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Teen spirit

Tracing the roots of today's 'product-hungry' adolescents to young rebels of the past

Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture
By Jon Savage
Viking, 551 pp., illustrated, $29.95

In 1904 , in a massive tome of nearly 1,500 pages, psychologist G. Stanley Hall provided the first systematic definition of adolescence. Between the ages of 14 and 24, Hall wrote, boys and girls were governed by "the sex impulse." Emotionally unstable, they had "a natural impulse to experience hot and perfervid psychic states." Taught by his Victorian parents to refer to genitals as "the dirty place," Hall advised adults to accept sexuality as "natural" and treat their children with sympathy, appreciation, and respect. In "Adolescence," he supported a socially sanctioned prolongation of "the pause between childhood and adulthood" -- through compulsory attendance in high school until age 16. The most civilized nations, Hall concluded, provided leisure, repose, and romance to youngsters before subjecting them to the relentless responsibilities of industrial life.

The vitality and volatility of adolescents were equally evident in Europe at the turn of the century. Arthur Rimbaud , the incarnation of French decadence, embraced a new sensibility, "Jeunesse," "the endless egotism of youth." To young people in Italy, wrote Giovanni Papini, "every old man is the enemy; every idea is suspect . . . past history seems a long night broken only by lamps, [an] impatient waiting."

And so, Jon Savage asserts, youth culture emerged long before hot rods, rock 'n' roll, and rebels without causes. In "Teenage," he traces this "prehistory" in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany. A writer on music and popular culture for British and American publications, Savage emphasizes the struggle to "conceptualize, define, and control adolescence" between 1875 and 1950. The ideal of youth as a separate class, with its own institutions and values, he suggests, clashed often with economic and social realities and brute political and military force. Eventually, young people got a hearing, though not wholly on their own terms.

"Teenage" is sprawling, episodic, and sometimes thematically muddled. But Savage has a keen instinct for the apt anecdote and the encapsulating quotation. In the 1940s, he notes, zoot suiters took their name from the lyrics to a song by Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard : "I wanna zoot suit with a reet pleat / With a drape shape and a stuff cuff / To look sharp enough to see my Sunday girl." Their counterparts in France, the Zazous (named for Calloway's record "Zah Zuh Zah"), listened to jazz and swing, wore extravagant clothes, twirled yo-yos, and flirted "like there was no tomorrow."

Savage shows how the Fascists targeted aggressive and impressionable adolescents by offering commitment to replace their (superficial) alienation. Italy, said Benito Mussolini, was no longer held back by "the mildew of the old ideas, the venerable beard of the old men, the hierarchy of conventional values, but there is youth, there is impetuousness and faith." By the end of 1933, 3.5 million Germans had joined the Hitler Youth. "Tough as leather, swift as greyhounds, hard as Krupp steel," they trained for sports competition and combat. Sometimes, they spied on their parents. "I am beginning with the young," the Führer proclaimed. Adults bear "the burden of a humiliating past, and have in our blood the dull reflection of serfdom and servility. But my magnificent youngsters! . . . What material! With them I can make a new world."

Savage provides details about attempts in democracies as well as dictatorships to discipline youth. In the 1920s, the Ladies' Home Journal castigated anyone who claimed that young people suffer no harm when they " ' mingle in close embrace ' -- with limbs intertwined and torso in contact," undulating to the "sensuous stimulation of the abominable big jazz orchestra." Concerned about an epidemic of delinquency, the Los Angeles city council banned the zoot as a "badge of hoodlumism" in 1943. Two weeks later a Detroit race riot took 34 lives . In Germany, Heinrich Himmler ordered ringleaders spreading "the contagion" of swing music sent to concentration camps. The boys were thrashed, the girls assigned weaving and farm labor. In Nazi-occupied France, hundreds of Zazous were arrested, their heads shaved, and the rest driven underground.

In "Teenage," Savage appears to assume that just about everything young people did -- and much of what was done to them -- laid the foundation for the emergence of the teenager as an icon after World War II. And many of Savage's subjects are not teenagers. Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz, and the Boy Scouts don't really belong in this book. Nor do Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who charmed middle-aged movie goers. Savage indicates that World War I killed romanticism in England (and the United States), leaving once - authoritative elders in disgrace. He mentions only in passing that the victims of the generational holocaust of the war tended to be 20-somethings. And there weren't any teenagers in the White Rose, the group of students from Munich University who distributed leaflets protesting the murder of Polish Jews in the early 1940s .

Well before 1875, moreover, young people stood out, for good and ill. In the 1840s, for example, New York's Bowery B'hoys symbolized a new class of high-spirited, raucous, urban laborers, working perhaps as clerks, fighting fires for their volunteer hook-and-ladder companies , swaggering through the streets of the East Side each night with their gals. And the mid-19th-century Young America Movement , chafing at the timorousness of politicians, staked out its claim to control the nation's expansive Manifest Destiny. In almost every decade, then, generational battle lines have been drawn. Savage acknowledges that the young have "always been held to embody an auspicious future." He doesn't quite delineate what's distinctive about the period covered in his book.

In 1945, Savage concludes, "the many possible interpretations of youth had been boiled down to just one: the adolescent consumer." With a convergence of "peer pressure, individual desires, and savvy marketing," the Teen Age ordered the post war world around pleasure and acquisition. Perhaps. But "Teenager" does not provide a rigorous explanation for why "teenagers" emerged when they did -- and commodification became their defining characteristic.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.