Growing Up: A Universal Journey

Coming-of-Age Stories over Time 
By Allie Moss

Coming-of-age stories have been told practically since the start of civilization, but they did not receive a name until 1819, when German university lecturer Karl Morgenstern dubbed them the Bildungsroman. This German word translates literally as “education novel,” but its definition has expanded to encompass the entire coming-of-age genre.

Teenage newsboys in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo
by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1907. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Although coming-of-age stories share some commonalities that transcend their publication dates, they are also intrinsically tied to what “coming of age” meant at the time they were written. Near the turn of the twentieth century (when Ah, Wilderness! is set), life for teenagers was changing, but slowly. Post–Industrial Revolution society enjoyed an increase in leisure time, so children and teenagers had more hours to spend with their friends than in the past—but they were still very integrated into family life. The modern concept of “teenage culture” did not exist.

In the early 1900s, teenagers were expected to listen to their parents. Rather than creating independent identities by resisting their parents, upper- and middle-class teens often cultivated a sense of self by going away to college. Working-class teens achieved the same result by joining the workforce. So it is especially shocking for the characters in Ah, Wilderness! when Richard goes out drinking and sneaks out to see his girlfriend.

In the economic boom that followed the Second World War, jobs were readily available for teenagers who wanted them. Meanwhile, postwar technology improved transportation, allowing teenagers greater mobility, and new appliances reduced their household responsibilities. This combination provided teenagers with more free time and spending power than ever before. Now products were marketed specifically to teenagers and advertised as mechanisms through which they could define their individuality. Teenage culture was on the rise.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the literature written for and about teenagers at this time reflects these cultural changes. Many of the coming-of-age stories written in the early years of the Young Adult genre (YA) are still recognized as classic stories: J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967).

Over the last half-century, the genre has expanded to include other fiction genres. Many popular modern YA books—like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—are narratives about children growing up against a fantastical or dystopian backdrop. Today’s coming-of-age stories have also evolved to deal with grittier themes, like drugs, violence, or sexuality, subject matters very different from the moral growth emphasized in the Bildungsroman of the nineteenth century. Despite these changes, coming-of-age stories remain largely universal. The need for self-definition and personal discovery is as crucial for Harry Potter in the twenty-first century as it was for Richard Miller in 1906.

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