The End of Adulthood or the Dawn of the American-Schlemiel? A.O. Scott’s Kvetch About America’s “Devolution”

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America is changing. We are or rather we have gradually become more and more fixated on the man-child or what in Yiddish is called the schlemiel. While academics have seen this coming, journalists and cultural critics are catching up.   In Eros and the Jews (1997), David Biale argued that Jewish-American comedians “neutralized” the negative connotations associated with the man-child slash effeminate male and, over time, it became identified with the American everyman. Most scholars agree that Woody Allen set this trend into the main stream with films like Annie Hall (1976). Sidrah Ezahi, in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination (2000), followed suit and argued that the schlemiel has become an “American icon.” Jon Stratton’s Coming Out Jewish (2000), drawing on Biale, makes a similar claim.   And Daniel Itzkovitz, in his 2006 essay “They Are All Jews,” argues that while Jewishness and assimilation are on the rise and Judaism is in the decline, American audiences have become “Jewish.” And by this he means that they have become enamored with the man-child or what he calls the “new schlemiel.”

Just yesterday, I was astonished to see two articles – one from The New Yorker and one from The New York Times – that focus in on the man-child as the norm. And both of them ask when this happened.  In response to The New Yorker article, which is entitled “The Awkward Age,” yesterday, I wrote a blog/essay.  And today I’d like to write on the New York Times article which is entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, which is written by the celebrated film critic A.O. Scott.

What both of these articles share is in interest in when things started to change.  They both ask: when did America start becoming “awkward” or “childlish”? The author of The New Yorker essay argues, against Adam Kotsko – who wrote an intelligent book called Awkwardness – that the beginning of the “age of awkwardness” was not the 60s –when traditional values were radically put into question – but after 9/11.   But, as I pointed out in my blog piece, the author of the essay needs to understand Kotsko’s philosophical and sociological approach to awkwardness before she can understand his periodization. Regardless, it’s interesting how, if we look at the dates of the above-mentioned scholarly works, the merger of the schlemiel with American culture are all dated before 9/11.

In his search for when things started changing in America, A.O. Scott, in his article “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” also goes back before 9/11 . Reflecting on Madmen, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Scott demurs that, with their deaths at the end of their respective shows, “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”

But their death, says Scott, is the result of a longer death that was going on since the 1960s: the “slow unwinding” of patriarchy:

In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.

Even though the rise of feminism “has been understood as a narrative of progress,” Scott tells us that there “may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”

Scott’s thesis, to be sure, resonates much with what Adam Kotsko says in his book. Men no longer have the same “norms” to live up to and this is what creates what Kotsko calls “awkwardness” and what Scott calls the “end of adulthood.”  And it is not a mistake that all of the examples Kotsko brings for awkwardness are the same candidates Scott has in mind when he speaks of the “end of adulthood.”

However, Kotsko gives this “end” a different, more positive valence.

To point out what has happened as a result of the end of patriarchy and the end of adulthood, Scott notes that “nearly a third” of the books for “Young Adult readers” are read by men and women between the ages of 30 and 44.

And he’s not happy about this:

Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.

Scott doesn’t stop ranting. He goes on to call this “absurd” and “impotent.” And he takes Hollywood as the purveyor of this culture and his target:

God, listen to me! Or don’t. My point is not so much to defend such responses as to acknowledge how absurd, how impotent, how out of touch they will inevitably sound. In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

The last gasps of manhood, according to Scott, can be seen in TV series like The Sopranos and Mad Men, which herald the “end of male authority.” And now “adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.” And this, for Scott, brings up the central question:

Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?

Before Scott answers the question, he points out how America was, historically, born out of a rebellion against authority: “From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of paternal authority and the imperatives of adulthood.” To illustrate, he cites Leslie Fiedler who argues that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously home in the children’s section of the library.” Rip Van Winkle and Huckelberry Fin are our classics.   And as Fiedler argues, the heroes of many novels want to run away from civilization. They aren’t interested, primarily, in “marriage and responsibility.” They are “boyish.”

What sticks out most, according to Scott citing Fiedler, is the American fictional character’s “innocence and instinctual decency” which are “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.” And, here we should note, the schlemiel has much in common with these kinds of motifs. Like the American fictional character, Sholem Aleichem and Mendel Mocher Sforim’s characters also have an “innocence and instinctual decency” which is “juxtaposed with the corruption and hypocrisy of the world.” For this reason, when I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” was translated by Saul Bellow and first published in The Partisan Review, in the early 1950s, was a hit. And Singer went on to be a celebrated Jewish-American writer and a Nobel Prize winner. The reason: Gimpel is nearly identical with the American fictional character, as described by Fiedler.

Although there is a history of this in American culture, Scott, like Fiedler, considers it “sophomoric.”

Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction

Scott argues that this American fictional figure is translated into novels in the 60s and 70s about “wild, uncivilized boys” who rebel against authority and express “youthful rebellion.” Scott takes this thread and argues that it is but a “quick ride” to Hollywood which, eventually, ends up in Apatow’s films that celebrate perpetual adolescence.

However, at this point, Scott makes an interesting move and argues that with Apatow’s films and actors -who play man-children like Adam Sandler – we have a “devolution.”

We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”

At this point, Scott finally lays down his cards are suggests a choice between good rebellion or giving up on rebellion. Lenny Bruce, for him, is a rebel, an anti-Hero, while Sandler is a caricature and Apatow’s characters…don’t rebel; they just hang out:

But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly. Their importation of adolescent and preadolescent attitudes into the fields of adult endeavor (see “Billy Madison,” “Knocked Up,” “Step Brothers,” “Dodgeball”) delivered a bracing jolt of subversion, at least on first viewing. Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?

Scott, understandably, can’t stand the “bro comedy” that we find in Apatow’s films, most of which cast Seth Rogen as the ultimate bro:

The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.

Scott, it seems, is fed up with these “coming of age” stories that fall flat. He wants men who are counter-cultural rebels (like Lenny Bruce) and a new approach to adulthood. And, at the end of the article, he’s not sure what to say. It rings of cynicism. It seems it may be too late; we, Americans, may be stuck in perpetual childhood:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. 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. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.

By ending on this note, we can see that Scott is not happy with what Itzkovitz would call the “new schelmiel.” And while he understands that the “boyish” man-child is a central American literary tradition, he doesn’t know what to do with this history. His appeals to Lenny Bruce echo the reading of Lenny Bruce made by David Biale in his book Eros and the Jews.   But, as Biale notes, these two figures – the schlemiel and the rebel – are what we are left with. Nearly 20 years after Biale notes this, it seems that Scott sees the battle as over. After all, as Scott says, “Adulthood is dead” and now “the world is our playground.” His last notes are comic, but bittersweet.  And they give us the answer to the question he posed above: he is going to mourn the death of adulthood while we, it seems, will dance on the grave.

But as I look to show, in my forthcoming posts on Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness and my reflections on the schlemiel, one can read this turn to perpetual adolescence in a different manner.

4 thoughts on “The End of Adulthood or the Dawn of the American-Schlemiel? A.O. Scott’s Kvetch About America’s “Devolution”

  1. Have interest in topic & your essay. Sorry, just wondering–What is the source–book or essay–of the quote from Leslie Fiedler?

    But see real collective regression occurring — literature-wise – in 1950s with characters like “Henderson the Rain King,” Humbert Humbert (who in his first encounter with Lolita, claims 25 years of his life “vanished”), or even Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” who on verge of death vows to start his life anew. Italian psychoanalytic movement in fifties — family systems theory — had interesting things to say about “de-parentification.”

    Discuss some of this in my recent book “Children of Empire. Cold War American Literature and the Rise of Youth Culture.” Chapter on “Lolita” is titled “The End of Adulthood”–it came out last year before Scott’s essay (i.e. just for the record).

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