THE ADOLESCENT IDEA: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination by Patricia Meyer Spacks

THE ADOLESCENT IDEA: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination

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The title suggests a splendid quarry--but, alas Spacks limits her hunting to English novels (and various tracts and non-fictional books on adolescence). So there's nothing here about Werther, Emma Bovary, or FrÉdÉric Moreau, Huckleberry Finn, Isabel Archer, Proust's ""Marcel,"" etc., etc.; nor does Spacks provide the sort of historical background (social, economic, and demographic trends) that night outline and illuminate her largely psychological analyses. Instead, she offers myriad observations on the ways writers from Richardson to Burgess treat the problems of growing up, and especially the conflicts between adolescents and grown-ups--observations that are almost invariably shrewd and fairminded, but that often don't cohere into firmly drawn patterns. At the very end Spacks notes that from the 1740s to the 1960s we see ""a movement toward increasingly intense identification"" by novelists with the young. With the spread of alienation, the outsider status of adolescents may become a heroic refusal to belong, which adult writers can admire (The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, A Clockwork Orange), even if ambivalently. But apart from a few such generalizations, Spacks prefers detailed snapshots to the big picture. She carefully draws the lessons, stated, implied, and subliminal, of novels like Pamela (""If Pamela loses real power in marriage, she gains the social power she wants""), Mrs. Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (""the systematic association of virtue with repression and depression""), or Martha Quest (""Sexuality, no longer a concealed locus of power, makes little happen""). Spacks is perhaps at her best in capturing the complex blend of envy, anxiety, love, and the will to control that informs adult behavior toward teenagers; and of course she doesn't have to go far for rich literary examples of this, from The Vicar of Wakefield to Sons and Lovers. For readers more or less versed in the texts she discusses, a rewarding study, with the virtues as well as the vices of its modest scope.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Basic Books