Frank Kermode

  • The Generation of 1914 by Robert Wohl
    Weidenfeld, 307 pp, £12.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77756 4

‘Generationalism’, as Mr Wohl designates the practice of thinking about history and society in terms of the characteristics attributed, usually by themselves, to members of particular age-groups, is a conceptual device nobody seems to have studied very closely till the 19th century. Not, of course, that conflicts between youth and age hadn’t been noticed: ‘they hate us youth,’ as Falstaff remarked, thinking of his behaviour rather than his age. Nor is it always the part of youth to be the wild ones. They may come on strong for discipline, reversing decadent trends, restraining reckless middle age. The novelty of 19th-century generationalism lay in a new self-consciousness about generational differences, and a desire to discover in them some historical dynamic. The result was a good deal of tediously abstract speculation about the length of a generation, the manner in which it acquired its characteristics, and so forth. Meanwhile more practical politicians found ways of using the cults of youth which acquired dignity as a consequence of all this cerebration.

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