bildungsroman shirt
Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include the early novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts, and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming of age has a lot to do with the family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good material for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex, and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age are being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle-class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They are boomeranging back to their parent’s residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

Salinger Redux

Three Early Stories by J.D. Salinger is a book that might, at first, seem like a scam.  Salinger is dead and didn’t publish for many years and was famous for his lack of interest in publishing new work and suing people who tried to publish any of his older, uncollected stories.

As readers of this blog know, I am a Salinger fan. I was a bigger fan when I was young and he was still writing, and before I learned about what an odd human he was in real life.

Salinger published 21 stories in the early part of his career that he refused to republish. Fans would seek them out in sources of old magazines in bookstores, online and in libraries. Back in the late 1970s, I sought them out in the Rutgers Library and found many of them torn or razored out of the bound volumes.

This legit collection, Three Early Stories, published by Devault-Graves Digital Editions, found some way to get the rights to three of those early stories. Two stories were Salinger’s first two published works, “Young Folks” and “Go See Eddie.” The third story is “Once A Week Won’t Kill You,”published in 1944.

I can understand any author not wanting early work brought forward, especially if you think you were not at the top of your game when you wrote them. For me, Salinger’s best writing is from the first half of his writing life. Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories are great. Franny and Zooey is very good. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction is a collection that didn’t work for me. By then, Salinger was deep into chronicling the Glass family that live in many of his stories and their appeal to me decreased with every story.

Salinger had Holden say in Catcher that “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” I wanted to call Salinger after I read Catcher at age 13. I tried to catch Salinger at his home in New Hampshire when I was in college.

During my freshman year of college, Joyce Maynard published a piece in The New York Times about her freshman year at Yale which I read with great interest and clipped and saved. It dazzled me in 1972 that she had gotten a New York Times Magazine cover story published and gave me hope as a writer. The next year, she published Looking Back, a book-length follow-up that was full of things I also recalled being nostalgic about at the ripe old age of 19 – air-raid drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show etc.  I still have my paperback copy of that book in a box of college stuff.

Salinger read that Times story too and liked it. He wrote that eighteen year old girl and he, then age fifty-three, sent her a letter that began a relationship. She left Yale to live with Salinger, and he dismissed her about a year later. She wrote about that in her memoir,  At Home in the World, a book that pissed off some Salinger fans and caused others, like myself, to not want to call him any more.

Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, also published a memoir, Dream Catcher, about life with her famously reclusive father that I’m sure he hated even if it said some nice things about him.

But I still reread the three “new” stories. It’s the first collection of the author’s work in fifty years. I wish there were a few of the early Holden Caulfield family stories. I read almost all of the uncollected stories by finding them (and photocopying them) and these three are decent examples of the early work.

“The Young Ones” is the first story he published. It is about a college party and a young woman trying to interest a disinterested man. Not very original premise, but good dialogue and details.

“Go See Eddie” is odder with a brother trying to get his sister to go see Eddie for a job and being pretty damned threatening about it. Hints of a troubled family here.

The third story is “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” which gets into a WWII triangle with a draftee, his wife and aging aunt.

The book has some nice illustrations that don’t come from the original magazines but that look like they come from the period.

I would love a complete stories collection or all the uncollected stories collection instead of my photocopies. There are a few stories I couldn’t find. But I think in Nine Stories, Salinger selected the best of the stories he published in magazines. (The New Yorker got most of the best ones.)

His last published work, a novella entitled “Hapworth 16, 1924”, appeared in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965. I found a copy of that issue and eagerly dove into the story. It is my least favorite Salinger piece.

Osiris Press was supposed to publish “Hapworth” as a book with the author’s permission, but someone foolishly leaked word of its upcoming publication and paranoid Salinger withdrew rights. That is probably why this new and thin edition had no advance promotion and just appeared. Salinger died in 2010 and although I heard he stipulated that nothing new be published for 50 years after his death, I hope the estate is more liberal. I would love to know if he was actually writing all those years he was hiding out. I suspect he was not. If he was writing, my guess is that it was more similar to the second half of his oeuvre which I would actually rather not read. The Salinger in my head from a long time ago is the one I wanted to call up on the phone.