations was John Neubauer's The Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Adolescence. Neubauer, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Amsterdam, proposes early in his study "that adolescence 'came of age' in the decades around 1900" when "interlocking discourses about adolescence emerged in psychoanalysis, psychology, criminal justice, pedagogy, sociology, as well as in literature" (6). Here, I thought, was the wide-ranging text I had been looking for.
Indeed, The Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Adolescence is such a text—a complex study of the social, historical, and literary forces that have produced our Western discourse about an ever-elusive and recently invented developmental state. Adolescence, which Neubauer defines early on "as a middle-class social formation in industrial societies generated by the expansion of secondary education" (6), is also a powerful creation of historical, cultural, and literary discourses. "Tackling" these "problems" is, for the scholar, "an endless task, just as mastering adolescence is" (12). Neubauer begins with literature and examines the ways in which "metaphoric identity" is employed in the modernist third-person narration of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Mann's Tonio Kroger, and Musil's Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless. The distance between the adult narrator and the adolescent protagonist in these texts produces an "attitude that fluctuates between irony and compassion": [End Page 235]
In the discourse of these narrators, intellectual condescension, irony and retrospective nostalgia intermingle so ambiguously that their attitude with respect to their protagonist may become, as in the case of A Portrait, a matter of interpretive dispute. The adolescent protagonist is naive and confused but more intense and authentic than the adult narrator, and he matures to gain wisdom and insight often at the cost of authenticity and freedom. The narrator may ridicule the protagonist's discourse, adopt it, or sentimentally portray it as a mode irretrievably lost for him. . . .(14)
Examining the conventional constraints Joyce imposes on Stephen Dedalus's figurative language (his villanelle, for example), Neubauer notes that an "adoptive rather than purely creative use of language" is a hallmark of adolescent protagonists in modernist narratives. Furthermore, he theorizes that the modernist skepticism about the self and the "polyperspectival and distanced representation" favored by modernist writers helps to explain the frequency with which these writers used adolescence (created and represented from the distance of adulthood) as "an important testing ground for the modernist narrative" (30-31).
In his later literary chapters, Neubauer discusses "the early twentieth century genre of adolescent fiction, the 'peer-group narrative'" (Valery Larbaud's Fermina Marquez, Alain Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, Hermann Hesse's Demian, and Jacques de Lacretelle's Silbermann), in which first-person male narrators "recall their adolescent friendship with the protagonist named in the title" (32), and the fiction of "social context" such as Kipling's Stalky and Co. and other school stories. In chapter four, he provides an illuminating discussion of the transition from the childhood metaphor of the garden to the adolescent metaphor of enclosed urban spaces. The literary analysis concludes with a provocative overview of literary adolescence. In this chapter, Neubauer, building on the insights of Patricia Meyer Spacks in The Adolescent Idea (1981), shows that adolescence at the turn of the century forms the basis for a new "'social mythology,' in which maturity is no longer the standard and adolescence is often the subject of glorification." The fin-de-siècle rise of the bildungsroman is analogous to the romantic focus on the child; in the history of the novel, vagabond picaros are replaced...