Fortune’s Child

Youth as glimpsed by its elders is a story that comes from afar, showing itself as either lovely to look at or a torment to endure.

By Lewis H. Lapham

The Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1770.

The Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1770.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

—William Wordsworth

I first encountered “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” in November 1953, on the same day in a college survey of English literature that introduced the class to Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy. The professor in charge of the lesson pointed to the portrait as an embodiment of the further thought some lines later in Wordsworth’s poem that “a six years’ darling of a pygmy size” is both a “mighty prophet” and a wise philosopher, that a “growing boy” is “nature’s priest.”

I didn’t know the painting, but the costume I recollected from having seen it on the person of Larry Spenser, five years old in September 1940, stepping out of a chauffeured Rolls-Royce on his first day at the Peninsula School in Menlo Park, California, trailing precisely the same cloud of glory—blue silk suit, lace collar, white stockings, ribboned shoes—except that he was wearing, not holding, the plumed hat. The noisy, unkempt children already present in the schoolyard, myself among them, stared in silent, gap-toothed wonder at the heaven-sent being that had cometh from afar to fall in our midst, not in utter nakedness, but in his mother’s intimations of immortality.

Larry’s mother was devoted to “the arts” and rich enough to afford the privilege of her enthusiasms—multiple husbands, houses in Switzerland and Italy, a large estate in the hills west of Palo Alto furnished with pavilions in the Chinese style, best of all with Larry, her life’s star and most prized possession. He looked the part, but the picture was deceptive. Willful, clever, ruthless, predatory, vain, Larry was nature’s brute creation, a growing beast.

I’ve never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It’s probably because they have forgotten their own.

—Margaret Atwood, 1976

Between the ages of five and eight we spent a good deal of time together, at school and on the hillside estate, where I could count on always finding him either angry or aggrieved—the German governess had burned the milk; he didn’t like the Shetland pony his mother found for him in Scotland. What she had brought him that he really liked was a sword said by the dealer in Paris to have accompanied Napoleon to Austerlitz, worn by Larry in the sash from one of his pirate costumes. His passion was cruelty to small animals, and what he liked to do with the sword was to stab a frog, behead a chicken, roast a chipmunk or a squirrel. 

I was well acquainted with the swiftness of Larry’s deft and joyful turns to violence when on a Saturday afternoon in 1943 we went together to a children’s concert in the San Francisco Opera House to see Pierre Monteux conduct the orchestra playing Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The two of us at the age of eight were seated in the center of a row thirty feet from the stage, and Larry had with him what looked to be an old and venerable book, fitted with brass hinges and bound in leather. Ten minutes into the performance he decided that he didn’t like the music, found it so disagreeable that he thought the time had come to play a merry prank and do away with the fat man waving the baton. Opening the book that proved to be a box, he drew forth an eighteenth-century dueling pistol (another present from his mother’s Paris connection), its barrel oiled and loaded, its flash pan primed with powder.

As to what happened next I can’t now say for certain. I remember knowing at the time that Larry was a harsh critic, apt to act on impulse and not likely to make an important distinction between a Frenchman and a squirrel. Maybe he was only fondling the pistol to show and tell himself a mighty prophet and a wise philosopher. Then again, maybe not. I like to think that somehow I stayed his hand, whispered him down from the roof of a very bad idea, but it’s also possible that he pulled the trigger. If so, the shot was poorly aimed. Nobody screamed, the music didn’t stop, Larry wasn’t led away in handcuffs. 


What I do know for certain is that appearances can be misleading, that recollections of early childhood bear comparison to fairy tales, and that youth remains an unknown country to whose bourn no traveler returns except as the agent of a foreign power. The imagined once-upon-a-time is memory edited and revised to fit a past to a present. Composing an autobiography in 1909, Mark Twain said of his boyhood recollections, “As sworn testimony they are not worth anything; they are merely literature”; G.K. Chesterton seconded the motion in 1936: “Boyhood is a most complex and incomprehensible thing…A man can never understand a boy, even when he has been the boy.” 

Goya painting showing one child riding on another's shoulders.

Little Giants, by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, c. 1792. Prado, Madrid, Spain. 

Youth as glimpsed by its elders is a story that cometh from afar, showing itself either lovely to look at (Larry Spenser as seen by his mother) or a torment to endure (Larry as known to his governess and his pony), and this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly bears witness to both tellings of the tale. Plato in about 348 BC observes that “the boy is, of all wild beasts, the most difficult to manage.” The succeeding generations don’t lack for corroborating testimony: from John Locke and J. Edgar Hoover, as well as from Jean de La Bruyère (“Children are overbearing, supercilious…egotistical…intemperate, liars, and dissemblers”) and from Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century American preacher of divinity, who finds children to be “infinitely more hateful than vipers.” Juxtaposed against the warnings, admonishments, and reports of early sorrow, adorable images of youth as beauty and beauty truth decorate the walls of the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri in the sixteenth century BC, stand as portrait busts in the courtyards of ancient Rome, appear in the paintings of Sandro Botticelli, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and John Singer Sargent. 

The text that speaks most loudly to our present circumstance in modern-day America dates from around the time of the birth of Christ—the placing by the Roman poet, Ovid, of the beautiful shepherd boy Narcissus beside a pool of water that serves him as a mirror in which he sees his own eyes reflected as “a pair of stars worthy of Bacchus,/a head of hair that might adorn Apollo.” Not knowing that it is “he that he himself desires,” the boy falls in love with “a shadow that he wrongly takes for substance.” So does our cherished national identity rest on preferring the shadow for the substance, on the belief that to be American is by definition to be young and capable of wonders, exceptional, innovative, beautiful, fearless, pure of heart. All societies in all time zones (mythical, historical, and geographical) worship at the altar of youth, but none so fervently as in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Throughout the whole of the nineteenth century America’s faith in itself as the youngest and therefore best of nations—the New World phoenix risen from the Old World ashes—was sustained by its all but miraculous profusion of new discovery, new invention, new fortune that marked the transformation of a darling colonial settlement of pygmy size into an industrial and financial colossus. The century staged its grand finale by embodying its youthful energy and spirit in the person of President Theodore Roosevelt, mighty hunter of buffalo and Spaniards for whom the teddy bear was named and of whom it was said by all who knew him well that his mind was essentially that of a boy of six. 

Grown up, and that is a terribly hard thing to do. It is much easier to skip it and go from one childhood to another.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1940

Sturdy and small and relentlessly vigorous, Roosevelt liked to stage pillow fights in the White House with his children, surround himself with pets (Maude the pig, Josiah the badger, a lizard named Bill), play with medicine balls and wooden swords, dress up in cowboy costumes. In 1900 he writes for St. Nicholas magazine an essay, “The American Boy,” in which he says of his subject, “Of course what we have a right to expect of the American boy is that he shall turn out to be a good American man. Now, the chances are strong that he won’t be much of a man unless he is a good deal of a boy.”

Born into the generation succeeding Roosevelt’s, my grandfather displayed many of the president’s same qualities—impetuous, self-centered, eager in his pursuit of sports and games, his presence and example that of a somewhat older but still nimble Peter Pan. In place of the pig and the badger he surrounded himself with grandchildren in his house in Menlo Park, and during the summers when the four of us were not yet ten, he presided at the lunch table telling tales about his adventures on the Western Front in France in World War I and on the golf course at Cypress Point, about his travels in China, his voyages across the South and North Pacific, around the capes of Good Hope and Horn. Between five and six o’clock in the evenings, my grandmother read to us the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, and when with my mind’s eye I now look for scenes of my childhood, I don’t know for certain whether I’m reviewing my own highlight reel or archive footage from a child’s garden of picture books. Who is there in the red raincoat under the willow tree? Is it I, or is it Christopher Robin? Probably Christopher Robin. 


From the wistful adult point of view, youth is an all too precious asset all too often wasted on the thoughtless and unappreciative young, a lesson my elders and betters never tired of repeating in voices like the one in which Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s story breaks both the good news and the bad news to Dorian Gray:

“You really must not allow yourself to become sunburned. It would be unbecoming.”

“What can it matter?”

“It should matter everything to you.”


“Because you have the most marvelous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having.”

“I don’t feel that, Lord Henry.”

“No, you don’t feel it now. Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly…You will feel it terribly…And beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation.”

The days of my youth I remember as nearly always in need of explanation, and not as much fun as advertised in the promotions for board games and breakfast cereal. At prep school I was told, not once, but nearly every week in chapel, to heed the instruction of Shakespeare’s Polonius: above all to my own self be true. Which was all well and good if one knew who or where that self was. I didn’t, but the record shows that it was well wide of the goalposts set up by Colonel Roosevelt for the striving of the good American boy. My application to Yale College in the winter of 1952 required an introductory interview with the authorities in New Haven, and the subsequent letter from Arthur Howe Jr., assistant dean of freshmen, to the assistant headmaster at the Hotchkiss School doesn’t spare the rod at the risk of spoiling the child:

Lapham made a very poor impression on Mr. Noyes and myself, the poorest of any of the fifty-odd boys we interviewed. He appeared with his shirt unbuttoned, ragged tie, torn trousers, sloppy shoes, coat half-way up to the elbows and tousled hair. His manner was casual to the point of being rude at times. His indifference leads me to believe that he is liable to be a very poor candidate for Yale. For his own good I felt this should be brought to his attention.

Mr. Howe and Mr. Noyes were right about my not being a good candidate for Yale, or at least not one well acclimated to the glorious fog of self-congratulation swaddling the student body in the assurance that it constituted a company of precious caterpillars from whom God and country had the right to expect a swarm of rich and famous butterflies. Cyril Connolly noticed a similar system of rewards for privileged good intentions at England’s high-end public schools in the 1920s, deducing from it a “theory of permanent adolescence” to explain the several states of arrested development characteristic of Britain’s ruling and possessing classes.

In New Haven in the 1950s I spent a good deal of time off campus with students in the professional graduate schools, going on the weekends to the jazz joints in New York City instead of to the football games and the fraternities. As soon as possible after my release from protective custody at Yale, I found work as a newspaper reporter, because the job seemed to offer the best chance at discovering the whereabouts of truth that wasn’t beauty, to take the college-boy thumb out of my mouth, come of age as an adult, acquire a grown-up taste for the unsweetened fruits of earned experience.

My not-so-fond hopes and expectations I soon found to be out of tune with the drift and spirit of the times; all the songs, movements, festivals, and fashion statements of the 1960s endorsed the slogan “You can’t trust anyone over the age of thirty,” the trend-setting T-shirt variation on Wordsworth’s welcoming the advent of the French Revolution in 1788: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”


Mown inclination was to trust no one under thirty, but saying so was not and nowhere cool, a point taken by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1966: “The pursuit of happiness, which as American citizens they are obliged to undertake, tends to involve them in trying to perpetuate the moods, tastes, and aptitudes of youth.” A pursuit that not only were Americans obliged to undertake but one they surely could afford. During the first half of the twentieth century the European powers twice attempted suicide, and in 1945 the United States emerged from the ashes of the Second World War wearing the plumed hat of the world’s supreme power (military, moral, and economic), and the heirs to so magnificent a fortune assumed it capable of granting as many wishes as were asked of it. Over the last sixty years our politicians and credit-card syndicates have undertaken to foster the belief that all Americans are by definition rich kids, deserving everything and anything that it occurs to them to want—entitlements and subsidies and tax exemptions, guns and butter and movie stars, best of all the one most marvelous thing that Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry thought worth having. So successful has been the pollination of the body politic with the dream of its adorable self that the mirrors of Narcissus have become our best-loved toys and most prized possessions.

Back and white photograph of a young girl working in a factory in 1908.

“Adolescent Girl, a Spinner, in a Carolina Cotton Mill,” 1908. Photograph by Lewis Hine. Princeton University Art Museum.

Twitter and Facebook stage round-the-clock performances in the theaters of the self; Hollywood configures its movies to the tastes and aptitudes of a demographic aged twelve to twenty-four; so do the creators of video games and Broadway musicals. The celebrity gossip that is the staple of television, talk-show, and supermarket news caters to older audiences still blessed with the retention of a teenage sensibility. The strength and grace of youth on exhibit in the sports arenas support an industry worth over $50 billion per annum; the drug and healthcare industries float the rumors of immortality for an annual consideration of $2 trillion. Of our candidates for election to the White House we demand the pose of wholesome schoolboys, their charming states of arrested development seen as proofs of virtue—darling pygmies shielded by their innocence and inexperience from the corruption and decay of the government in Washington to which they cometh from afar, trailing clouds of valedictorian platitude. 

Among the wizard elves in California’s Silicon Valley, so fond is the belief in the divinity of youth that nobody dares leave home without it. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, put the proposition plainly to an audience at Stanford University in 2007: “Young people,” he said “are just smarter.” His company’s office complex in Menlo Park, close by the Peninsula School once graced by Larry Spenser in lace collar and ribboned shoes, affords the comforts of a playpen—Lego blocks, Ping-Pong tables, milk and cookies at any hour of the day and night. Noam Scheiber reports large numbers of talented computer engineers out of work and remanded to oblivion in their early and middle thirties because they look or dress too old, walk instead of skateboard, find it near impossible to attract venture capital for their start-up projects because elderly investors, not unlike the Roman emperor Tiberius in his bathing pool, hold to the belief that true and inspired genius is prepubescent. To revive their presence in and on the market the elves don’t allow themselves to become sunburned, and turn to cosmetic surgery for the uplifting of an eyelid or the removal of a blemish. Apparently nowhere between San Francisco and Santa Cruz is it politic to speak of maybe one day growing up.

So also nearly everywhere else in a society choosing to regard itself at home in the heaven of its infancy. In the red states and the blue, in shopping malls and congressional committees, on YouTube and Sunset Boulevard, perpetual youth is policy, the prime ingredient with which we make our culture and our commerce. The ancient poets say that youth’s a stuff will not endure. Our American dream machines say otherwise—youth’s the stuff that lasts forever, and fortunately we’re rich enough and smart enough to make it so. The adorable images paraded across the mirrors of the self-glorifying media are the shadows that Narcissus wrongly took for substance. They serve to cloud the not-so-lovely truth that lies about us in our body politic—16 million children caged in poverty, most of them short on food and medicine, 21 percent of Americans in their twenties unemployed, another forty thousand of similar age in prison, 37 million young people burdened with an aggregate debt of $1 trillion in student loans, two million teenagers attempting suicide each year.

The ugly numbers align with the non-Wordsworthian glimpses of youth in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly—as an act of becoming as opposed to a state of being, the learning of the awful lesson that the world is not oneself, the future a gamble won or lost, not a Paradise regained.

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