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In the Country of the Young by John W.…

In the Country of the Young (1970)

by John W. Aldridge

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To Alexis your blood and mine
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(citations' page references are to the edition by Chatto & Windus, Ltd., London )
(from the Preface)

This book is a highly personal, highly impressionistic study of the younger generation in America in these years when the life-styles of the young--their manners, morals, and, above all, their militant social concerns--have so radically affected the cultural climate in which we live. I have departed from popular custom by presuming to suggest that the influence of the young is not always salutary, that their motives are not always above suspicion, that their values are not always impeccable, and that the fact of their youth does not by itself guarantee them a monopoly on the world's virtue.

By the end of the sixties this country will have been dominated by children for almost twenty-five years.

Coming out of the war (Second World War) with long-deferred ambitions to live our lives, we settled down, began at once to breed, as if to prove we were still alive, and then proceeded to let our children do our living for us. It was a strange process, gradual, almost imperceptible, as natural as dying. Without quite intending it, we stopped--if we ever really began--making demands on life, perhaps because we thought there was no longer enough time for such frivolity, that our youth had been used up in the war, and that nothing must interfere now with the grimly earnest business of becoming middle-aged.
(p. 4)
(citations' page references are to the edition by Chatto & Windus, Ltd., London )

Or it may be that the Depression and the war together accustomed us to asking nothing for ourselves, to seeing ourselves with a certain bleak pride as the sacrificial generation, to being grateful simply to have the necessities and utilities of existence. There was also the fact that the war had broken our connections with the past in a peculiarly final way. It represented a chasm separating not only two periods of time but two distinct cultural worlds. The social structures which had once ordered, contained, and given meaning to our lives—the structures of community, school, parents, relatives, and friends—had all been left behind on the other side of the chasm, and we had a powerful sense of being without identity or place, and an urge that was something near to panic to make a structure of home, wife, and children to replace what we had lost. (p. 4)
None of us in these years seemed to have any sense of the kind or quality of life we were trying to establish on this barren ground, what our values were or our aesthetic assumptions or our humane objectives. We had brought no resources with us out of the past, no norms or precedents of conduct, no tradition of amenities or graces, luxuries or even comforts. We were like people who had been deprived by disinheritance of the family fortune, the heirlooms, the antique furniture, the silver service, the old homestead. We had nothing to start with except our talent for self-sacrifice, our compulsion to set up housekeeping and live for the future of our children. So the children rushed in to fill the vacuum, and with our full cooperation and blessing they began to dictate the terms of our existence. (p. 6)
Yet if we look behind the image of seemingly standardized behavior projected by the young, we become aware of paradoxes and contradictions which suggest that their actions derive not from a coherent ideology or even a coherent emotional attitude but more nearly resemble series of random gestures enacted in a climate of metaphysical confusion. One notices, for example, that although they are passionate about causes and issues--especially as these relate to the quantitative, material problems of society--they are strangely indifferent to questions of quality, as well as to the processes of intellectual discrimination and analysis by which qualitative judgements are made. It is as if the act of discriminating among qualities were inseparable in their minds from the act of discriminating among (Editing Note : and, more precisely, against ) races, creeds, and colors, so that it has come to seem to them undemocratic even to think. (p. 10, 11)
Instead, life in America became frozen--apparently for good--at the level of utilitarian existence. ... so that before long the production of labor-saving devices and material facilities took the place of the resistant wilderness as the chief consumer of our pioneering energies. The hard work and ingenuity which had formerly gone into pushing back the physical frontier became diverted into pushing back the commodity frontier, into refining and endlessly re-refining the mechanical processes of life. (p. 17)
We always move, it seems, both physically and philosophically through a present we do not care to experience toward some future time and place at which real life will finally begin. Like Gatsby, we are all believers in the green light, the orgiastic future--not only the young and idealistic but all of us. (p. 20)
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