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Unit 4: Set 5. The Private Lives of Teenagers - Introduction

Introduction | Dorry | Roberts | Activity 1 | Activity 2 | Resources

Teenagers did not become an acknowledged social group until the 1940s. Teenagers, people between the ages of 13 and 19, did exist of course, but until World War II, they were considered young people whose role in society and the family remained static from childhood to adulthood. They were to contribute labor, and possibly earnings, to the family, attend school to the extent the community felt was necessary, and prepare for an adult role.

In the 1940s and 1950s, teenagers became a distinct social group who interested psychologists and marketers of merchandise most specifically. With so much attention, they became the focus of social life and the entertainment industry in the 1950s. In spite of all that attention, the basic interests of teenagers have changed little since Mae Roberts and Dorry Shaw kept diaries.

The diaries in this section were written by two teenagers who lived about one generation apart. Though each is a brief view of the individual’s private thoughts and daily life, we can get a sense of how they saw themselves in relation to their parents, siblings, friends, and community.

The diary as a form of literature has been studied extensively by historians, literary scholars, and psychologists. These scholars suggest that women and men write diaries in a different voice; women tend to reveal or examine their feelings about events and relationships, while men tend to focus on facts. While this tendency based on gender roles may or may not hold up for individuals, the diary offers a first hand look at one person’s life, and at public events of his or her time.

These two diaries also give us an insider’s view of two North Dakota communities. Mae Roberts’ Devils Lake is in its early settlement phase. Many of their friends are newcomers like the Roberts family and farming was central to their lives. More than thirty years later, Dorry Roberts shows us Enderlin just after World War I in a town whose main industry is the railroad.