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 The authoritative father who knows best came under attack as uncommunicative, emotionally withdrawn, and bottled up, while the self-denying, sacrificing mother became not an ideal to emulate, but a cautionary example of how women, mistakenly, forfeited their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.