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by Christopher Noxon

Hardcover, 275 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $23.95 |


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Book Summary

Explores the ways in which a new breed of adult that is reluctant to grow up is transforming American culture, examining manifestations of the phenomenon and how it affects business, family relationships, and recreational activities.

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Excerpt: Rejuvenile

ONE: Roots of the rejuvenile


Before he was a cash cow for Walt Disney, an inspiration for Steven Spielberg, and an obsession for Michael Jackson, Peter Pan was simply a revelation. When J. M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, subtitled The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, opened at the Duke of York Theater in 1904, it announced the arrival of something entirely new. The theatrical fashion of the time was for so-called problem plays, heart-wrenching melodramas that dealt with social ills and political complexities. Parting that gloom was Barrie's tale of a flying boy, his fairy sidekick, and their adventures in a faraway land where children remained children forever. Part farce, part pantomime, part inside joke, Peter Pan was a tale of pirates and fairies told in the sophisticated language of adults. Based on tall tales Barrie spun to amuse the five sons of a local barrister--his favorite being a rascal called George whom he met in Kensington Gardens when the boy was all of five--Peter Pan was the sort of cross-generational sensation that would become a model for mass entertainments of the next one hundred years.

First of the preteen heroes, Peter Pan attracted a rabid following of young matinee fans. But his real power was over a generation raised on fairy tales and nonsense rhymes and now anxiously adjusting to the social changes and gadgetry of a new century. On the night of the premiere, according to Barrie biographer Andrew Birkin, "the elite of London society, with few children among them, emulated Sentimental Tommy by 'flinging off the years and whistling childhood back.'" Wistful, lighthearted, and condemned by a chorus of critics who saw no good in such open celebration of childishness, Peter Pan was the first of the rejuvenile blockbusters.

Peter Pan was all the more resonant because it was the product of a celebrated public figure who shared his hero's deep ambivalence about adulthood. James Matthew Barrie was a small and moody Scotsman with a bushy mustache and no interest whatsoever in growing up in any conventional sense. Of this, he'd apparently always been sure. "Greatest horror--dream that I am married--wake up screaming," the eighteen-year-old wrote in his college diary. "Grow up and have to give up marbles--awful thought." While Barrie eventually did get married, to a comely stage actress named Mary Ansell, he made few other concessions to adulthood. When he wasn't locked away in his study, Barrie liked nothing more than practicing magic tricks, wrestling his giant St. Bernard, and most of all, playing with the sons of barrister Llewelyn Davies, whom he dressed as pirates, wrote stories for and about, and kept entertained with his vast knowledge of cricket, fishing, and Sir Walter Scott.

There has never been any evidence that Barrie's relationship with the Davies boys was anything but friendly, but their closeness has nonetheless prompted psychoanalytic suspicion and prurient interest ever since. Critics have scoured his biography for clues to explain Barrie's lifelong fight against traditional adulthood. Was he stunted by the death of his older brother, the doting of his indulgent mother, or the rejection of his loveless wife? All those things undoubtedly had a profound impact on Barrie, but one ultimately learns very little attempting to attach this misery or that to his rejuvenile tendencies. Barrie's legacy has less to do with his private sorrow than his articulation of childhood as a poetic and primitive life force that can linger long after its expected expiration. More than a fairy tale, Peter Pan announced the arrival of a new and enduring breed of adult.

The Invention of Adulthood

When I set out to learn about the roots of the rejuvenile, I didn't expect to find much. I figured a quick historical survey would turn up little scraps here and there--a few childish eccentrics in ancient Rome, maybe a popular children's game in Colonial America, perhaps a juvenile fashion craze from the 1920s. But early in my search for historical precedents, one thing became clear: This has all happened before. In seemingly every book I opened on social history, children's literature, or popular culture, I landed again and again on parallels from the same few decades. 1865: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is embraced by children and adults. 1893: Grown-ups flock to the first amusement park at the World's Fair in Chicago. 1893: The first newspaper comic strip, featuring a one-toothed, bald-headed ragamuffin called the Yellow Kid, is published. 1907: The Scouting movement is founded by a self-described "boy-man." And at the very peak of that kidcentric period was the 1902 premiere of Peter Pan, which neatly summed up the myth of the eternal child.

For rejuveniles today, all roads lead back to Peter Pan and the turn of the twentieth century. The natural capacities of children, which for centuries had been viewed as weak and wayward, were over the course of these few years discovered as a primary source of inspiration and profit. It would be another century before the rejuvenile rebellion we know today, but resistance to what historian Woody Register calls "the enfeebling prudence, restraint and solemnity of growing up" began here, with the first flight of Pan and the dawn of the twentieth century.

The temptation today is to think of adulthood as a historic and natural fact. In a 2004 essay on "The Perpetual Adolescent," Joseph Epstein wrote that historically, adulthood was treated as the "lengthiest and most earnest part of life, where everything serious happened." To stray outside the defined boundaries of adulthood, he wrote, was "to go against what was natural and thereby to appear unseemly, to put one's world somehow out of joint, to be, let's face it, a touch, and perhaps more than a touch, grotesque." A quick survey of history, however, reveals that adulthood is neither as ingrained or ancient as Epstein and other Harrumphing Codgers assume. Before the Industrial Revolution, no one thought much about adulthood, and even less about childhood. In sixteenth-century Europe, for instance, "children shared the same games with adults, the same toys, the same fairy stories. They lived their lives together, never apart," notes historian J. H. Plumb.

This shouldn't suggest that people in olden times didn't distinguish between kids and grown-ups. Of course they did. The distinction forms the basis of rites of passage that are as old as human history, as well as some of more recent vintage. Amazonian initiation rites, Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Muslim Khtme Qur'ans, Christian confirmations, American debutante balls--all serve the same basic function: to formally announce the end of childhood and the assumption of new duties and freedoms. It's a mistake, though, to confuse maturity with adulthood. The maturity celebrated in traditional rites of passage--assured variously by the onset of menstruation, the acquisition of literacy, or the ability to stalk and slit the throat of a large prairie mammal--is not the same thing as the idea of adulthood hatched a century ago by a coterie of Victorian clergymen and society ladies. Maturity is old. "Adulthood" is new.

The fact is that, for most of human history, age simply didn't matter much. Everyone from Aristotle to Dante had idly puzzled over the comparable merits of each stage of life, with an obviously middle-aged Aristotle arguing that middle age was best, since young people exhibited too much trust and old people too little. But such distinctions were mostly made by philosophers; for average people, age was more a matter of biology than identity.

Children got the hard end of this bargain. For more than two thousand years, from antiquity to the eighteenth century, children had little of the special status they now enjoy. Young people were mostly treated as deficient, imperfect creatures whose lives and interests were largely unimportant and certainly nothing any adult would want to emulate. There's some disagreement about precisely when adults first developed an awareness and feeling for childhood. French historian Philippe Aries's seminal 1961 book Centuries of Childhood held that childhood was "discovered" between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries; other scholars have pointed to eighth-century monks who wrote admiringly of children's capacity for wisdom and honesty.

In any case, it's clear that today's obsession with the moral and physical development of children is relatively new. As recently as the eighteenth century, the word childhood was understood to mean littleness, immaturity, irresponsibility, helplessness, and irrationality--qualities that adults actively sought to restrain in their offspring and suppress in themselves. Partially, this low status was a product of hard biological and social realities; life spans were relatively brief and rates of infant mortality were so high that parents often had seven or eight children in the hopes that one or two would survive. "People could not allow themselves to become too attached to something they regarded as a probable loss," Aries wrote. Even those children who survived the perils of nature sometimes didn't survive their elders; infanticide was a routine and often legal practice through the Middle Ages. The depiction of children in medieval paintings offers an eerie demonstration of the perspective informing such atrocities--children appear as genderless and shrunken, with the extended limbs and mature features of people three times their size.

It's hard to figure which was worse: this sort of confused disregard, or the equally common notion that children--indeed, childhood itself--were inherently depraved. Seventeenth-century Puritans called children "young vipers" and "filthy bundles of original sin." French cleric Pierre de Berulle put it succinctly, writing that childhood is "the most vile and abject state of human nature, after that of death." The best a child could hope for was to be born to a relatively enlightened parent like Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, who extolled the entertainment value of children, saying they could be valuable to adults "for our amusement, like monkeys."

It's no wonder then that adults felt no need to revisit a period either completely disregarded or derided as wretched at the core. This conventional wisdom also helps explain why children grew up so much more quickly in centuries past. While it's now common for people to spend much of their twenties and thirties anguishing over when (or if) they'll reach adulthood, for most of human history people were thrust into fully adult roles at a truly tender age. Children as young as six were hustled off to work in eighteenth-century England. A sixteen-year-old Caucasian boy who today would be lucky to find work as a fry cook had, as recently as 1750, all the rights and responsibilities of a full-grown man--he could enter contracts, enlist in the army, even work as a physician. Girls of the same period obviously had fewer choices but were similarly hustled into maturity; American common law of Colonial times held that girls were fit for marriage at the age of seven.

What historian Howard Chudacoff calls "age consciousness" blossomed in the 1800s, as people who grew up in an agrarian society moved into cities, took jobs in offices and factories, enrolled their children in public schools, and began to sample the products of a new mass media. In this new modern world, how old you were suddenly took on all sorts of new meanings. In premodern America, many people didn't even know how old they were; now birthday celebrations were treated as important holidays. At the same time, the idea of age-appropriate activity took hold, encouraging parents to enroll children in age-based grades in school and buy books and periodicals written specifically for children, adolescents, and young adults.

This emphasis on age formed one basis for new Victorian notions of etiquette in an era when propriety was endlessly analyzed and debated. Mainly, these new codes of conduct dealt with class distinctions and gender roles. But the nineteenth-century preoccupation with correct behavior also resulted in a novel organizing principle: adulthood. The word adult can be traced back to the 1500s but didn't gain currency until the 1700s. It quickly became synonymous with Victorian ideals of "character," such as obligation, integrity, manners, duty, service, honor, and, above all, self-control. While adulthood was a mark of moral virtue, it was also a product of economic necessity. You were an adult when you could provide for yourself and your family, when you met the job requirements for a new urban industrial economy.

And from the start, adulthood was conceived as a perilous, deadly serious business. "The only safety for man or woman is to do exactly right" was the advice to youngsters in the popular 1889 family magazine Worthington Annual. "The least deviation from the path of rectitude may lead to the direst disaster." Those who wished to avoid ruin were urged to conform to a set of standards meant to encourage civility, consideration, and charity, but which in retrospect appear about as natural and forgiving as the rib cage-crushing corsets of the era.

The spirit of adulthood is best appreciated by perusing a class of literature that was first embraced at the close of the nineteenth century: etiquette books. The first popular guides for manners appeared in the 1830s; by the turn of the century, etiquette was an American industry, with an average of six new titles appearing every year advising readers how to speak, dress, play, work, walk, eat--even think. Readers of all ages and classes could find codes of conduct in titles including Manners for Men, How to Be a Lady, Behave: Papers on Children's Etiquette, and The Negro in Etiquette: A Novelty. They ranged in heft and price from an 872-page tome known as The Encyclopaedia of Business and Social Norms to slim volumes that could be had at newsstands for a dime. Taken together, they represented how-to guides for would-be adults. The modern gentleman or lady, decreed these new arbiters of correct behavior, must constantly struggle to suppress habits of spontaneity, emotion, impulsiveness--in short, anything at all childish.

Self-control, formality, and seriousness were core values of the new adult character. A proper gentleman, advised the 1890 family magazine Sunday Chatterbox, "is not easily led astray by dreamy and speculative people . . . He very rarely, if ever, makes a fool of himself--this is a great thing to say of a man." Young women meanwhile were advised to associate only "with those who are truly serious . . . Nothing is more unbecoming than trifling, giggling, and talking nonsense to each other." Adults of both genders should keep a tight lid on any "undue emotion, whether of laughter, of anger, or of mortification," advised John Young in his 1883 book Manners, Etiquette and Deportment. "Keep yourself quiet and composed under all circumstances," he continued. At the dinner table, readers were cautioned to avoid jokes, anecdotes, or linguistic flights of fancy ("Puns are always regarded as vulgar," he sniffed).