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Obedient Sons: The Discourse of Youth and Generations in American Culture, 1630-1860.

By Glenn Wallach (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. ix plus 265pp. $29.95).

Claiming that much scholarship on youth, generations, and the family produced since the 1960s has been founded on theories that - while illuminating - are nonetheless of nineteenth and twentieth century origins, Glenn Wallach proposes to reveal "an earlier way of seeing the world that such approaches obscure." (p. 9) Let the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century inform the present: unraveling the "mess of meanings in the discourse of youth and generations" between 1630 and 1860 will reveal the contradictory expectations of youth embedded in discourses on terms such as "Generation X." (p. 9) In only 162 pages, Wallach, promising to consider region, race, gender, and class, analyzes the formation, re-formation, and circulation of this discourse concerned with youth responsibility and creativity.

Wallach narrows this very broad subject at the outset. Not a study of youth experience, Obedient Sons does not compare the "young people of the past and youth of the present." (p. 2) It compares how youth has been "imagined and explained" in American culture. (p. 2) He focuses on discourses originating in northern and Atlantic urban settings, which were purveyed by middle-class, white men concerned with "the definition of manhood in society." (p. 8) Demonstrating impressive familiarity with documentary sources and a wide array of historical scholarship, Wallach argues that languages of youth and generations "mingled in a wide variety of literature and oratory" to yoke "conservative motivations ... to an activist vision" and to balance "the fear of disruption and the promise of growth." (p. 7)

Rhetorical elements of the discourse of generations had their origins in the Old Testament, the Protestant Reformation, and Renaissance Europe. But the discourse first formed in early New England. Wallach writes that the "seeds of generational rhetoric were planted" by these late medieval and early modern movements. The Hebrew word for generation, dor, appears throughout the Old Testament, and John Cotton employed generational declension rhetoric in his farewell sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. But New England's second generation ministers constructed an ideal, monumental, and exemplary image of their colonies' forebears. Wallach argues against Emory Elliot and Werner Sollers, in whose revisions of Perry Miller's declension model the jeremiads are represented as mythological or as reflections of psychic stress. New England's ministers did not create their fathers. They devised "a way of seeing the world" that stressed succession and the transmission of early settlement values.

Yet Wallach is not reviving Miller. Concerned more with generational responsibility than an eschatological obsession with decline, the discourse on "youth" and the "Rising Generation" encompassed social and political training that extended beyond jeremiads. Equated with disorder, young men and women were the target of prescriptive literature and expected to be dutiful and grateful toward their parents. When the young wandered from such prescriptions they were sometimes defamed by their elders, as Thomas Prince, Jr., of Boston learned in the 1740s when his newspaper debate with opponents of the Great Awakening revivals occasionally shifted focus to impugn his manhood.

"America emerged from the Revolution imagined in terms of age," Wallach claims. (p. 48) The new republic existed in a new historical epoch - one that transformed the discourse of youth and generations. With varying success Wallach argues that the discourse of youth and generations influenced Shay's rebellion (young men defending a revolution most had not fought) and complemented the Republican Mother ideology. Most importantly, American youths emerged from the revolutionary era invested with greater significance for the future even as they remained subordinated. In the decades following these transformations, the discourse affected many other areas of American life: young men's clubs, for example, successfully promoted their members in politics by appealing to youth responsibility for commemorating the heroic revolutionary fathers - thereby deflecting their elders' objections to their political activities.

In a particularly interesting chapter, Wallach outlines how early Republican prescriptions for commemoration and preservation were inverted by antebellum men working under the rubric of "Young America." Emerson's 1844 lecture on "The Young American," the stringent and nativist literary nationalists, and the political Young America movement are all cited by Wallach as examples of how white American men attempted to purify themselves not only of foreign influence but of the influence of "Old Fogys" as well. Instead of obedience that yielded preservation, obedience "to the founders' ideals was to reject those saying 'they did well - we can do no more.'" (p. 138) One needed to harken back to the founders in order to reject the traditionalists who constantly summoned the founders' memory as a restraining example for youth.

The continued presence of this discourse after the Civil War is the theme of Wallach's epilogue. Randolph Bourne, the Young Intellectuals, the Lost Generation, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies, and Generation X all were enfolded within a discourse that constituted them as units and framed their activity in relation to both tradition and creativity.

Anyone who reads this book - or judges it by its subtitle - and expects a Foucauldian or a post-structuralist interpretation of discourse and power will probably be disappointed. Wallach cites Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge in his very long and detailed endnotes and bibliography, but he establishes a rather awkward distinction between representation and "actual individual experience" early in his argument that makes an interpretation of the discourse's position within the field of social power relations difficult.

Presumably, a Foucauldian approach falls into Wallach's category of nineteenth and twentieth century approaches that obscure as much as they illuminate. However, such an analysis might have resolved the difficulty Wallach has in integrating his brief but interesting discussions of gender, women, and African Americans into his framework. Wallach emphasizes the statements of white middle-class men, but a more diverse range of voices would have deepened his analysis of the discourse. Did these men and women perpetuate their own subjugation even in efforts to achieve inclusion or contest exclusion? Wallach only suggests possibilities. A more direct engagement of the relationship between discourse and social power would have made this brief book a more impressive accomplishment than it already is.

James O'Neil Spady The College of William and Mary
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Spady, James O'Neil
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
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