In the past two decades, several important books have appeared that examine that notoriously troubling category, the adolescent. Among them are Thomas Hine’s The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, which covers the American colonial period to the present; Grace Palladino’s Teenagers: An American History, focusing on the post–Depression era; and Jon Savage’s [End Page 405] Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, covering the whole of the twentieth century as well as both North America and Western Europe; and John Neubauer’s The Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Adolescence, a study of European adolescence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like Neubauer, Kent Baxter eschews the sweeping focus of many of these studies of adolescence, and confines himself to a specific time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) and place (the United States). Doing so, Baxter fills both a geographical and temporal gap in the scholarship with this in-depth look at adolescence during a particular period of American history. He argues that “an examination of how adolescence was constructed at the beginning of the century illuminates the current status of the concept and exposes how much our current problem owes to our recent past” (3). Baxter’s scholarship is therefore a welcome addition to the existing literature.
Baxter’s central thesis is that “the history of the discursive category of adolescence has been a self-perpetuating and never-ending dance between the ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ adolescent, where the constructed image of one has served as cultural repression of the other, all under the guise of seeing, finally, what adolescence is really like” (13). Articulating the tension between the constructions of the “real” adolescent (a repository of cultural fears about teens’ unchecked physical and sexual desires and potential) and the “ideal” adolescent (the well-behaved, adult-approved youth who will lead us all into a more perfect future), Baxter explores how these two equally fictitious constructions shaped and were shaped by a variety of factors, particularly economic, in America at the turn of the century. In Baxter’s discussions of this “never-ending dance,” we can see the nascence of what Hine calls the “teenage mystique,” which allows us to treat adolescents “not as individuals but as potential problems” (Hine 11). Baxter’s argument is strengthened by his attention to several specific arenas in which these competing discourses of adolescence—which were also, by and large, discourses about modernity and its attendant anxieties—played out. These arenas include educational reform movements, the rise of the juvenile court system, Indian residential schools and the concomitant white youth groups that appropriated a fantasy of “Indianness,” and the literary productions of Horatio Alger and Edward Stratemeyer.
The first chapter pairs a discussion of late nineteenth-century educational reforms with the contemporaneous creation of the juvenile court system; this is a productive move, as both sets of changes had a direct impact upon the construction of the modern adolescent. Through a combination of overall formalization of education, age-grading, and the extension of mandatory schooling, the period of young people’s dependence upon their [End Page 406] parents was lengthened, which had profound economic effects on families; at the same time, the juvenile court system attempted to balance this new narrative of teen dependency and vulnerability with new fears of teen violence and immorality. Baxter convincingly argues that such anxieties were intimately linked with ambivalence about the expansion of cities during the period, which made the adolescent population more visible: “Children in their teens became almost synonymous with urban growth and therefore symbolic of all of the evils this growth represented” (36).
The second chapter thoughtfully juxtaposes the influential theories of G. Stanley Hall and Margaret Mead; while Hall and Mead were on opposite sides of the nature/culture debate, Baxter points out that both perceived American adolescence as a problem, and both of them claimed to offer solutions to this problem—and both their perceptions and their proposed solutions heavily influenced our modern understandings of adolescence.