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Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction

Kenneth Millard

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This book explores the ways in which a range of recent American novelists have handled the genre of the 'coming-of-age' novel, or the Bildungsroman. Novels of this genre characteristically dramatise the vicissitudes of growing up and the trials and tribulations of young adulthood, often presented through depictions of immediate family relationships and other social structures.

This book considers a variety of different American cultures (in terms of race, class and gender) and a range of contemporary coming-of-age novels, so that aesthetic judgements about the fiction might be made in the context of the social history that fiction represents.

A series of questions are asked:

  • Does the coming-of-age moment in these novels coincide with an interpretation of the 'fall' of America?
  • What kind of national commentary does it therefore facilitate?
  • Is the Bildungsroman a quintessentially American genre?
  • What can it usefully tell us about contemporary American culture?

Although the focus is on the contemporary period, this is placed in the context of reference to earlier novels and criticism of the genre, as well as historical changes in the status of the family, and the adolescent within it.

Key Features

  • Provides detailed interpretations of 12 key contemporary novels from authors including Purple America by Rick Moody, The Age of Consent by Geoffrey Wolff, The Virgin Suicides by Jefffrey Eugenides and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel.
  • Explains the importance of the coming-of-age genre to the broader American literature canon.
  • Makes a significant intervention in contemporary debate about what is most valuable in recent American fiction.


American Adolescence: The Contemporary Coming-of-Age Novel
Introduction: Contemporary Coming-of-Age: Subject to Change
1. In the Name of the Father
Brady Udall, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, 2001.
Russell Banks, Rule of the Bone, 1995.
2. I Change Therefore I Am: Growing up in the Sixties
Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land, 1996.
Geoffrey Wolff, The Age of Consent, 1995.
3. Citation and Resuscitation
Rick Moody, Purple America, 1997.
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides, 1993, and Middlessex, 2001.
4. Language Acquisition: Life Sentences
Scott Bradfield, The History of Luminous Motion, 1989.
Mark Richard, Fishboy, 1993.
5. Lexicon of Love
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, 1981.
Josephine Humphries, Rich in Love, 1987.
6. Memoirs and Memorials
Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina, 1992.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation, 1995.

About the Author

Kenneth Millard is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Edinburgh, and author of Edwardian Poetry (OUP, 1991) and Contemporary American Fiction (OUP, 2000).


...a valuable contribution to the study of contemporary American literature... Millard's readings of the coming-of-age novels presented in Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction testify to his admirable critical acumen and encourage readers to explore further the genre along the lines staked out in his book. Moreover, it is a very interesting text in its own right; intellectually stimulating, informed by empathy and political passion.
- European Journal of American Studies
This promises to be an original and comprehensive work in American literary and cultural studies.
- Professor Bert Bender, Arizona State University
This is a readable, excellent addition to the literature. Highly recommended.
- Choice