Tuesday, September 11, 2012

First Stop in Adolescent Universe: Catcher in the Rye

I was never assigned this book in high school so I couldn’t bring that perspective to my reading of it.  To be honest, when I started reading the first few chapters, my main reaction was, “Wow, this narrator is really unlikeable.” However, I then had the idea to google the words “John Green, Catcher in the Rye” and lo and behold a few years ago John Green had chosen this novel to read together online with his "nerdfighter" fans and he made three videos in which he analyzed the text.  And this sort of saved my reading of the book, took away that veil of annoyance I had placed on Holden, because at the end of his intro video he gives the readers three things to keep in mind as you’re reading, which in a way served in infuse my reading process with a higher purpose:

the first one I’ll quote directly:
“In response to the common criticism that Holden Caulfield, the narrator of the Catcher in the Rye, is unlikable; I regret to inform you that you are also unlikable. So am I. There’s this like, weird but pervasive feeling in the world of contemporary coming-of-age fiction that characters ought to be, like, either the person you want to be or the person you want to be with. And I am happy to acknowledge that Holden Caulfield is not the guy you want to be or the guy you want to be with. He’s not Edward Cullen. But he is the guy you secretly know yourself to be, which I would argue is in the end more interesting.”

And the last two things he said to keep a look out for: 2. Holden’s red hunting cap and 3. the fact that two stories are going on and there are two Holdens, the one who is experiencing the events in the story and the one who his telling us about them. For anyone else that has to read this book or is rereading it, I highly, highly recommend John Green's video discussion about it!

So along with keeping these ideas in mind, my professor also asked us to keep in mind two questions, which I'll copy here and attempting to answer these questions will be the bulk of this post:

1. Why are highschoolers assigned by parents and teachers to read this book? Why do adults tell them to read it, why do they think it's ok for teens, or "safe" for them to read?

2. Is it really a book about a teenager? If not, what is Salinger writing about?

In response to why highschoolers are encouraged to read this text, I think part of it is linked to the stereotypical idea of what adolescence is, about what most teens experience, and the belief that either a book like Catcher can be a text that half of the class will relate to because they are going through/experiencing similar episodes and perhaps the other half of the class isn’t experiencing these things but by reading the book they will be exposed to what Americans believe to be the typical nature of coming of age and thus learn from that and also perhaps have experienced vicariously enough that they themselves are not compelled to go out and do the same things as Holden.  Now, I get this theory.  I would love to conduct a sort of survey and talk to teachers around the country, both those that assign and don’t assign the text, and get their reasons for doing so.** (see note at end of this post)  So as I said while I get this, I am not a fan of perpetuating the supposed normalcy of this kind of adolescence and coming of age.  Perhaps this is because my adolescence was so different from the typical trials and triumphs depicted in most contemporary/realistic YA fiction, from Catcher in the Rye to Looking for Alaska.

However, I do think that now more than 60 years after Catcher in the Rye was written, perhaps this book should be the least of parents worries.  Young adults are hearing and seeing things much “worse” than what happens in Catcher, which is sad, but unfortunately true, especially if the state of young adults as related in fiction is to be taken as evidence.  For example, I personally would feel much more comfortable having a group of teenagers read Catcher in the Rye as opposed to Looking for Alaska (and I say this despite the fact that I read the book this summer and enjoyed parts of it). Looking for Alaska worked much more at perpetuating how normal it is for teenagers in this century to for one still be smoking, to be watching pornography, to be cursing in almost every sentence for some characters (if people thought language was an issue in Salinger’s work, Green takes it to another level just in terms of the amount of profanity per word capita), and to be engaging in sexual activities (described much more explicitly than Catcher).  And not just in other texts are teenagers being exposed to these sort of things, it’s all over the media, television, film and internet.  However, as a fellow classmate said in class last night, he believes that kids nowadays from the age of around 12 or 13 "pretty much know everything there is about sex and stuff", which may be true, but it's sad how desensitized and knowledgeable our youth is becoming to not just sex but violence, drugs, etc.

It would be interesting to see how parents and teachers reacted and justified teaching the Catcher in the Rye at the beginning when it was first entering classrooms.  I say this because, from what I can tell, books like this weren’t as widespread or even in existence, Catcher in the Rye pretty much laid the foundation for these adolescent coming of age stories in which characters face the bridge between innocence and experience.  However today, I think parents and teachers think it is “ok” to assign this book because it’s so the norm, or at least thought to be the norm because there are definitely exceptions, for YA books to be like this, because they are all in the textual tradition or line springing from Salinger’s work, and today most young adults are reading books like these, if the state of YA literature is to be taken at face value and how it is portrayed in articles and textbooks, it is the few who choose to not read contemporary fiction and instead turn to other genres like historical fiction and scifi/fantasy.  

An article published on MSNBC’s website titled: “Is Catcher in the Rye still relevant to teens?” shows the spectrum of reactions from teenagers to this book, teens who absolutely love it and others who abhor it. (you can read it here) However I find it troubling that these are the two examples they give as the two poles of opinion:

"I'm a really big fan," said Zoe, of San Marino, Calif. "My copy is totally battered and old. Holden is such a cool kid. I think he's my favorite fictional character." …

On the other side of the debate, Becky says she "could never find the teenage rebellion that was supposed to be in the book." But she came up with her own form of rebellion by destroying it in a YouTube video called "I Hate Catcher in the Rye."

So either way I find these statements troubling. One teen thinks Holden is just “such a cool kid”, so I guess she wants to be like him, which is scary.  But then there’s the other girl who can’t seem to find where the “teenage rebellion” is which is probably even more troubling since it points to the fact that teenagers have become so desensitized today and that this once “rebellious” behavior has supposedly become so the norm that she can’t seem to discern what all the rebellion talk is about.  This is possibly because as my professor pointed out last night, Holden's forms of rebellion are extremely internal, his mind is bursting with rebellious feelings but the way he acts out on them are extremely flamboyant or in anyone's face, he's not really rebelling at anyone he just has this drive to not conform.  Moreover, a high school teacher says that the following things are what his students most relate to: to Holden's "deep distrust of the adult world" and his "'to hell with the world'" attitude and "lack of connection to his parents."  I think these characteristics are also ones that have been so latched onto the typical teenager figure that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy where teenagers think they are supposed to feel all these things and thus bring that into their lives, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

Lastly, speaking to the question of whether this is really a book about a teenager and if not what is it? I wasn't sure at first how to answer this question because to me it did to be the story of a teenager, however a teenager seeing the world through a different lens, tackling bigger, universal questions, and inevitably he’s a teenager that is alive on the page, created by one who is not a teenager.  The fact that countless teenagers have related to this story speaks to the fact that Salinger succeeded in writing a story that touched a chord within that most human part of us as people, especially teenagers, even though he wasn’t endeavoring to write a novel for adolescents.  It's about a teenager but it’s also more than that, it’s about loneliness, it’s about society’s “phoniness”, about finding your place in the world and coming to terms with the chaos and complexities of how we live as humans.  So in that sense it’s more that just a story about a teenager because these universal questions linger throughout our lives and are part of us till the end.  However as I found out last night, the reason are professor asked us to think about this is because actually when Salinger wrote this he wasn't as interested in delving into the mind of a teenager, he was interested in delving into and creating a character suffering from mental illness and catapulting into a mental breakdown.  It's evident through the text that Holden is not stable, and of course how better do we know that then the fact that Holden is telling us this practically stream of conscience tale while he is in a mental institution speaking to a psychiatrist, thus we as reader sort of step into the place of listening to him in the form of his doctor.

This idea prompted our professor to start the course by having us brainstorm keywords that we associate with mental illness, and the week before she had had us do the same thing but instead for words we associate with adolescence.  After five minutes of brainstorming we were then asked to call out words and then we discussed where do the keywords for adolescents and the mentally ill meet.  And it was crazy how many words had been used to describe both sets of people.  (note: our professor also told us how the rise of high schools, mental institutions and prisons all came to be at the same time in the US, they needed a places to hold these seemingly unruly populations, interesting, huh?)

Lastly, I wanted to mention the two moments/scenes in the novel that I most enjoyed or found thought provoking. So the first is I was really drawn into the relationship between Holden and his sister, Phoebe.  I personally hadn't connected with Holden until that point, because you could tell that their relationship had an almost tangible and real affection and it was nice to see that he at least had one relationship in his life that was working and alive.  

The second moment, which is the one I found really thought provoking happened during Holden's conversation with his teacher, Mr. Antolini.  Mr. Antolini remarks: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." My initial, while still reading response to this statement was , Wow, this reminds me of conversations from John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, where Augustus Waters is so anxious about that fact that he may well be lost to history and he really wants to make his name and die nobly, however Hazel is the opposite, she doesn't fear the prospect of oblivion and she realizes in her own way the very nature of the second part of Mr. Antolini's statement.  Moreover, specifically in Catcher in the Rye, this quote seems to be personified in Holden's ideal dream to be a "catcher in the rye" and be a sort of savior of children and childhood and in the realistic, down to earth approach the two nuns he meets have towards life and their vocation, which Holden, while sympathetic towards their cause, is conflicted and feels bad about how simply and humbly they have to live (ie eating at inexpensive restaurants and wearing simple clothes for instance). There's this really great article I found about this very quote and the naivety that comes with Holden believing he can be this sort of savior of childhood.  It's written by a priest about how he had so related to Holden's desire to be this savior and after years and after reading a statement from Flannery O'Connor, he saw how naive he himself was being.  Here's a brief snippet from the piece, but if you're interested you can read the rest here

O'Connor's issue with Holden Caulfield, Gooch argues, is "the naiveté of his savior complex." In other words, rather than humbly recognizing his brokenness and his own need for a savior, Holden believes that he is the savior. Holden is at the center of his own world, and everything revolves around him. He's actually not very mature for his age, although smoking cigarettes, going with prostitutes, and cussing may make him appear so. Under the edgy surface of his coolness, Holden is a selfish boy who can't see himself as he really is.
Flannery O'Connor's critique of Holden Caulfield was ultimately a critique of me… I wanted to be the good shepherd protecting his sheep, and the cool guy making sure that no kids fell over the edge of the cliff, while forgetting that I was one of the sheep, that I was one of the kids…

 ** The NYTimes published an article that was filled with comments from teenagers who had responded to an article published, asking parents and teachers whether this book was still relevant, and the most worthwhile and perceptive comment was this one from a college sophomore at Stanford:

“The Way Holden Saw the World”
As a 19 year old who falls in a distinctly different category of life choices from Holden (studying hard, respecting authority, etc.), I can still say that Catcher in the Rye was one of my favorite books ever. I read it two more times after I had to my sophomore year of high school and wrote 3 papers about it.
The reason I love this book so much and the reason it will always always have value is not because of some amazing quality of Holden that readers can relate to, but because his observations of society are timeless, unique, and incredibly perceptive.
As a sophomore at Stanford, I still see the world through the lens of Holden all the time. Some of the kids in student government here are the phoniest bastards I have ever met. The pre-business students are definitely playing “the game” Holden’s teacher tells him about. And I have definitely felt like I wanted the world to remain the same like the Eskimos at the museum or wanted to wipe figurative f-words out of the lives of kids surrounded by bad influences.
Modern society is far too often preoccupied with superficial pursuits: money, fame, sex, “a successful career.” The deeper into that rat race you get, the harder it is to get out. Holden Caulfield wanted the world to mean something more than that surface-level “game.” And I don’t ever want to forget the way he saw the world.

From: http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/teenagers-speak-up-on-salinger/

And here's a link to my growing Pinterest Board for "YA Literature Universe", you'll find more Catcher in the Rye images there: http://pinterest.com/illuminate90/ya-literature-universe/


  1. Interesting discussion... I read Catcher on my own as a teen and liked it, read it again in grad school for class and liked it even more.

    The question of why it keeps getting assigned is interesting, but seems obvious to me: it qualifies as a "classic," so it gets more educational street-cred than contemporary lit, it is short enough for reluctant-y readers and tight HS teaching schedules alike with fairly straightforward language, and although as you've discussed, relatability is debatable (or, imho, not that relevant), it is probably a hell of a lot more relateable than most other classics in terms of POV and perspective. Aka, it's about a teenager, from the teenage point of view, and not from the perspective of anybody old who lives in England.

    Basically, it's an easy sell? One kids might actually read? :-)

    What *I* find interesting is how MUCH this book gets namedropped in contemporary YA. Keep your eye out - some YA characters love it, some hate it, but it is EVERYWHERE.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts! What you've said totally makes sense, I'm just a weird one that preferred reading about old English people instead of American teenagers haha

      And that is really interesting, I've kind of heard about that a bit, but I definitely want to keep an eye on it. As you know I don't really read to much contemporary YA, but it is curious that as you've said it crops up in so many places, I guess it's because Holden has become so synonymous with the "figure" of the "typical" adolescent...