The Young Person


To a fallacy not registered in the textbooks on logic — which might be called, perhaps, the fallacy of the status quo — we seem just now peculiarly subject. Yet it is common to all humanity, and the very sentence that registers it illustrates it. We are all fatally determined to believe that the world into which we were born has existed by divine institution since our first parents left Paradise, and is designed for perpetuity, or at least to last until the Judgment Day. It has supplied the main argument against Galileo and woman suffrage, Columbus and futurist painting; it underlies the uneasy resentment with which parents, dons, and maiden aunts have always looked on at the self-expression of the younger generation.

So stated, the fallacy is apparent. If, keeping that in mind, one may profitably consider for a moment the charges freely laid at the present time against the boys and girls growing up or just grown, and with reasonable care examine the actual state of things, the outcome may be found further along the road to reconciliation. It will be necessary also to consider how much change is absolutely imposed by the changed conditions of life today. The writer, frankly ranged in the class with parents, dons, and maiden aunts, will use the term ‘we’ to signify that generation, and for the one coming up the indeterminate expression ‘young person,’ or simply ‘they.’

The charge against them falls into two parts, as it deals with matters of conduct or of opinion. They do scandalous things and hold improper opinions.

Take conduct first. Vague complaint and disapprobation, when boiled down, show that they are under suspicion on the counts of, briefly, dancing, drinking, kissing, motoring alone and often at night (‘alone’ means two together); in the case of girls, dress is included, or rather, going about with legs and arms bared, and without stays; and, in both sexes, marriage with divorce in view as a contingency, or the union libre as a possibility. That is a downright statement — comprehensive: it includes the worst that can be said.

Drinking may be first disposed of: admitted, with modification, and also with restriction to a single class—the well-to-do. In America we are in a bad way just now; but certainly the young person is better behaved than the middle-aged, and there are odd restrictions. For instance, a really nice girl may drink cocktails in public, but not whiskey and soda. Yet a really nice boy may drink milk with his meals, and will smoke less than his uncle. Indeed, the natural austerity of chaste youth can be reckoned on. In the use of all stimulants — alcohol, coffee, and tobacco — we must confess that the young generation offends less than the elder. Granting that everyone is drinking more than fifteen years ago, here, in England, on the Continent, — let us say frankly more than before the war, — yet that will pass; and for reasons about to appear it is perhaps less of a menace to the young person than we suppose; it has done apparently less harm.

For, whatever they may do, these youngsters are what we call ‘nice.’ Where we know them individually, we recognize it. This is a postulate. In any discussion the starting-point must be that we can perceive this — as we know an egg is fresh — directly. Then comes the question, What things are possible to nice girls and boys? And, in case of surprise at the enumeration, How comes that possibility? Any other procedure is irrational.


Dancing, dressing, and the remaining counts, may come together. Consider dancing. A hundred years ago the waltz was a scandal; sixty years ago it was possible to waltz with husbands (actual or plighted), brothers, or cousins, but not with outsiders. Fifteen years ago the tango afforded another scandal, but the new dances by now are becoming matter of course again.

Most people now dress for a party as they dress for other amusements. Servants no longer put on gloves to hand plates at table, nor gentlemen to dance, nor do ladies put on stays. Why should they? Again, bare arms being permitted at dinner, why should they be improper at luncheon? Daylight is less romantic than candlelight, and less dangerous — a fortiori more suitable. Let us admit that these things consist all in convention, and that the convention is altered.

Certainly among the contemporaries of youth — if it may be spoken without vulgarity — legs are no more interesting than noses. A girl has danced, for charity, on the stage or on the grass, barelegged and short-skirted, and she has bathed on the shore with neither more nor less of garmenting than her brothers and her friends’ brothers. Sunburnt shoulder-blades and thighs are no menace to morality; they are unbecoming and unromantic, in either sex. The sad truth is that the human frame has ceased to be romantic.

Before proceeding, an apparently odd restriction should again be noted in dress: that extreme décolletage is not for girls. The same is true of Spanish dancers. For the pretty child who whirls upon her shapely pinkstockinet legs till all her lace ruffles swirl up like the petals of a rose, there must be sleeves in her corsage and a demure curve around her white throat and shoulders. Whoever has dressed an American daughter for a dance, in her firm white straight substantiality, knows that never elsewhere in all the world did women’s clothes so little emphasize the strictly feminine contours, or so firmly suppress them.

There is another sort of young person, best known perhaps by a rather brutal title — ‘Somebody’s Stenog.’ She is young and pleasure-loving, often pretty, almost always likable. She faces the gravest disapprobation.

A great deal of the grieved complaint, passing over into condemnation, which is current among us will be found on cross-examination or self-analysis to rise out of the way that such girls — nonprofessional but wage-earning girls — dress: their velvet frocks and transparent, blouses, their silk stockings and high-heeled pumps. That is hardly fair. For these young persons, the dress they wear to the office is the equivalent of a party dress. They must take their fun where they can find their dancing, at the noon hour, or just when work ends, while they are in reach of friends with whom to walk or talk or dance. There is little to do with party frocks in the remote suburbs where they sleep, far out, as on the spokes of a wheel, an hour or more away from the day’s associates. If some neighbor is at hand to go with them to a moving picture, the same daytime dress is the only thing that could be worn.1 They have to dance, if at all, in restaurants, and to dress for their dancing as nearly as may be like those who go in their motors to drink tea and dance in a more expensive room.

All those who went, not to college, but to a commercial school, intending to earn honest money cheerfully, have not given up thereby a wish to marry and bring up babies; they must see each other a little before deciding whom to marry. They go to moving pictures together, because there is no quiet place to talk at home. In the small houses built to rent or to sell by installments to the piccola borghesia there is no such thing as privacy; no doors between rooms, frequently no sitting-room but the front hall. Builders and contractors, imitating more expensive houses, intended for those rich enough to know better, have created a situation intolerable to parents and children alike. In apartment houses it is worse. The costume and customs of Somebody’s Stenog and her brothers are imposed upon them, irretrievably, by the conditions under which they live, new in the experience of the world. They are already adjusting themselves; they are hammering out their own conventions. They too are really nice.

For a very long while has persisted the convention that a nice girl was untouchable — except, mark you, by husbands (actual or plighted), brothers, or cousins; yet history and reason alike concede that untouchability is no more a moral requisite than invisibility. In the Arabian Nights a lady might not be seen by any but her lawful lord; in the novels of Trollope she might be viewed but might not be kissed. In the French Gothic ivories you may see lovers sitting in an orchard, not hand in hand, though just as innocently; but the lover’s hand is under the lady’s cheek or her chin. The fourteenth century, it appears, felt differently from the nineteenth. Untouchabiiity, therefore, may be dismissed as a vain imagination, without even the tribal prestige of immemorial usage, and without sound reason to sustain it. If, upon examination, neither taboo nor necessity stands, there remains no further objection.

There is a story, current toward the close of the last century, of a Turkish ambassador in London, an old-fashioned gentleman, looking on at a ball. Said he to the Englishman, his companion: ‘ You can do that sort of thing without perturbation, but we—!’ When discussing the reported customs of the rising generation with our own contemporaries, we have fancied the apologue falls pat. It carries a faint but distinct sense that we are in the same absurd position as the ambassador, and that what we find conceivably dangerous to ourselves, and so shocking in them, leaves the young person safe and unperturbed.


If this is the fact — and a good deal of evidence seems to be at hand — if untouchability is abrogated and the young person is really imperturbable, that explains a great deal. The late Mr. Chase sincerely felt that a portrait by Matisse was obscene, but we do not so feel; the French seem to have thought that jazz music was a case for the police, but the young person is probably immune. Most people reading the early treatises of Freud found them not only disgusting but dangerous; yet, with increasing awareness of all that lies below the diaphragm, the discussions, like ventilation and illumination of cellars, have served for sanitation. In the nineties of the last century a favorite adjective in French, and among those who followed French literature, was ‘troubling’; it is a word our juniors simply do not comprehend. We may take it as certain that the ‘sultry landscapes and hot-cheeked women’ of Mr. D. H. Lawrence are neither so troubling nor so romantic to them as to us. Those of us who saw Peer Gynt played last winter were faintly shocked by the Bacchanal, but the young person was impervious.

This, however, would probably not hold of Continentals, or even perhaps of the English — not at any rate so absolutely. Two things are certain. The American is heir, in the first place, to a pioneer tradition which ‘sheltered’ women little more than men; and, in the second place, inherits, for climatic and other reasons, a temperament which seems, compared with the European, a little chill and dry; can therefore do with impunity what others could not — all this being suddenly heightened at the present moment by social and intellectual conditions, changing and quite new. Chaperonage becomes unnecessary, and the escapade of the night drive is more often innocent than we are willing to believe. Like the bathing-suits, such a book as Pan or Growth of the Soil makes sexual interests unromantic.

Romance is out of season. That has happened before, though we, inheritors of a hundred and fifty years thereof, are loath to admit the possibility. Some day, doubtless, it will come back, but we feel as if we were looking out on mud flats. We shall have to accept the fact; we must learn not to resent it. One spokesman at least of the new age is not unfamiliar to readers of the Atlantic: the late Randolph Bourne — important for our present investigation and illuminating; there is no romance in him. We may not welcome the fact, for we elders must live through the winter of our age on romance, as the bees on the stored honey of the hive; but it accounts for many things, and justifies them. A hundred situations once ambiguous have become for youth indifferent.

They have enlarged their interests, and sex for them is only one of many. The exasperated sensuality of such spectacles as Mecca, or the Walpurgisnacht at the Opera two or three years ago, was intended for their elders, and passed surprisingly soon. Middle-aged men and women, spiritually ravaged by the war, might fancy something modeled on the Romans of the Decadence, but it left the next generation not only unscathed but careless. In the brief competition of interests the young person won out, and the young person intends — not consciously perhaps, but none the less — to put sex back into its proper place among other preoccupations. What we really resent, even in the worst vagaries of the younger generation, is not sensuality, but relative indifference in sensual things.

It has changed their attitude toward marriage, and it has taken away the bitter-sweet savor of corruption. That a figure like Paul Verlaine has no allurement for them should go a long way to console for the loss of romance the parents, the dons, and the maiden aunts accountable for their conduct.

Marriage to them is not sacramental, for they are as alien to all mysteries and sacraments as a Chinese to those of Eleusis; but it is a contract wherein they become responsible to the community, and perhaps to children, and they mean to carry it out in the way that is best for everyone. Whatever they may do or feel, they will face with frankness and sincerity. Of the conventionality which is hypocrisy, the self-delusion which is sordid cowardice, they have far less than we. They do not, in truth, need them.


Their opinions may be dealt with more briefly.

The great virtue of youth — the quality for which the world must rely wholly upon the younger generation or go without altogether — is intransigence. Again as an illustration comes to mind Randolph Bourne, but there are more gracious instances, and others more notorious. If they think that they have received another revelation, as if the canon of their Scriptures might not be closed without an Apocalypse, they are in the best company. They can cite their teachers. Of our generation, not theirs, are Lord Haldane and Mr. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and James Harvey Robinson: yet no book is more interpretive than The Mind in the Making.

Religious, after their own fashion, they are, with an amazing energy, and while dogmas may be laid aside to be recast once again in a more creative or intellectual age, they are translating their principles into conduct which we well might emulate. True, they shall never know the consolations of religion, but they may indeed never need these, and to the rewards they earn their right.

The best currents of ethical thought to-day flow through the minds of students and their just-elder contemporaries. The little groups that are pledged not to go again to war, not to lend their strength to break strikes, not to wrong our common humanity by racial enmities, are growing and spreading as waves bring in the tide. These people are more nearly international-minded than we, just as their outlook on life is larger and more impersonal. It was a very young poet who wrote, not in English: —

The ‘bitterness’ and the ‘love’ of which a voluptuous and elegant poet talks have nothing in common with the bitterness of the folk who suffer and the love of the comrades who fight for their fellows.

As a rule we speak and feel as if we were wanting the coming youth to say and think what we do, but of course the utmost that we really desire is for them to be like us; and forty years ago we too knew, poignantly, how far we had gone in advance of our own fathers. It is their turn now to make the move, while the best we can do is to hold the ground and not go backward.

True, we had in our day traits and impulses and passions that they lack or are indifferent to. But these things are gone irretrievably; if we look about us, studying our contemporaries, we must admit as much. Taking them as they are, by their own showing, what they stand to lose is indeed already lost. Nor are they to blame; they were born into the world as it is.

Just what has been lost since, say, the nineties, is easy enough to estimate and sum up. First, romance; this has been discussed already. Second, intellectuality — the disinterested love of the things of the intellect for their own sake. Well, the depreciation of reason is a fact, like the fall of the franc, and to be faced as such. The lira and the mark will come back in value within a decade or a generation, but the cycle of pure reason is reckoned in millenniums and intellectuality has been declining steadily since the thirteenth century. Simply we have noticed it suddenly, as at nightfall, when it grows too dark to read.

Third, emotion. There seems no doubt that these young things feel less, on the whole, and do more, than once did we: that for emotion is being substituted energy. Abroad, however, that is probably less true than here; and moreover the disposition to say less than one feels, very marked among them, makes certainty impossible. Right here, notwithstanding, I see the menace of the future, and apprehend a real question whether the end of all this bright gallantry may not be a mortal ennui.

Fourth, sin. It is a sure sign of a new dispensation, and thereby we sit uneasily beneath it, that ‘I had not known sin but by the law,’ and, as the Apostle says, sine lege enim peccatum mortuum erat. There is no denying that while the young person is honest, loyal, plucky, willing to admit wrongdoing and to make it good, yet the sense of sin has disappeared, as completely as romance. That is not unparalleled. The sense of sin is not found everywhere, and at all times, and in all. Greeks mostly had it not, nor had the early Romans; it came from the East and swept over the latter empire. No provision is made for it by Confucius. It has been retreating in Europe ever since the Reformation. Our own generation, loosely speaking, is in the same case. Indeed, all this change in custom and attitude, which perturbs us as we think we perceive it in the younger generation, is not quite so sudden or so complete as we fancy. If, being now advised, we consider our own generation, we are aware of the same things in many whom we know well, which we had ignored or thought sporadic; and among those who shall take our place when we have left it there are plenty no different from ourselves.

However, for each of these deficiencies — so to call them — and offsetting it, an advantage exists. Instead of romance they have energy; instead of intellectuality they have sincerity and an openness to fresh stimuli impossible within the confines of strict reason. With less emotion, it is almost certain that they are less subject to pain than we, and the detachment from sin and scruple gives greater liberty of action and the chance to try experiments that may bring great good. In surveying, so far as may be, the course of things during the last century or so, it would seem that these advantages all lie in the direct line of advancement.


On the pavement of Siena Cathedral — the most romantic thing in the world, exquisite and precious,

di marmo candido, e adorno

all inlaid with black and white marble, whereon is pictured a Wheel of Fortune — we can figure the destiny of humankind: the crowned imperial figure enthroned above; the man who holds tight at the bottom, scrambles up with alert hope on the left, and, clinging desperately on the right, still swings down and downward, unarrested. It may be that all the world is going down into the dark, and unreason and ugliness shall prevail. That something is happening, we know. If it be so, there is no stopping because we object. If it be so, it is more than likely that the coming generation, equipped as we have seen them to be both by what they possess and by what they do without, can be more useful than we; certainly they are better adjusted to their conditions. They are clean, strong, practical. If beauty passes like a dream, yet they will know how to abolish pain.

Moreover, we are, and must admit ourselves, congenitally subject to the fallacy of the status quo, unable to judge fairly of the mental stimulus of scientific speculation, or the joy of mere healthy living, or the immense emotion of mass feeling, which belong to these strange creatures who are our children, of the flesh and of the spirit. At Siena, elsewhere in a chapel of that same Cathedral, are represented the Seven Ages of Man, not as Jacques conceived them, whimpering and doddering, boastful and platitudinous, but full of gracious dignity, from Infantia who runs after flowers to Decrepitas making his way to the marble tomb. Every stage of life is beautiful after its kind.

We ourselves have made a mess of things; these young persons may do better. Looking back over the twentyfive years which span their lives, we suspect they could hardly do worse. The postulate was that we knew, immediately, that they were nice; the conclusion must be that we can trust them.

  1. It would be unnecessary, as it seems absurd, to dwell so long on dress, except that this is specially made a ground for denunciation by old cats of both sexes. The rouge-pot and the lipstick are so entirely determined by convention that they may be dismissed, with the reminder that in the heart of the Victorian age, at the English court and capital, every Englishwoman of breeding was painted, not only red, but white.