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Inventing Modern Adolescence

The Children of Immigrants in Turn-of-the-Century America

Sarah Chinn

Publication Year: 2009

The 1960s are commonly considered to be the beginning of a distinct "teenage culture" in America. But did this highly visible era of free love and rock 'n' roll really mark the start of adolescent defiance? In Inventing Modern Adolescence Sarah E. Chinn follows the roots of American teenage identity further back, to the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. She argues that the concept of the "generation gap"-a stereotypical complaint against American teens-actually originated with the division between immigrant parents and their American-born or -raised children. Melding a uniquely urban immigrant sensibility with commercialized consumer culture and a youth-oriented ethos characterized by fun, leisure, and overt sexual behavior, these young people formed a new identity that provided the framework for today's concepts of teenage lifestyle.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Series in Childhood Studies


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Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

I began this book very quickly and finished it very slowly. The initial speed was thanks first to a summer grant from PSC-CUNY that kick-started the whole thing, and more extensively to a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that gave me a year to sit in an office provided by the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center and research and write every day. ...

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Introduction: “I Don’t Understand What’s Come Over the Children of This Generation”

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pp. 1-12

The 1980s, the years of my own adolescence, were the decade of the films of John Hughes and his muse, Molly Ringwald. The most celebrated movie in his oeuvre, The Breakfast Club (1985), featured five teenagers, each of whom fit a specific adolescent stereotype: the jock, the bad boy, the nerd, the weirdo, the popular girl. Forced together for an all-morning detention, ...

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Chapter 1: “Youth Must Have Its Fling”: The Beginnings of Modern Adolescence

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pp. 13-28

How did adolescence begin? And who were the new adolescents? In this chapter I argue that a combination of demographic shifts in the working class, a rethinking of adolescence by social scientists and reformers, and the growth of commercial leisure brought about a new identity. In part this new cohort was the result of simple numbers—thanks to the immigration boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ...

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Chapter 2: Picturing Labor: Lewis W. Hine, the Child Labor Movement, and the Meanings of Adolescent Work

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pp. 29-76

One of Progressive documentary photographer Lewis W. Hine’s most famous pictures is his so-called Italian Madonna (1905), a triumph of composition and style (fig. 2). Part of his series on immigrants at Ellis Island, the picture is almost luminous, encapsulating a mother’s tender affection for her child, and the child’s love for and dependence upon its mother. ...

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Chapter 3: “Irreverence and the American Spirit”: Immigrant Parents, American Adolescents, and the Invention of the Generation Gap

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pp. 77-102

In 1899, Hilda Satt, the daughter of Jewish immigrants to Chicago, visited Jane Addams’s famous settlement house Hull-House for the first time. Her father had recently died, and although her mother “faced life with the heroism of the true American pioneer” (Polacheck 44), she was barely scraping by. Hilda hoped that Hull-House, with its low-cost cafeteria, its activities for immigrant women, men, and children, ...

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Chapter 4: “Youth Demands Amusement”: Dancing, Dance Halls, and the Exercise of Adolescent Freedom

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pp. 103-129

On a warm summer night in 1892 on the Lower East Side, twelve-year-old Rose Cohen, barely a year in New York, wandered out of her tenement apartment and “caught a few strains of music coming from the roof. . . . I went up and found under the sky, blue and bright with the stars and the city lights twinkling all around, a group of Irish-American girls and boys waltzing to the music of a harmonica. ...

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Chapter 5: “Youth Is Always Turbulent”: Reinterpretations of Adolescence from Bohemia to Samoa

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pp. 130-151

“The two generations misunderstand each other as they never did before,” declared Randolph S. Bourne in his 1913 manifesto Youth and Life (34).1 “Youth”—a loosely defined period that for Bourne stretched from the midteens into the early twenties—had changed radically for the new generation of young people. By the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, youth had transformed ...

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Epilogue: Smells Like Teen Spirit

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pp. 152-156

By the end of the 1920s, the reorganization of adolescence was complete. While it was to go through various incarnations over the next fifty years, these differences were more in degree than in type: the threatening sexual freedom of the flappers, for example, was remapped onto subsequent generations of girls, from bobby soxers to Beatlemaniacs to hippies and so on. Similarly, the knowing sophistication George Babbitt ...


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pp. 157-180


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pp. 181-192


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pp. 193-200

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About the Author

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pp. 201-202

Sarah E. Chinn is an associate professor in the English Department of Hunter College, CUNY, and the executive director of the Center for Lesbian Gay Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813545950
E-ISBN-10: 0813545951
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813543093
Print-ISBN-10: 0813543096

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 29 photographs
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Series in Childhood Studies
Series Editor Byline: Edited by Myra Bluebond-Langner, Ph.D., Founder of Rutgers University Center for Children and Childhood Studies See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 311596494
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Inventing Modern Adolescence

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Adolescence -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Conflict of generations -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Children of immigrants -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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