In a 2014 essay in the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott argued that American popular culture is witnessing the death of the adult. “In my main line of work as a film critic,” Scott wrote, “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.”
Characters like Tony Soprano, “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, and “Mad Men’s” Don Draper are all gone—the last gasp of white, heterosexual male privilege. Scott writes, “in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” From Adam Sandler and “The Hunger Games” to Seth Rogan stoner comedies like “The Pineapple Express” and video games, according to Scott, we are now ruled by an adolescent culture.
Scott’s essay suffers from a major problem, however. He conflates all men who act like boys, omitting the idea that such behavior can be part of a grand search for God—a search that was once central to Western art but that modern culture has largely abandoned. Scott explores how American culture, from Ben Franklin to Huck Finn to Jack Kerouac, has always celebrated the man who is at odds both with home and society. “We Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word,” he observes. “The men who established our political independence—guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards (including Benjamin Franklin, in some ways the most boyish of the bunch)—did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It was not until more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right. They weren’t widely referred to as Founding Fathers until Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I.”
Scott argues that “the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to sex, marriage and responsibility.” To Scott, “one of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’”
Scott concludes that there is a direct correlation between the old and the new. From Franklin to Mark Twain, Moby Dick and Holden Caulfield, “from there it is but a quick ride to the [adolescent comedy] Pineapple Express and [juvenile film auteur Judd] Apatow.”
In fact, there is not a short line connecting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Walker Percy, and The Catcher in the Rye to “The Big Bag Theory,” “The Hangover,” and the ongoing glut of superhero movies. A very deep chasm divides them. Scott is right that American culture is filled with male characters who reject both societal institutions and traditional marriage. But until recently, these characters were compelling because there was a third choice men faced between having a family and staying a kid: the pursuit of God. It was often a quest that required saying yes to something that was filled with hazards.
These holy searchers weren’t always priests or traditional religious figures. Still, they were hunting for the transcendent, and willing to take the risks that search required.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin proposed that meetings be opened with a prayer. “How has it happened,” he said, “that we have not, hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings?” As Thomas Kidd notes, “Yes, Franklin questioned basic points of Christianity, including Jesus’ divine nature. Yet his childhood immersion in the Puritan faith, and his relationships with traditional Christians through his adult life, kept him tethered to his parents’ religion. If he was not a Christian, he often sounded and acted like one.”
Franklin may have been “boyish,” but he also had the bravery and humility of an experienced and humble man who had risked everything for genuine, not licentious, freedom.
Then there are the other examples Scott cites as representative of childish male characters in revolt. Scott gives a lot of emphasis to Huck Finn, a character who sets out on a raft to avoid attempts to “sivilize” him. Yet Huck is not fleeing authority so that, like Seth Rogan in “Pineapple Express” or Adam Sandler in any of his movies, he can lounge around, play “Grand Theft Auto,” and smoke pot. Huck “lights out” not only because earthly authority is corrupt but also because life on the raft is a kind of mystical hot spot that puts him in connection with the numinous. Some of the most timeless passages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are simple scenes of grace-infused nature observed while Huck and Jim are on the raft:
Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
This kind of God-infused theme runs throughout American literature, from Moby Dick, which is as much a metaphysical pilgrimage as a hunting story, to the spiritually charged novels of Walker Percy like Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome. Holden Caulfield was not a high school dropout roaming around New York getting drunk and looking for prostitutes; he was a traumatized young man tenuously holding on to his sanity and trying to find some kind of religious moral stability in a world of corruption. Could Dean Moriarty in On the Road, a book that Jack Kerouac described as “two guys out looking for God,” really be compared to Ben Stiller in “Dodgeball”?
In his Times piece Scott claims that “the Updikean and Rothian heroes of the 1960s and 1970s chafed against the demands of marriage, career and bureaucratic conformity and played the games of seduction and abandonment, of adultery and divorce, for high existential stakes, only to return a generation later as the protagonists of bro comedies.”
The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s 1943 classic novel about spiritual enlightenment, is a particularly relevant novel today, when there is so much talk about the Western world losing its religion. Adapted to film twice, The Razor’s Edge tells the story of Larry Darrell, a young man who returns to America after World War I disillusioned and looking for answers to deep spiritual questions. He turns down job offers from banks and stock companies, causes problems with his would-be wife, and goes to India in search of enlightenment.
What makes The Razor’s Edge so compelling and relevant today is that the spiritual hunger the story addresses is still present in America. In fact, in the digital and hyper-competitive 21st century, that hunger has only grown more acute. In Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, author William Deresiewicz argues that America is producing young generations of driven and successful students who nonetheless have no passion or soul. These young people are nice, well-prepared, and driven to succeed. Deresiewicz: “From orientation to graduation, the message [to elite students] is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get.”
There’s also a very clear imperative: for you to attain this pseudo-holy state, you must avoid risk-taking. A character like Larry Darrell from The Razor’s Edge was considered scandalous and bizarre when the book was written in the 1940s, and, like Ben Franklin or Huckleberry Finn, would be considered equally odd by today’s millennial elite. Here was a handsome young man with connections and a gorgeous girlfriend (played by the resplendent Gene Tierney in the 1946 film), and he turned it all down in order to “loaf.” Darrell’s experience seeing death up close in World War I had changed him; he was now interested in the meaning of life.
Instead of getting on the merry-go-round of careerism, he seeks out manual labor with the lower classes, working in a coal mine in France. Then he studies with Benedictines in Germany, and finally arrives in India, where he has a spiritual awakening in the Himalayas. Ultimately Darrell returns to America, but will spend his days doing manual labor so he “can keep the mind free while also accomplishing something.” He has achieved that rarest of things—goodness. It’s why the Indian guru in The Razor’s Edge tells Larry that what he has done requires a great deal of courage—and that Larry is anything but a “loafer.”
America would be a bad place if it consisted of nothing but Larry Darrells. But it’s a worse one for having none. The great author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton argued that contemplation was man’s ultimate goal, the high mark of his awareness of his connection to God. If a man could make babies, chop wood, and fire a gun, but had never contemplated himself, God, and the world, he would have passed through his life missing something essential to the fulfillment of manhood.