As Diana West wrote at the beginning of the first chapter of her 2008 book, The Death of the Grown-Up, “Once, there was a world without teenagers. Literally. ‘Teenager,’ the word itself, doesn’t pop into the lexicon much before 1941. This speaks volumes about the last few millennia. In all those many centuries, nobody thought to mention ‘teenagers’ because there was nothing, apparently, to think of mentioning:”
In considering what I like to call “the death of the grown-up,” it’s important to keep a fix on this fact: that for all but this most recent episode of human history, there were children and there were adults. Children in their teen years aspired to adulthood; significantly, they didn’t aspire to adolescence. Certainly, adults didn’t aspire to remain teenagers.
That doesn’t mean youth hasn’t always been a source of adult interest: Just think in five hundred years what Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, Eugene O’Neill, and Leonard Bernstein have done with teen material. But something has changed. Actually, a lot of things have changed. For one thing, turning thirteen, instead of bringing children closer to an adult world, now launches them into a teen universe. For another, due to the permanent hold our culture has placed on the maturation process, that’s where they’re likely to find most adults.
“How did this happen?”, West asks. Well, that’s the topic explored in the first half of her book, before she explores the equation described in its subtitle, “How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization.” (The micro-answer to which involves the infantilizing effects of multiculturalism and moral equivalency.)
But to see the birth of the teenager, one need merely click on this photo essay in today’s London Daily Mail: “Drinking milkshakes, an evening at the drive-in and dancing the night away: Candid pictures capture the birth of the ‘teenage’ generation having a gas in 1940s America.”
In a Twilight Zone, six-degrees of separation kind of way, these images also dovetail with the subtitle of West’s book. As Mark Steyn once wrote, recall what set Osama bin Laden’s mentor off in his feverish hatred of America, only a few years after these wholesome mid-forties photos were taken:
Frank Loesser isn’t as famous a songwriter as Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, but, unlike them, he’s apparently responsible for this whole clash-of- civilizations thing. A few decades back, a young middle-class Egyptian spending some time in the U.S. had the misfortune to be invited to a dance one weekend and was horrified at what he witnessed:
“The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips . . .”
Where was this den of debauchery? Studio 54 in the 1970s? Haight-Ashbury in the summer of love? No, the throbbing pulsating sewer of sin was Greeley, Colo., in 1949. As it happens, Greeley, Colo., in 1949 was a dry town. The dance was a church social. And the feverish music was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written by Frank Loesser and sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the film “Neptune’s Daughter.” Revolted by the experience, Sayyid Qutb decided that America (and modernity in general) was an abomination, returned to Egypt, became the leading intellectual muscle in the Muslim Brotherhood, and set off a chain that led from Qutb to Zawahiri to bin Laden to the Hindu Kush to the Balkans to 9/11.
Incidentally, West’s book is – finally! – now out on Kindle. Also recently published in the Kindle format was The Predator’s Ball, Connie Bruck’s 1989 history of Mike Milken, Drexel Burnham, and Milken’s invention of the organized marketplace for high yield bonds (i.e. “junk bonds”) . So that makes two books I can cross off the list from my January article at the PJ Lifestyle blog on great books missing in the Kindle format.
I’m sure MSNBC will be getting right on that topic. Any day now.