Monday, February 1, 2010

The Catcher In the Rye...or Whiskey...or Gin

In most American high schools, The Catcher in the Rye is considered required reading. It has long also been named as a candidate for the 'Great American Novel' (whatever that is) since its publication in 1952. Its author, JD Salinger, just died and there has been a lot of retrospectives done in the media over both his significance and the significance of his book. I have been of two minds ever since I read it when I was a sophomore in high school - two minds that really demonstrate something about the maturation process and the place the novel holds in academia now.

For what it is worth, the book has done very well, selling nearly 60 million copies in its nearly 60 years of existence. That alone has to mean something, whether we want to admit it or not. Its impact may not truly be known, especially since the man that formed the words never really came out to talk about it, which was his decision. Much has been made of Salinger as a 'recluse', but that mostly came about due to his refusal to be star-f*cked like so many people out there.

What do I feel about it? When I was 15, I thought it was the greatest book I ever read. No, Holden Caulfield did not embody what I thought, but it was an engrossing story. I got my first ever 'A' in English in my four years of high school thanks to the book and its capturing of my imagination. I couldn't necessarily 'relate' to Holden, as I wasn't a prep-school guy who saw 'goddamn phoniness' behind everything that could be sensed, but there was something to the angst even as I was one of the last people to go through the angst-y stage.

Now? My attitude is sort of a 'I can't believe I liked it that much in my teen years!' In other words, I grew up and discovered that most of the angst that Holden suffers through is the true phoniness; he projects upon others what ultimately is his own worst trait. My advice to my students (all of whom are sophomores) is usually to read with a critical eye - eventually, you will not be seeing the world in the same way as Holden. You will have responsibilities and you will have to shed the angst of the (mostly imagined) world. Mostly, Holden Caulfield is an ass, but one could hope that he would grow out of it. If he were a real person, he probably would, but since he is forever stuck in a literary world, he won't. The key is for the reader to know that he can shed the characterization and persona. He must, or else he will be forever a victim, blaming others for the problems of his own making.

Just like Holden Caulfield.

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