For rejuveniles today, all roads lead back to Peter Pan and the turn of the twentieth century. The natural capacities of children, which for centuries had been viewed as weak and wayward, were over the course of these few years discovered as a primary source of inspiration and profit. It would be another century before the rejuvenile rebellion we know today, but resistance to what historian Woody Register calls “the enfeebling prudence, restraint and solemnity of growing up” began here, with the first flight of Pan and the dawn of the twentieth century.
The temptation today is to think of adulthood as a historic and natural fact. In a 2004 essay on “The Perpetual Adolescent,” Joseph Epstein wrote that historically, adulthood was treated as the “lengthiest and most earnest part of life, where everything serious happened.” To stray outside the defined boundaries of adulthood, he wrote, was “to go against what was natural and thereby to appear unseemly, to put one’s world somehow out of joint, to be, let’s face it, a touch, and perhaps more than a touch, grotesque.” A quick survey of history, however, reveals that adulthood is neither as ingrained or ancient as Epstein and other Harrumphing Codgers assume. Before the Industrial Revolution, no one thought much about adulthood, and even less about childhood. In sixteenth-century Europe, for instance, “children shared the same games with adults, the same toys, the same fairy stories. They lived their lives together, never apart,” notes historian J.H. Plumb.
This shouldn’t suggest that people in olden times didn’t distinguish between kids and grown ups. Of course they did. The distinction forms the basis of rites of passage that are as old as human history, as well as some of more recent vintage. Amazonian initiation rites, Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Muslim khtme qur’ans, Christian confirmations, American debutante balls—all serve the same basic function: to formally announce the end of childhood and the assumption of new duties and freedoms. It’s a mistake, though, to confuse maturity with adulthood. The maturity celebrated in traditional rites of passage—measured variously by the onset of menstruation, the acquisition of literacy, or the ability to stalk and slit the throat of a large prairie mammal—is not the same thing as the idea of adulthood hatched a century ago by a coterie of Victorian clergymen and society ladies. Maturity is old. “Adulthood” is new.
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