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Critical Analysis: The Plastic Age, by: Percy Marks
The Plastic Age appeared in 1924, and all but disappeared after Grosset and Dunlap's photoplay edition in 1925. It reappeared in 1980 as part of the "Lost American Fiction" series published by Southern Illinois University Press. The Plastic Age was part o
f larger cultural trends. The popularity of the novel was due to the climate in which it was published; as such, it did not enjoy the longevity of other best sellers.
The best seller The Plastic Age, by Percy Marks, is part of two larger trends in fiction. The first and most obvious is that of the "college novel". The second is as a fictional representation of current cultural trends. The Plastic Age was written in a t
ime of great cultural change, and provided an easily read primer on the youth of the 1920's. The 1920's were an era obsessed with youth on all levels be they local, national, scholarly, etc. Additionally, the 1920's were a time of great prosperity. Prospe
rity often gives a society the time to find new problems, which tend to be social in nature.
The United States had come out of World War I as a prosperous nation, which had finally been recognized as an influential country on an international basis. The United States played an important role in the latter days of the war, and in the peace negotia
tions. It should, also, be noted that the experience of World War I, for the first time, gave the opportunity of international travel and all that implies to members of most social classes. The men, who returned from Europe, brought a level of experience
or sophistication home to a no longer isolated nation. The experience of war and the absorption of another culture change forever the individual's as well as a nation's values and self-perception.
At home, there was a change ensuing that would forever alter the individual and nation without the influence of outside agents. During this time period, the United States experienced a monumental shift from an agrarian society to an urban society. Between
1910 and 1930, the population went from 54% rural to 44%. Farmers, who worked small and/or non-mechanized farms, were dislocated to cities in search of employment (Risjord 227). The social changes that occur in a culture when this happens have been well
documented. The changes most relevant to an analysis of The Plastic Age, and other books, of this genre, are the isolation from the extended family of a village culture, the subsequent dislocation of youth, and a sense of anomie first recognized on a broa
d scale within a larger culture be it in neighborhood, city, or nation.
There were additional demographic shifts that shaped the culture into which The Plastic Age was received. The United States was experiencing a level of prosperity and concomitant standard of living that had never been seen. In 1921, real per capita income
was $522. By 1929, it was $716. (Risjord 228) This prosperity brought independence from the extended family, and geographic dislocation as has been discussed. The living arrangements of young adults changed as a consequence. Many more never married adult
s, to include young adults, were residing separately from their families. There was much discussion of single young women living alone, and the impending moral and societal disintegration. As a result, women's boarding houses, with strict supervision came
into being. According to the 1910 census, 39.1% of never married women and 45.6% of such men were not residing with their parents. The size of this population grew considerably through the 1920's. There was, also, a marked increase in college attendance.
The 1920 census reported 810,704, 18-20 year olds attending school. By the 1930 census, that number had increased to 1,449,343.
The Plastic Age tells the story of dislocated youth. The characters, in this novel, struggle with their burgeoning independence, precipitated by college attendance, in a changing cultural landscape. These youth represented the youth of the 1920's to the b
ook's audience. Their struggle for independence is revealed through their individual struggles with sex and romance. They seek a means of defining their values, when the values of their peers are disparate from those of their parents. The relationships an
d events, of this novel, mirrored similar happenings throughout the nation.
The literature, of the time, represents the new perception of the United States in that what happens at the micro level of relationships is recognized as potentially transforming on a macro level. There were two themes, in the literature of this period, t
hat were far more prevalent than the "college novel", but both themes are relevant to an analysis of The Plastic Age. The first was a general condemnation of rural traditions and lifestyle. The village and its farmer were to be scorned. They were backward
, and places to be escaped. There was a mean undercurrent to the rural existence found in the more serious books with this subject. (Leuchtenburg 225-228) The debate between rural versus urban values contained in these novels is similar to the debate bet
ween adult and youth values in the "college novel" of this period. The second theme was that of the individual. This corresponds well with the isolationist response of the U.S. to their experience in World War I. It was, also, part of a larger backlash ag
ainst the perceived corruption of the Victorian era. These books contained a since of nihilism and narcissism that was not a part of the literature of the 19th century. (Leuchtenburg 141-156) Simply put the United States was experiencing growing pains in
ternally and externally that were represented in the art of this period.
A survey of the research, in this time period, shows a considerable amount of interest in youth, and their behavior. Numerous papers to include: "Sex Experiences of Boyhood." Journal of Social Hygiene 12 (1926): 262-273, "On the Psycho-Sexuality of Colleg
e Graduate Men." Mental Hygiene 7 (1923): 697-714, "In Defense of Necking." The New Student 7 April 1926: 9-10, "Petting and the Campus." The Survey Vol. 54 1 July 1925: 393-395, 412, and "The Mating Season of Co-Education." Contemporary Attitudes: Essays
in Many Fields of Thought. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929: 434-442, deal with the changing social mores of youth and the attendant repercussions. (Gormley 10)
Into this framework, The Plastic Age was introduced. The Plastic Age was not the first novel, of this genre, to be published in the United States, but it was the number two bestseller of 1924 (Hackett 189). As such, it holds an important place in America
's literary and cultural history. The Plastic Age followed in the genre and literary tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920), Charles Norris' Salt (1918), and Reginald Kaufman's Jarvis of Harvard (1901).
Marks first sent his manuscript to Harcourt Brace, but the manuscript was rejected because it was viewed as "deliberately scandalous?overemphasizing youth's interest in sex" (Kunitz). This initial reception was repeated once the novel had been published a
nd distributed, but not to the degree that one would expect. There was a curiosity about youth in this period, and an overall loosening of the moral values carried over from the Victorian period. It was not just the literature of youth that had become mor
e sexualized. This was, also, the beginning of risqué advertising, movies, and dancing (Leuchtenburg 168-171).
Marks quickly found another publisher, and his novel was published in early 1924 by New Century Co. The Plastic Age was extremely popular with the average reader. As was mentioned, The Plastic Age was the number two best seller of 1924, but it was, also,
the number five most purchased book of fiction by libraries (Publishers' Weekly 689). This suggests that the book met a communication/ entertainment need for the buying public. There was a demand for information concerning youth, and an ever-growing youth
The reviews of The Plastic Age frequently sited its' realism, and the sexual discussion contained therein. These were great selling points. It was promoted by the publisher as a "college novel" written by an actual "college man" (Publishers' Weekly 1247).
The implication being that this novel would provide a first-hand account of the lives of actual college students. Both the reviews and the promotion served as signals that the book would satisfy the curiosities of the reading public.
The subject matter, of The Plastic Age, was its selling point. It was a novel reflecting current cultural trends and interests. The reviews did not site elements, such as literary quality, that would suggest staying power. As such, the novel had a flash o
f popularity and then disappeared.
Advertisement, The Publishers' Weekly 105, no. 13 (12 April 1924) 1247.
Gormley, Todd A., "Progressive Petting: The youth of the 1920's", 1998
Hackett, Alice Payne, 70 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1965, New York: R. R. Bowker Co., 1967.
Kunitz, Twentieth century authors; first supplement. A biographical dictionary of modern literature, New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1955
Leuchtenburg, William E., The Perils of Prosperity 1914-1932 2nd edition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993
"Library Association Announces Best Sellers" The Publishers' Weekly 107, no. 8 (21 February 1925) 689.
Risjord, Norman K., America: A History of the United States 2nd edition, Engelwood, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1988
United States Census Bureau, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census records.