Last month in this space, historian Steven Mintz previewed his forthcoming history of modern American adulthood by taking up recent commentaries on the death of adulthood in American culture. Below, Mintz turns to American literary treatments of grown-up life, which have more often depicted coming of age as a struggle against new constraints than as an entrée to independence.
American literature has long had a problem with adulthood. The most obvious examples, of course, are found among the post-World War II generation of writers, from John Updike and Mary McCarthy to J.D. Salinger, who associated adulthood with stagnation and stress, with heavy drinking, marital discontent, adultery, and despair.
Critical treatments of adulthood escalated during the 1960s and 1970s in such novels as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. The authoritative father who knows best came under attack as uncommunicative, emotionally withdrawn, and bottled up, while the self-denying, sacrificing mother became not an ideal to emulate, but a cautionary example of how women, mistakenly, forfeited their individuality and self-fulfillment for their husband’s sake.
Yet well before the 1950s and 1960s, American literature tended to paint a bleak picture of adulthood. Men come off particularly poorly. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain presents his readers with a rogues gallery of hucksters, charlatans, braggarts, con men, and cheats. Huck’s own father, Pap, is an ignorant, abusive drunk. From Melville’s monomaniacal Ahab and his depressed, deeply alienated Bartleby, to Henry James’s unfulfilled Lambert Strether, Edith Wharton’s “ruin of a man,” Ethan Frome, Dreiser’s greedy, ambitious, opportunistic Clyde Griffiths, and Sinclair Lewis’s narrow-minded, complacent, materialistic George F. Babbitt, fictional images of manhood were replete with examples of men with cramped emotional lives, loveless marriages, and work lacking opportunities for meaning and fulfillment. Each offered a vivid example of the life of quiet desperation and despair identified by Thoreau.
Nor were the female characters more attractive, though the critique of womanhood took very different forms. To be sure there were casually misogynistic images of womanhood, as in Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly, kind hearted, but also a superstitious, somewhat feeble-minded, scold. More influential, however, were women whose romantic yearnings were quashed or whose quest for independence ends in tragedy, as in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. In stories as different as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, we witness the unbending pressures on women to abandon their headstrong independence and conform to the responsibilities and proprieties of conventional womanhood. Henry James’s most memorable characters were women, and many of his plots centered on the tribulations of womanhood, exploring the lives of naïve, unaffected, innocent roses amidst a thicket of thorns or of free spirits “affronting their destiny.” Then there are the emotionally tortured women in the stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and the plays of William Inge and Tennessee Williams.
Why were these depictions of adulthood so harshly and consistently critical—especially in light of popular culture’s tendency, at least into the 1960s, to associate adulthood with maturity and responsibility, manhood with independence and self-sufficiency, and womanhood with caring, compassion, and consideration for others? In large measure, it reflects American literature’s self-conscious, self-appointed role as cultural critic. High literature has frequently explored and exposed the murky underside of the American aspirations for independence, advancement, and personal fulfillment.
But equally important was American literature’s fixation on coming of age, which took quite a different form than in the European bildungsroman. Many of the greatest works of American literature are coming of age tales, from Little Women and Huckleberry Finn to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In a nation that has long defined itself in terms of its youth, the coming-of-age tale is the preeminent American literary form, repeatedly retold by outsiders and newcomers. The genre was seized upon by fugitive slaves, immigrants, and women of diverse backgrounds.
Unlike their European counterparts, in which a father or a set of repressive institutions are the youth’s antagonist, hostile to the child’s ambitions and aspirations and utterly insensitive to the young person’s sensibilities, the American bildungsromane, especially since Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers in 1925, has tended to treat this passage from a cynical, critical, or ironic perspective, in terms of alienation, disaffection, and angst. Often, entrance into adulthood is a story of loss: of youth, freedom, and naïve idealism.
In many classic American female bildungsromane, from Susanna Rowson’s 1791 novel Charlotte Temple through Plath’s The Bell Jar in 1963, a patriarchal society thwarts a woman’s efforts to fulfill her talents and capacities. Sexuality proves particularly problematic. In African American and Chicana bildungsromane, rape and violence—legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and colonial subordination—are facets of growing up. Those bildungsromane by female African American writers such as Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gayl Jones, Sapphire, Ntozake Shange, Thulani Davis, and Jacqueline Woodson explore other issues important to the lives of young black women, including confrontations with sexual violence and western standards of beauty, and integrating into unwelcoming white-dominated spaces.
In these literary works, the maturational process is long, arduous, and often painful, and the protagonist’s objective is to avoid succumbing to the shortcomings of conventional adult life. Many recent male American bildungsromane prove to be less about maturation than celebrations of wanderlust and the unfettered possibilities of young adulthood. Some revel in the pursuit of kicks, the joy and spontaneity of life on the road, and the kinetic energy and recklessness of this phase of life. By contrast, others, especially those by immigrants and marginalized ethnics, are about the traumas of displacement, the challenges of fashioning an identity, and the struggle for acceptance.
In American literature, the effort to preserve youth’s perceived freedoms and romantic dreams has inevitably provided a critical vantage point on adulthood.