Teenage is the latest offering by British music journalist, Jon Savage, who is famous for the acclaimed England's Dreaming, a history of punk rock focused around the Sex Pistols. Savage lived the punk history he wrote about --he started a fanzine in the mid-70s and worked for many of the major British music papers --but in Teenage, he plumbs into history his father and grandfather may have lived.
The book arose out of a failed television documentary project which Savage worked on at Granada television in the early 1980s. The planned series would have examined post-WWII youth culture, but even though it was cancelled, his interest was captured and he continued to gather the materials that would eventually contribute to Teenage. This material made clear that the notion of a specific, distinguishable stage of life in the teen years had a history that extended back considerably beyond WWII. The themes that compose our modern notion of 'the teenager' seem to have been constructed historically out of precursors dating back into the Nineteenth Century and beyond.
Savage sets the scope of his history to begin in 1875, with two exemplary biographies, one of an American juvenile delinquent on trial for murder, and another of a highly Romantic French-Russian girl whose published diary was a sensation in late Nineteenth Century Europe. Together they represent iconic poles of the image of youth: on the one hand, moody striving to combine the glamour of youth with adult privilege, and on the other, threatening lawlessness not yet conditioned to adult responsibility. Savage's history closes with the end of WWII, when the notion of this distinct stage of life attained wide-spread recognition. Within these brackets, he consults a wide range of sources, from psycho-socio-logical texts to popular literature and film, from government commission reports to testimonial, and from news copy to autobiography. Providing a wealth of detail, his chapters cycle through examination of the four main national stages of his history: America, England, France and Germany. Each chapter draws upon analysis of a variety of sources to gauge the Zeitgeist of youth in each locale, and in each of the seven time periods into which Savage divides the seventy years he covers. Naturally, it would be worse than pointless to attempt to cover this detail in a review, but there are at least three themes that shape the notion of 'the teenage' worth remarking.
First, youth appears throughout the book as a social threat to be controlled. Much of the material for Teenage comes from the study of youth as a problem in official papers, social studies and law enforcement documents. The later moral panic of the Mods and Rockers had many precedents going back to the Nineteenth Century, from gangs of lower-class children threatening street violence to children of the privileged violating their parents mores and expectations in a bid for greater self-determination. Savage reveals that part of the problem was stress on parents. The conditions of the working poor in the late Nineteenth, early Twentieth Centuries and the removal of fathers from the home in the World Wars freed a large group of children from adult scrutiny and predictably, they ran amok. But following WWI, a rebellion of youth was afoot, against the 'old men' who had destroyed Europe along with any credible belief in the pre-war order. The 1920s became a time of youth self-exploration in open rejection of their parent's world, and needless to say, the 'old men' were not pleased.
Most chilling of all, and most bitterly ironic in light of the wide-spread impression of a juvenile threat, the second notable theme highlights the willingness of the adult authorities to sacrifice their children as fodder for the war machine of World War. Savage documents the elevated rhetoric of heroic sacrifice during WWI, which sent increasingly younger and younger boys to their deaths in the trenches. For a true taste of horror, though, one has to turn to the Hitler Youth of WWII: the Nazis deliberately campaigned to bring control of all youth training and education under the control of the party. Indeed, it would seem that the success of the Nazi regime turned significantly on their control over youth, as this provided them with a ready constituency, a populous trained and eager for the outbreak of war, and unquestioning child-zealots to carry out the nihilistic bloodbath of the last months of the war in Europe.
Less dark, but little less ominous, in the third and final theme, Savage shows how commercial interests have had a hand in the creation of the contemporary idea of youth. Scarcely did the young come into an extra cent of wealth than did a new means of divesting them of it come into being. As youth managed to wrest an increment of self-direction from their parents, they seemed only to fall more completely under the control of the consumer economy, becoming the ideal target market for business and advertising. The content of youth culture has been largely marketed to them, even if reciprocally shaped by consumer survey. One would have to say that contemporary youth, as a distinct stage of life, is the creation of a social world driven by consumption, though no doubt, there are struggles for self-determination that have been waged against this as well as against the adult world.
These three themes alone surely must suffice to sell the book to the current generation of youth, for reflection upon them cannot but give one pause in considering the place of youth in the contemporary world. For that matter, any sensate person must see the significance of Savage's efforts in providing the means for distancing oneself from the compulsion of present ideas, and revealing their roots in the past. This is much needed in a world so thoroughly ahistorical as contemporary North America.
Despite dark moments, Teenage is a very enjoyable read. Savage presents a mass of detail, but never bogs down or bores the reader. The analysis lightly done, consistent with a pop history, but there are good notes on sources for the more analytically-inclined reader. As suggested, young people primarily should read this book, and it is by no means out of their range. But anyone working with children would gain a great deal in the way of comprehending the consumer pressure on youth, contemporary anxiety over the behaviour of youth and the conflicted relationship between adults and the young.
© 2007 George Williamson
George Williamson, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada
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