History is the telling of stories about places, people and events. Within each era the people who live their personal stories have their own unique narrative. For each of us, we go through our cultural, familial and genetic rising while bouncing against the events that comprise each of our lives. Central to anyone’s upbringing is his or her coming of age, that point when you move from child to adult. Cultures have built complex ceremonies and celebrations of this passage, as it expects much of its adults and wants the newborn adults to understand the profundity of the arrangement and the responsibilities tied to their arrival into adulthood. How is the present American youth going to celebrate and understand their new version of coming of age?
In my last blog I spoke of the high school freshman. In using that age I opined that each still hoped for a white hat/black hat arrangement to life’s choices. This eludes to the age prior to coming of age, even though we all know they are experimenting with choices beyond their abilities. Adults should appreciate the complexities of life and know the issues one faces makes choice difficult. This is why great literature often attacks this topic and has done so for millennia. This blog will span history’s versions to give a final perspective on the 2017 teens’ issues related to coming of age in America.
In Greek telling, there are dozens of options, but let’s look at two, Icarus (because of his father Daedalus’ complicity in the act) and Telemachus and Mentor. These two stories are parables that are central to the Greek culture in conveying messages for its citizens. With Icarus, his artistic father created wings in order for Icarus to fly. Icarus, in his exuberance, flew too close to the Sun, melting his wings, and he fell to earth. Enough said about autonomy there..stay on the cultural message bud, stay within society’s expectations. Telemachus is looking for help in what to do about his island and his inheritance, but specifically how to resist the intentions and potential danger from the suitors to his mother, Penelope. He is assigned Mentor to help him out, but Athena, the goddess, disguises herself as Mentor to instruct Telemachus about manhood, protecting himself and gathering royal protocols for ruling from other friends of his father. Here the message is the gods take care of royalty, don’t mess with them. And, stay within society’s cultural expectations.
The Medieval coming of age was specifically gender and class related. For the vast majority of males, once you could take on adult responsibilities in a job and had entered puberty, you were treated like an adult and would benefit and suffer all that this meant. No more favors or exceptions granted children. For females, you were even more restricted in this change, though marriage was now an option after puberty, and this was often arranged for you. There was no concept of adolescence, this is a modern idea.
During the Renaissance, humanism was a prominent feature, though class and gender was still dominant in determining outcomes as one passed into adulthood. Humanism only applied to literate nobility. I would like to use Artemisia Gentileschi as a unique example in this discussion, as she was extremely talented and was also exposed to some autonomy in dealing with the opposite sex. Unfortunately, she was raped, humiliated and disgraced. Her father covered for her and she made a comeback of sorts, but the world was still very prescribed. The idea of an individual pursuing his or her own destiny was initiated and will blossom continuing to this day, for better or worse, with all of us tilting at some windmill somewhere.
The Enlightenment example is Voltaire with his story of Candide and Professor Pangloss. The lesson here is that each person is his own advocate. It’s nice to be nice, but Pangloss’ theory that we are in the best of all possible worlds does not hold water for Voltaire. Use evidence, build on experience and be a realist. Candide comes of age in the story, which was banned for its radical message against noble and royal control and bucking the system.
Jane Austen, at the fulcrum of the Enlightenment and the Romantic eras, and a female example in her authorship and main characters, is a great choice. With Catherine Morland and Northanger Abbey, Austen presents a good-natured young lass who also learns from experience and accepts a version of reality. Still, Austen is a spokesperson for change and advocates for more feminist options in her works.
James Joyce returns to symbolism and Greek references with Stephen Dedalus. Here he uses the name of father of Icarus, who was a great artist himself. In Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the world of coming of age takes a radically new approach. His construct using the stream of consciousness to speak to coming of age, where Stephen simply ruminates and the resulting thoughts that arise out of this interaction between the world, and the soul using his mind, if that is an appropriate description of this new genre. Joyce was not a fan of dogmatic religion, which is central to Stephen’s thinking. But, sin is also prominent in his life, as is the pursuit of pleasure, often at someone else’s expense. In post-pubescent Stephen, he must face all the questions we all do. Joyce opines that we are responsible for the outcome and it is not a libertarian solution he seeks, even if he wanted his fellow Irishmen and others to shun the church’s simplistic control.
We can’t leave our discussion without using J.D. Salinger. Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye is the consummate story of coming of age in the modern era in America. Caulfield is a product of a world torn asunder in war, in societal changes and with the impending revolution of which the novel is a harbinger. What we must assess in looking back the three generations that have spanned its penning and our own present day is the growing self-centered nature of the American citizen. At least that is my own assessment when comparing us and our unique status in world statistics. Return again, as I did in my last blog, to Jeff Daniels. Today’s youth is fully aware of Salinger, Plath and Trump as they assess their own situations.
A little later in the century, we return to a more recent female voice with Sylvia Plath. Her Esther Greenwood in the Bell Jar is torn with all the issues always facing everyone in the postwar world, though more specifically a female’s perspective. Yet, here the issues are treated with a more modern sensibility. Suicide is not the normal topic of a novel, but in the post-war world, and for a female who was obviously quite sensitive to the experiences of the Cold War, rising feminism and the overwhelming injustices occurring in this world, the only one she knew, she became ultimately overwhelmed. It is a unique perspective to have a 20th century female write about going to Hell and back and then to turn out the light. To quote a NYTimes review, a review written in 1971, “that insanity is the only sane reaction to the America of the past two decades”, speaks to the issue of sanity in today’s world. How is the 2017 Sylvia Plath doing in America based on the past two decades?
Harry Potter is part of the reaction to this world. Combining the various mythologies and hoping as children that you can use magic to deal with the evils of the world is a great coming of age thematic. It made a great deal of money, but here we are in the world….without the magic to make a difference. We need just good old-fashioned involvement, a bit more education of the non-Betsy Vos type, and hopefully this new generation can alter the ship of state. The past three generations’ experiences and choices are not sustainable, one of my three favorite words for the coming of age group to learn. A magic wand will be useless.
Another example of a coming of age story for our times, but one whose perspective is specific to the black American culture and is also a history of black lives in this country is Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. Here we have a father speaking to his teenage son and explaining what it was like for him to come of age. But, the perspective is not universal, but one of a man of color. We all must know this story in order to participate in a rehabilitation of the nation that includes embracing our racist past in order to make a more perfect union. No black kid should come of age like this anymore.
Before leaving the exemplar section of this blog to get to the current adolescents’ paradigm of coming of age in America, I would be remiss without discussing the acceptance in many areas of America of the homosexual life in telling this story. Gender issues have become more mainstream and more accepted as a result of the Obama/Biden White House. Of course, it is still illegal to for homosexuals to marry in many states and the conservative churches have not yet embraced the gender choices of the LGBT community. The new movie Love, Simon is going to give a more mainstream portrayal to the American public, but I suspect it will be received here based on the Trump voting pattern throughout the country. I offer this review of Call Me By Your Name, another story of coming of age in the 1980s written in 2007 and recently adapted for film that is filled with complex issues. The review is intriguing as it comes from an Indonesian reviewer. Talk about the global nature of this discussion…that is what intrigues me. The issue of coming of age for a homosexual individual needs its own blog in many ways, though the universal nature of the sexuality is relevant on all levels here.
So, here we are in 2017. Today’s American youth face so much that is pushing their envelopes. I feel for them and naivety is not so easy to maintain for a preteen, let alone those entering the true coming of age. My thoughts, though, turn to the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. The horrific intrusion into their already impressed lives has forced them into a world that no one should have to endure. But, it is a world that hints back to that Jeff Daniels speech and could lead them all to a world of dispirited cynicism. I hope not. Look at the wonderful efforts they have taken to establish their voices and take on that adult world. Recent events and their reaction have been leading them towards an adulthood they want to see ended. That they will be legally adult in America, taking on the vote and exercising their franchise this November is the true measure of their legal status and I’m glad of it. Yet, the other factors in coming of age- sexuality, moral choices and dealing with the other, as each of us must deal with sharing our world in all ways- has now be affected by this incident and they are no longer innocent of some of life’s most profound issues. I wish them all the best in their efforts to impact it as adolescents rising towards legal adulthood. They are demonstrating a maturity and wisdom that is far beyond many of the adults who are attacking their efforts.