Teenagers are famous for being the most powerful voice of their g-g-generation. Stuck somewhere between the limitations of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood, they have a unique perspective from the fringe of society. To remind ourselves of why the angsty rebellion of youth is so important, let’s take a look at some of the teen voices of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature.
The classic teen novel of the nineteenth century is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is narrated from the perspective of an uneducated thirteen-year old with an awesome sense of humor and zero interest in becoming “civilised.” The tale begins with Huck evading school, hygiene, and his adoptive mother only to find himself on the run from the abuse of an infinitely worse father. After setting off down the Mississippi river, he takes up with an escaped slave and… well, you know the rest.
Which is kind of the problem; Huckleberry Finn has become such a part of American consciousness that a lot of us don’t bother to read it for ourselves. If the fact that it’s a smart and hilarious civil-rights novel with a surprisingly modern feel doesn’t get you interested, maybe the history of its publication will; upon its release, it was banned throughout the US and deemed “the veriest trash” for its slang, irreverence, and vulgarity. As any teen could have predicted, however, the controversy served only to heighten public interest, ultimately bolstering the novel’s sales.
Following in Twain’s lead is J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which is narrated from the perspective of a disillusioned seventeen-year old with a biting wit and complete intolerance of artificiality. Having no desire to spend his teen years being molded into a “splendid, clear-thinking” young man, Holden Caulfield flunks out of prep school and spends the next few days wandering around New York. In the process, he alienates himself from his friends, blows all his money, has some sort of nervous breakdown, and even gets beaten up by a pimp.
That being said, Catcher is hardly what you’d call plot-driven, causing some readers complain that the story is essentially a rambling diatribe on Holden’s pet peeves. The fact that modern-day television and movies have bombarded us with stimuli certainly doesn’t help Holden’s case. What keeps us hooked, aside from Holden’s lovable combination of cynicism and naiveté, is his incredible narrative voice. Whether making us laugh out loud or pause to think, Holden speaks to us like trusted friends – in conversational English peppered with slang, curse words, and contradictions. In doing so, Holden works through a few of his personal demons and makes more of a connection with the reader than he ever manages to achieve in real life.
Huck Finn and Catcher definitely helped pave the way for our third teen novel, S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old gang member who calls himself Pony Boy, the story follows several violent skirmishes between East- and West-Side gangs. (Think West Side Story minus the romance. And the jazz hands.) Like Holden, Pony Boy writes as a form of catharsis; three of his friends die during the attacks, prompting him to commit their stories to paper. Only at the end of the tale do we discover that the “novel” is actually a class assignment.
Like Huck Finn and Catcher, The Outsiders uses colloquial writing and brutal honesty to give voice a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. However, what makes it extra cool is that, unlike its predecessors, it is actually written by a teenager; Hinton was only fifteen when she completed the story and eighteen when her book deal came through. Hinton’s unflinching portrayal of urban teenage life, not to mention her street cred as a fellow youngster, gives the story extra social resonance as a coming-of-age tale.