Recognizing the Adult in the Mirror

The Life and Age of Stages of Man's Life, from the Cradle to the Grave by James Baillie

“The Life and Age of Stages of Man’s Life, from the Cradle to the Grave,” by James Baillie

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was this summer’s critical hit, achieving for a time a much-coveted 100 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. (It now sits at 99 percent). The film follows a young Texan named Mason as he grows from a quiet child to a disaffected teen, ending when he becomes a college freshman. All of the time passed is real—Mason grows up over twelve years, which is how long the film took to make—and Linklater fills the background with references to remind the audience that these twelve years have passed for them, too. Everybody’s gotten older.

But nobody is growing up. Boyhood is a “coming of age” story only in the most formal sense. There’s no age to come into, no adulthood to achieve, and no adults to be found. Mason’s life is full of older people who burden him with clichéd advice, but they, too, are merely drifting from one event to another without really knowing why.  As Mason’s mother sends him off to college, she unloads her self-pity, telling Mason that raising him was her last “milestone” and that now all she has left is waiting for death. “I thought there would be more,” she says.  But if Mason has learned anything from his elders, it’s not to expect even that much.

This aimlessness is made pointedly clear in a scene in which Mason visits his step-grandparents for his fifteenth birthday. From them, he receives a suit, a Bible, and a gun. They are meant to be signs of his adulthood. But we know, and Mason knows, that he will never touch any of them. They are simply relics of an old way of being in the world, and not one that he wants or even can choose.

Boyhood did not come up in A.O. Scott’s recent essay for New York Times Magazine, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.”  It should have. As if to reinforce Scott’s claim is that there are no models for adulthood, Boyhood offers a sustained look at what that might mean—and it’s anything but attractive.

Yet as compelling as Boyhood is, there’s also something false about it. Mason seems predestined to his own disaffected life in a way that real people generally aren’t. Similarly, although Scott’s essay is usefully provocative, there’s something missing in it as well—namely, any clear articulation of the idea of the adulthood that he claims has been lost.

The argument in “The Death of Adulthood,” briefly summarized, is that feminism has toppled the old patriarchal ideal of authority and challenged the idealized role of women as civilizing agents. This has allowed the almost mythic American obsession with prolonged adolescence to become a reality. “To be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story,” Scott says. And he follows the American preoccupation with adulthood from the Revolutionary War (waged by “late adolescents” against King George III) to Mark Twain’s Huck Finn (leaning heavily on Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel)  to the movies of Judd Apatow.

But the most recent of these stories have ceased to be accounts of rebellious young adults defying a corrupt social order or its mores. Instead, like Boyhood, they are stories about aimlessness. If formerly we were a nation that aspired to be Huck Finn, footloose and yet highly principled, now we are nothing more than a bunch of overgrown Tom Sawyers, playfully rebellious but ultimately compliant and conformist.

Scott is not precisely happy about this. But neither is he sorry:

It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. . . . We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. . . . A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux.

“The Death of Adulthood” is frustrating because it is so careful to anticipate objections and to qualify its own position that it leaves even the sympathetic reader with little more than a list of fragmentary impressions, some more convincing than others. Adulthood is never really defined, other than by certain material acquisitions (a home of one’s own, for example) or non-actions (not reading children’s literature, not watching cartoons). It has something vaguely to do with avoiding the lot of a “loser” like, according to Scott, Louis C.K. Perhaps we can tell there is an absence of adulthood because “no one is in charge,” but this hardly delineates a concept that we can claim is dead or alive.

Fiedler (and Scott) both focus on the great refusers of American literature, particularly Huck Finn, who decides to go to Hell rather than turn in his friend Jim, the escaped slave. But his refusal to hand Jim over isn’t a refusal to become an adult; it is a decision that shows he is one.   He’s become a real moral actor. He doesn’t simply do what he is told, and he accepts the consequences of his choices.

Huck’s adulthood is made obvious when Tom Sawyer appears at the end of the novel. Tom sees only a potential adventure in Jim’s plight, and unnecessarily draws out Jim’s hopes of freedom—ultimately for no reason at all. Tom isn’t intentionally cruel, but he’s still a child and cannot understand the stakes. Huck may remain a vagrant, or at least an outsider, while Tom is likely to settle down, marry, and become a productive citizen. Yet Huck is, and will likely remain, the more adult of the two.

If an adult is someone who rejects facile conceptions of adulthood, American literature turns out to be full of adults. Consider John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead,  a character torn between the competing demands of justice and forgiveness. And at the more popular end of our culture, there are characters in shows such as CBS’s The Good Wife, who are constantly walking the line between the pursuit of success and the disintegration of their integrity.

In art as in life, the real adults are often hard to recognize. Leslie Fielder devotes approximately a page and a half to noir detective fiction in Love and Death in the American Novel, describing the genre as a clumsy translation of the anti-social cowboy into his modern urban equivalent (without ever reflecting on what a significant social change that is). Dismissing Raymond Chandler’s novels as “pretentious,” he overlooks one of American literature’s greatest adults: Philip Marlowe.

This is not the Marlowe of Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, who was transformed by Humphrey Bogart into a cool and boozy lady-killer. Chandler’s Marlowe is a loser who lives shabbily and is constantly getting beaten up by the forces that really run Los Angeles. He pursues the truth, but true victory generally eludes him. His drinking is pathological rather than attractive. His relationship with women is fraught.

Because Marlowe’s greatest characteristic is his capacity for resistance against corruption and its agents, whether sex, money, or even friendship, he is, for Fiedler, just another boy fantasy like James Bond. But Marlowe really represents a way of life that is neither conformity nor nihilistic rebellion, both of which are ultimately childish choices. His willingness to be a loser, to be a self-aware and self-possessed failure, makes him an adult figure. He is a serious man, of great personal integrity, who acknowledges that he lives in a corrupted world, accepts his own responsibility for it, but ultimately refuses to give in to it.

Being an adult in America, even aspirationally, has more to do with being a self-governing citizen than with leaving the family nest. Casting off childhood comes in recognizing oneself as a responsible moral actor. Maybe looking around and noticing that “no one is in charge” is not a sign that there are no adults—but, instead, a sign that you are one.

B.D. McClay is associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.

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