Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Holden On: J. D. Salinger's Hero Still My Boy

Taylor and Holden--Venice Beach 2009

Times are tough all over.  Even for Holden Caulfield.

Some of us argue the cult classic hero never had it exactly easy, that his angst/anger  (though feigned as apathy) was depression amply induced by his climate and temperament.  Others disagree. Catcher in the Rye fans and critics are in fresh debate over Holden’s relevance for today’s teens.  But even before educators mourned the literary loss of J. D. Salinger last week, some educators, like those quoted in a New York Times article published last summer, say students find the prep school flunk-out obsolete.  They say Holden is “whiny,” “immature” and spoiled.  Said one student, “I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.” Writer Jennifer Schuessler concludes: “Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.”

No doubt more teens tweet about Harry.  There’s his fight rather than flight response to adversity.  There are his friends (crucial to the Facebook generation).  And there’s the fantasy, a plus for the masses who read for escape.  Harry’s more popular, like the kid voted “Best All Around” and “Most Likely to Succeed,” while Slacker Holden doesn’t make the yearbook at all, flunking out of multiple high schools. 

Harried by more competitive undergraduate programs, maybe the class of 2010 is too winded building resumes-- chasing down recs, competing in sports and arts, doing time at community service, and studying for AP courses—to get Holden.  When faced with their own pressures— the majority in single-parent families and all caught in a crushing economy--  young readers may advise Holden, as did one student in the Schuessler article, to “Shut up and take your Prozac.” 

Perhaps the beatings and bad dates Holden reports aren’t the stuff of tragedy. But given Holden lost his brother to leukemia and a classmate to suicide (wearing Holden’s sweater as he jumped from their dorm window), telling him to go pop a pill seems harsh.  Or maybe it’s the post- modern way a generation of teens teethed on Family Guy and South Park deal.  Maybe Holden doesn’t seem so novel anymore given his profanity is merely candor when compared to reality tv.  Holden’s 1950s shock appeal may be all too commonplace in 2010 when anti-depressants are the most prescribed drugs in the US and suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults.  What is shocking is how many teens are at risk.  The 2007 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment  surveyed 20,500 students on 39 campuses.  They found 3,200 diagnosed with depression, almost 40% of them in the past twelve months.  Almost one fourth were in therapy while 35.8% took antidepressant medications.  Over ten percent of those surveyed confessed "seriously considering suicide" within the past twelve months.

Based on these numbers, some may say Holden is now just the kid-next-door. But Holden approaches the disappointments of life with more than a fatalistic “It is what it is.”  He asks “But why does it have to be that way”?  Like  Stephen Dedalus he is a sensitive soul.  Like Hamlet he is more a disillusioned idealist than a cynic.  His melancholy musings denounce “the oppressor’s wrong” and “the law’s delay” (bullies who drove James Castle to suicide but were never prosecuted) while he flinches from  “the pangs of despised love.” 

And yet, Holden wants to be a champion for girls:  ”It was sort of depressing, too, because you kept wondering what the hell would happen to all of them.  When they got out of school and college, I mean.  You figured most of them would probably marry dopey guys.  Guys that always talk about how many miles they get to a gallon in their gd cars.  Guys that get sore and childish as hell if you beat them at golf, or even just some stupid game like ping-pong.  Guys that are very mean.  Guys that never read books.”

But Holden's fans do.  They're the kids who read Catcher because they want to, not because it's assigned.   The ones who meet in coffee shops to discuss it and invite me to drop by. They see Holden as a rebel with a cause.  Gotta love that. 

He's a romantic who wants to be ready for marriage.  He wants to be taught by Monsieur Blanchard, a guy he reads about in a book because “a woman’s body is like a violin and all, and... it takes a terrific musician to play it right.”   But he remains a virgin because:   “The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl…she keeps telling you to stop.  The trouble with me is, I stop.  Most guys don’t.  I can’t help it. …They tell me to stop, so I stop.”

Holden wants to save the children. He wants to rub off every “F U” on walls before the kids see them.  He wants to protect his little sister, Phoebe, as he couldn’t his brother, Allie.  He wants to catch all kids before they go over the cliff.

Does Holden still have a hold on today's youth?   Do I still like the guy?  To find out I reread my old copy of Catcher the night Salinger died.  But first... I had to ask my nineteen-year-old daughter to give me my book back.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book right around the time I began my freshman year of college. It was during a very transitional period of my life, and I felt that that made the book all the more appropriate.

    At the time that I was reading it, I felt very much as Holden, I believe, felt. I remember venturing out on things on my own, trying to explore new territories without really knowing where I was going. I just thought that I needed to go somewhere and do something, but who knows where or what. It seemed as if "Catcher" was my road map to an temporary isolationist lifestyle. I identified with Holden's new-found independence as well as with his feeling of a need to rebel against the institutions of which he was a product.

    I think that where I was in my life when I read this book was as influential to my appreciation of it as the story itself. I also think that I'm not the only one who feels this way. I believe we may all have a little Holden Caulfield in us somewhere, and that's what gives the book its appeal. Given the circumstances of my life present while I read this book and how relevant they were to its protagonist, it will always hold a special place in my list of favorites.

    By the way, there is a place on my campus where "FU" is etched into the sidewalk, and I think of the book every single time I see it.