The Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence
By Kent Baxter. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0817316266, $39.95. 232 pages.
Review by Stephen Gennaro, York University, Toronto, Canada
One of the unique qualities inherent to Childhood Studies is the discipline’s ability to draw the interest of scholars from a variety of subject areas. In fact, with the increased focus on re-examining the roles of children in history, the last ten years have borne witness to a significant number of cultural histories of youth, childhood, and adolescence. From Paula Fass and Colin Heywood to James Kincaid and Allison James, the repositioning of children in history and the unpacking of their representation has become en vogue and an area of interest to scholars of all fields. The recent publication of Kent Baxter’s The Modern Age fits nicely into this continuum of scholarship. Baxter, a Professor in English at California State University, Northridge, tries his hand at history in The Modern Age. In his cultural history of the developmental stage of adolescence, Baxter walks the reader through the emergence of adolescence as a social category in the fields of law, medicine, leisure, education, and literature at the end of the eighteenth century. Underpinning Baxter’s cultural history is an argument that adolescence emerged at the end of the eighteenth century as a response to rising tensions, fears, and anxieties at the fin de siecle.
Often, in cultural histories, authors spend the first chapter(s) providing the historical backdrop for their subject matter. However, Baxter retells the story of the invention of adolescence through multiple case studies. What is impressive about Baxter’s writing is how he manages to write each of his six chapters as a stand-alone case study, where the emergence of adolescence at the turn of the century is explained in the context of the subject matter of that particular chapter. And while the book reads very smoothly, presenting little difficulty in following the argument from chapter to chapter (even as the subject matter changes), the breadth of this work also serves to detract from its overall argument, since at times, Baxter appears to glance over key ideas. For example, the first chapter looks at the structural invention of adolescence found in legal and educational reform in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, the book could have benefited from splitting this chapter into at least two chapters to more clearly set up the social, cultural, and political context of this history. Each of these areas could have been given greater treatment, where more primary documents were explored and with archival research above and beyond newspapers, periodicals, and census data of the period.
The real limitations of Baxter’s work are found in chapter two in his discussion of the construction of adolescence as a developmental stage in the field of psychology. Baxter does provide an excellent summary of G. Stanley Hall’s seminal work on adolescence; unfortunately, the work of Sigmund Freud does not receive the same attention. Furthermore, the chapter is almost completely void of the contributions of John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism, and one of the most influential psychologists in the creation of adolescent psychology in the early part of the twentieth century. In fact, it could be argued that Watson’s 1928 piece, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, was the single most influential text on adolescence in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the What to Expect when You Are Expecting of its time, and the text to which Dr. Spock responded to when he began to write his baby-rearing texts in the 1940s. Instead, Baxter focuses the chapter on the roles of G. Stanley Hall and Margaret Mead in the invention of adolescence. Arguably, there is a connection between Mead’s work and the discussion of Indian Reform in chapter three. Likewise, the careers of Hall and Mead are connected, since Meads’ work in Samoa called into question the arguments that Hall (and Freud) made about adolescence as a period of sturm und drang (storm and stress) being universally experienced. However, the choice of Hall and Mead as the two key figures to review is questionable, especially since Mead’s work comes almost a quarter of a century after Hall and nowhere near the turn of the century, where the heart of Baxter’s argument takes place. At best, Mead is the fourth most influential psychologist in the development of adolescent psychology and construction of adolescence in the early twentieth century, behind Hall, Freud, and Watson.
The middle two chapters of the book examine a secondary argument of Baxter’s work, that the invention of adolescence and the discourse surrounding it paralleled the discourse and practice of the Indian Reform Movement. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of The Modern Age to current scholarship. In his discussion of Indian Reform and adolescence, Baxter provides historical credence and new insight into previously under-explored areas of study in Childhood Studies. First, in exploring the similarities in the “treatment” of adolescents and “Indians,” Baxter’s work demonstrates how there is an historical antecedent to viewing children as social “others.” In fact, Baxter argues that adolescence itself was created precisely for this reason. The implications of this point in scholarship is that it reinforces current work that suggests children have their own indigenous culture and that researching children’s lives, histories, and culture should be done in a respectful and culturally sensitive fashion.
Baxter is a gifted writer whose prose is easy to follow and enjoyable to read. However, his scholarship gives somewhat short shrift to recent work in the field. A significant portion of his sources cited on childhood “as a construct” are from the 1990s and earlier. Without discrediting early contributions to the field of Childhood Studies, the work done over the last half-decade in areas such as the history, geography, and sociology of childhood has moved the discussion away from the question of whether age is a social variable of distinction and discrimination like race, class, or gender, to more productive discussions, such as who benefits from these representations of the child as “other.” In his discussion of the adolescent as “other,” Baxter’s work is a welcome addition to the field.