Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Living past 30
Jonal entry 911 | Friday, September 2, 2005
On a PBS program about jazz-age writer F. Scott Fitzgerald this week, Fitzgerald was quoted from a letter to his editor, Max Perkins, as saying that he expected to die before 30, and he was now 29. This phenomenon has struck me many times throughout the years, since I first heard it from the lips of one of my first close Nanty Glo friends in my teens. The friend looked like he might be suffering from some chronic conditions, and I thought maybe he had been visited by a premonition of his early demise. It was, after all, the 1950's, the decade that had early been struck by the tragic death of James Dean. And in the Blacklick Valley there had been a succession of teenage deaths, including my brother's and his friends Buzz Baldwin's and Joe Benkosky's, and not long afterward Janice Williams', all in Blacklick Township, and several notable ones in the borough, so "the good die young" was almost a mantra we grew up with. And a few years after my Nanty Glo friend's prediction that he wouldn't survive his 30th birthday (he's still surviving, by the way), there was the death of pop music stars Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens who were memorialized in a top ten song called "Three Stars," that we all knew and danced to for a while. And as if there weren't enough factual teenage deaths at the time, there were fictional ones like the one memorialized in "Teen Angel" about a girl who runs back to her boyfriend's car, stalled on the railroad tracks, to retreive his high school ring but, sadly and more importantly, to meet her fate as the train beat her to the punch, so to speak.
A few years after I left the valley and was doing research for my book about the hippies, the early death motif came back into play, when one of the sayings among the hippies widely reported was, "don't trust anyone over 30," as though none of them were ever going to be over 30. I've written about this before, but think I've come up with another tack to take on it now. I think the whole phenomenon of not wanting to live past 30 is about not wanting to be that other person you have to become when you make the transition from boyhood to manhood. You are fully matured as a child or boy at 30, but from then on you begin working on the man.personna. The aspirations of boyhood are to grow up, but not, to many at least, to grow beyond boyhood but rather to achieve the most advanced stage of boyhood, total independence on adults, knowing just about everything to be known about everything there is, able to do adult activities without having to answer to anyone about them. That's not fully realized until you're about 30. Though the "ideal" is that you're fully matured by 21, most people still have to depend on Dad and Mom for some support beyond that point, especially if they go to college. And if totally emancipated from the parents, most 20-somethings have to depend on room-mates and mentors until they're finally achieving an "adult" salary and the independence that goes with it, and that isn't realized until about 30.
So at 30 you've arrived. You've achieved everying you ever lived for...so, why go on living? Been there, done that.
Have you noticed all the death-wish references were to males? I don't know that I've ever heard a young woman say she didn't expect to live beyond 30. In fact, I've encountered a phenomenon that runs counter to the male Peter-Pan syndrome. Also in my youth, I heard more than one middle-aged woman say that, looking back over all her years, she thought the best began after she was fully grown and had started her family. This seems to indicate a major divergence in the thinking of the sexes, especially in their formative years. Maybe it means boys generally like their childhood better than girls, or to put it more critically, they're more disinclined to grow up.
I think this phenomenon has a relationship to the military lives of many young men. The whole society teaches that going into the military at 18 or so makes the transition from boy to man go more smoothly. It forces transitions that are more radical than the ones encountered in high school and college, in sports and in boys clubs like Scouts. In the military, all the old rules are superseded by new ones. And...I think some of the motivation on the part of more than a few of the recruits is the attitude, "If I don't survive it...I didn't expect to see 30 anyway!"
I think also this is a phenomenon that began in our generation and is being passed on from us to our sons and grandsons. Before our generation, a boyhood was such a luxury that the majority of even young boys could hardly afford to have one. Our dads were in the mines, brick factories and coke ovens, mills and commercial pursuits by 14, and had been doing part-time money-earning occupations even before that. By the '50's, jobs for youths became scarce (largely because of more enlightened labor rules) and leisure time was, for the first time, something that boys could enjoy for years longer than their elders had.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, by the way, came from a very affluent background, so he was ahead of the curve on having time to ponder the implausibility of full adulthood. And he lived beyond 30...dying in 1940 at age 44. The PBS documentary said that in 1939 he earned only $13.13 in royalties on his many novels, but since his death they have sold millions of copies. (Most college lit teachers consider The Great Gatsby to be his masterpiece.)
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