CONVENTIONAL wisdom has long decreed that modern adolescence was conceived and defined during the 1950s, the heyday of "American Bandstand," amid the post-World War II economic expansion. But in "Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture," Jon Savage argues that the historical moment when adolescence began to be recognized as a separate phase of life came in the late 19th century.
Savage, author of "England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond," arguably the definitive study of 1970s youth culture, shows in this well-researched, readable new book the "symbiotic relationship between mass media and youth."
From the start, Savage's focus is more sociological than literary. Popular fiction and pulp magazine articles are examined as case histories; studies of juvenile delinquency and the lives of doomed poets are given equal weight. He nods respectfully to French poet Arthur Rimbaud and Romanticism, but his muse is pioneering American psychologist G. Stanley Hall, whose 1904 book "Adolescence" put a name to something that was in the air, but elusive and little understood.
Media sensationalism played a defining role too. Savage cites the case of Jesse Pomeroy, convicted at 15 of brutally murdering two Boston children in 1874. He achieved infamy when his jailhouse letters were serialized in the tabloid press in 1875. And in 1899, when Illinois became the first state to establish a separate court for accused offenders under age 16, it marked a "crucial step in the construction of adolescence as a separate stage of life," Savage writes.
A veteran English journalist, Savage compares and contrasts youthful troublemakers and fledgling criminals of all stripes on both sides of the Atlantic: ruffians and prowlers, hooligans and turf-defending "scuttlers," Mohawk-wearing delinquents in London and the "Apaches" of Paris. "By the time they were in their early 20s," he observes, "they were either in prison or all used up." There are echoes of "Low Life" by Luc Sante and Herbert Asbury's "The Gangs of New York," but Savage looks beyond the underworld, noting the growing number of youthful "porters, domestic servants, errand boys and street sellers" by the early 1900s. This emergence of child labor coincided with a deluge of consumer products aimed at young people, most prominently a new entertainment medium that included the shocking crime stories of British "penny dreadfuls" and uplifting so-called boy books. The new market was not gender-specific. "By the end of the 1900s," Savage reflects, "there were already a bewildering number of products targeted at young women."
But while American youths were being groomed for careers in industry, European teenagers were being programmed for war. "Youth was being energized for conflict, so that they would willingly participate in the sacrifice that was necessary for the twentieth-century world to begin," Savage writes. In Germany, "[y]ears of militaristic agitation and preparation by groups like the Jungdeustchlandbund had turned war into a religious experience."
Even the Boy Scouts in their original British incarnation resembled a paramilitary group: brave, clean, reverent and ready to die for the crown. Here, Savage's spirited reading of source materials captures Scouting's allure for adventurous young men. Boy Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell sounds like a riffing gonzo journalist, the Lester Bangs of nature-guide writing. "Baden-Powell had a talent for intensity that closely corresponded to the heightened sensations of adolescence," the author writes. "His descriptions of tracking techniques had an almost hallucinatory density, while his insistence on the close observation of nature approached the total involvement with the here and now that is the hallmark of Eastern religion."
After World War I, Savage writes, teenagers were ripe for manipulation by political extremists: "By the early 1920s, Mussolini had proved that youth, as an abstract principle and an energetic reality, could be yoked to new parties that, celebrating technology and pagan spectacle, would bypass the traditional ... poles of liberalism and conservatism."
He notes that shell shock was a phenomenon that was "both real -- as evidenced by many disturbed vets -- and metaphorical, with a Europe that oscillated between forgetfulness and frantic displaced hedonism." Bright young things in London and wild cliques in Berlin during the Weimar Republic pushed the envelope of acceptable social behavior. Closer to home, the infamous thrill-killing of a Chicago boy in 1924 by college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb "took the bloom off ... youth culture in the United States."