When I was in high school—which feels like a very long time ago now, but really is just over twenty years ago—there were books that it was expected one would read before graduation. Certain classics are just part of the junior high and high school experience, in much the same way that the Newberry award winners are a part of the elementary school experience—here in America, at least. Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451… I read many of these, some of which will appear on this list before it’s over. (After all, they’re classics for a reason, right?) There’s one, however, that I managed to miss completely: 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.
Catcher (as I’ll abbreviate for convenience here) is one of the quintessential teenage novels. Now, with that said, I’ll try to avoid the five-dollar words for the rest of this, and not slip into English-teacher mode. The book has been included in numerous best novel lists, and is hotly debated every time it comes up. Since the early 1960s it has repeatedly faced challenges and censorship, even to the point that at one time it was accused of being part of a communist plot (seriously! Check its Wikipedia entry). It’s also been linked to several shootings, including the famous assassination attempt on president Reagan, and the murder of John Lennon. It’s controversial as a youth novel for its seeming promotion of rebellion and opposition to moral values; but as always, the actual viewpoints of the main character aren’t so cut-and-dry. Wikipedia has this to say about it:
The challenges generally begin with Holden’s frequent use of vulgar language, with other reasons including sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values and moral codes, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, promiscuity, and sexual abuse. Often the challengers have been unfamiliar with the plot itself.
Looking back through the lens of present-day society, it seems strange to me that these things are so controversial in a work of fiction; I was reading Stephen King’s vulgar, inflammatory portrayal of Detta Walker (The Drawing of the Three) in sixth grade, and no one said a word. (They would have probably said something if I read it out loud, I suppose, but that’s a different matter. No one ever limited their criticism of The Catcher in the Rye to verbal readings.) Perception of morality in society is a funny thing sometimes; I suspect that many of the challenges stem from the fact that teachers, librarians, and other authority figures don’t want to be seen as endorsing the concepts in the book, rather than from a desire to protect children from those concepts. We know that morally suspect ideas exist; we just don’t want to be seen supporting them, even if we’re secretly okay with their existence. The hypocrisy of that statement would have made Catcher protagonist Holden Caulfield furious, or possibly just made him laugh.
I was not young when I finally got to this book. I was thirty-six at the time, which is most definitely not the target audience for the book. Perhaps that’s why I don’t “get” the book the way that high schoolers often do; or perhaps it’s my age, coupled with parts of my background. I was romantically angsty as a teenager, and even angsty with regard to my purpose in life, but never with the level of despair and disillusionment that Holden Caulfield experiences. I knew it was likely to be this way when I started the book; and I had to fight the temptation to just dismiss the book out of hand. Reading it as an adult, my first was reaction was to yell at Holden for his childishness. He’s a boarding school student who gets expelled on the day the story begins; he spends the duration of the story putting off going home and facing his parents, meanwhile engaging in various other activities mostly involving a love interest named Sally Hayes. He also meets up with his sister Phoebe, and plots to run away, but ultimately relents. The story is framed by Holden’s later experiences in some sort of institution (it’s not specified whether this is for mental health, medical care, or correction, but I have seen suggestions that it may have been for tuberculosis). Throughout the story, Holden talks about his feelings of alienation, and his disgust at the hypocrisy he sees in the world and the adults in it. He also focuses on the idea of innocence in children, most notably in his sister; it’s her happiness that in the end convinces him not to run away.
Holden’s issues are a teenager’s issues; I freely admit that I don’t feel the same things at this point in my life. However, it’s that fact that ultimately persuaded me to continue the book. While his circumstances are perhaps a little extreme (for dramatic purposes, of course), the things he feels are things that every teenager experiences. It may not be mature, but it’s valid. Holden is definitely no hero—there’s no evidence that he’s changed for the better at the end—but he’s certainly a sympathetic character to those who are where he is in life. It was eye-opening to me as a father; I have a twelve-year-old daughter (nine at the time I read the book) who is beginning to feel some of what Holden Caulfield felt. It wouldn’t do me any good to treat her as though her feelings are unimportant just because they’re not adult yet. We all have to pass through this age to get to adulthood; if you doubt the importance of that passage, just look back at how strong your own memories are of your teenage years. Sometimes we need someone outside ourselves to mirror the things that are inside us, so that we can understand those things better. That’s what Holden Caulfield is—at least to people his age—and I’m grateful to him for that.