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The Fin-De-Siecle Culture of Adolescence.

One of Neubauer's major contentions that "in the decades around 1900 adolescence 'came of age'" is well supported by the previous works of John Gillis, John Springhall, Harry Hendrick, Carol Dyhouse, Joseph Kett, and others. Most would also agree that the concept changed from being merely an "idea" to a "social fact" with important implications for social policy only after the turn of the century (David Bakan, Hendrick, Springhall, Kett). But Neubauer's concentration on discourse theory adds a new literary dimension to the hypothesis. As he writes, " . . . interlocking discourses about adolescence emerged in psychoanalysis, psychology, criminal justice, pedagogy, sociology, as well as in literature" at the tum of the century (6).

In the debate over the importance of language versus "facts," Neubauer takes his argument one step further by claiming that "socioeconomic 'realities' are constantly affected by mental attitudes, by the linguistic and semiotic conceptualizations that people impose upon their otherwise chaotic impressions" (9). With these words Neubauer challenges those who would contend that only economic and social changes bring about new social realities. In fact, Neubauer would argue that the "culture of adolescence" has only limited connections to the "statistical correctness of the image" (2). He adds further, "'concrete' realities do not fully come into existence until they become conceptualized . . . their full 'reality' involves inclusion in discourse, for only then can they be discussed and acted upon" (5).

To support his position, Neubauer contends that "literary images become active in the social construction of reality," because literature responds to previous writing as much as it does to social experience. Characteristics that some have associated with adolescence such as identity crisis, generational conflicts, processes of maturation and initiation rites, were according to Neubauer, "traditional themes of literature well before adolescence as we know it emerged" (75). These themes influenced the way society perceived adolescence (11). For example, in regard to adolescent suicide, Neubauer argues that "literature did anticipate the scientific concern and significantly fashioned the way those (quite unreliable) statistics were perceived and understood" (207).

It is Neubauer's explanation for the fin-de-siecle predominance of the adolescent image that I find least convincing. He argues that "the age focused on adolescence because it found therein a mirror of its own uneasiness with its heritage, its crisis of identity" diagnosed by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Freud (10). Writers such as Wedekind, Barres, Kipling, Mann, Joyce thematized adolescence beginning about 1890. But the characteristics they highlighted--identity crisis, generational conflict--were not, as Neubauer himself (11) and many others have shown, the issues that most instructed those child savers who carved out an adolescent life stage for the masses. The only similarity is that both recognized "the special problems of an age we call adolescence" (3). Neubauer also employs an outmoded recapitulation theory advanced by G. Stanley Hall to show that "patterns of repetition continually shaped individual lives and group behavior in the two most important new social movements of adolescence, the Wandervogel and the Boy Scouts" (209). Students of the adolescent experience no longer view the Wandervogel as more than a socially marginal movement and the Boy Scouts as primarily an organization for the middle class.

By restricting his analysis to middle-class youth, Neubauer overlooks what many scholars (Hendrick, Linton, Humphries, and Springhall) contend to be the major reason that the adolescent concept became a significant social fact: the fear engendered by the growing numbers and perceived precocity/independence of working-class youth in the urban environment. Therefore, Neubauer pays little attention to the class, legal and pedagogical (especially vocational) aspects of the images. Nor does he attempt to get at the perceptions of the "child savers," who were primarily concerned with lower-class youth, except to briefly reject them.

Neubauer also overlooks what I believe to be a change in perception that took place between 1880 and 1914. The anxiety and fear that had characterized social leaders' attitudes towards adolescents in the late nineteenth century gave way in the early twentieth century to a concerned and caring attitude. While late nineteenth-century leaders wanted to control and when necessary incarcerate adolescents, social attitudes changed in the early twentieth century with the development of the social sciences, especially child psychology (Hall, J. G. Slaughter, Thomas Clouston, Gabriel Compayre, Pierre Mendousse, Eduard Spranger, etc.) and social welfare institutions, to socializing and educating them. The adolescent image shifted from one primarily associated with physical changes accompanying puberty to psychological images (vulnerability, malleability, creative potential, emotional change). Adolescence became a socially accepted stage of life only after the turn of the century as societies attempted to make this age cohort physically capable, socially acceptable and politically reliable.

Neubauer is right to stress the role of discourse in transforming ideas into social reality but his concentration on the literary evidence has led him to overlook and minimize other factors in the construction of the adolescent life phase. Neubauer's own observations are perhaps the best conclusion to this review: "much more could still be said. Tackling problems of history, culture, and literature is an endless task, just as mastering adolescence is" (12).

Robert Wegs University of Notre Dame
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Author:Wegs, Robert
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
Words:845
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