HEARTS OF OAK: Salinger’s works still matter

Jonas Kane

When J.D. Salinger passed away two weeks ago, stories reporting on his death predictably sparked a renewed interest in the mystery and gossip surrounding the latter portion of the author’s life. 

Naturally, people have taken an interest in information that has leaked out about the reclusive writer’s personal life. Harping on celebrities’ personal lives is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of our need-to-know culture.  Salinger learned this the hard way when he became an instant literary icon.

From a societal standpoint, however, a more interesting query had already begun in recent years concerning the sustainability of “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book that has been a mainstay in high school classrooms for decades.

Over the years, the inclusion of “Catcher” in the classroom has introduced countless teens to the novel’s perpetually anxious 16-year-old narrator, Holden Caulfield. Holden’s distinctive, skeptical and sometimes odd worldview has connected with many younger readers during their own periods of confusion and questioning during adolescence.

Yet even before Salinger’s passing, there were already murmurs that perhaps it’s time to retire his best-known novel from high school curriculums. 

Last summer, when Salinger took legal action to bar the publication of an unauthorized sequel to “Catcher,” The New York Times used the occasion to publish “Get a Life, Holden,” an article pondering whether Holden’s gripes are still relevant to modern teens.

The basic critiques from that article, and from other recent musings on the contemporary applicability of the novel, are essentially this: the language of the book is dated, teens today are more interested in conforming and succeeding within the system than rebelling, teens already vent their emotions through social networks and, ultimately, the novel is too much of a period piece. 

To make its point, the Times article finished with this quote from a 15-year-old: “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.'”

This anecdotal evidence seems to be pretty damning. After all, in an age where kids can vent through Facebook or supposedly solve their qualms by popping pills (medically sanctioned, of course), what place do the confused ramblings of Holden — a product of the mid-20th century — have?

Certainly, there’s no doubt that some elements of “Catcher” are dated; for instance, many of Holden’s gripes at Pencey Prep and his awkward encounter with a hotel prostitute are, in their details, specific to an era passed. But details in any book become dated over time.

To listen to his detractors, however, it’s Holden’s voice that’s now unrelatable. There’s no room, they argue, for the “alienated antihero” in a contemporary society where, apparently, kids either don’t have issues or, if they do, they are conveniently solvable through medication.

The problem with these critiques is that they are as simplistic and narrow as Holden’s own worldview, which tends to divide the world into those that are genuine and those that are “phonies.” It’s an adult view that assumes every teen is content to bare his soul on a social networking site or to get straight A’s and enroll in an Ivy League institution. 

Just as important, it’s not to take seriously the natural questioning that teens should undergo during their formative years. The critique assumes that text messaging and social networking (which, at any rate, are primarily means of communicating with friends) can somehow replicate the thoughtful power of literature.

Salinger’s success in creating Holden lies in establishing a powerful teenage voice rife with flaws, uncertainty and unreliability. By taking this voice seriously — instead of treating it condescendingly or dismissively — “Catcher” became, and still is, an important read for many teens. 

Adolescents today, like those of previous generations, will go through different levels of questioning; for some it will be bigger, and for some it will be smaller. To suggest that they shouldn’t be uncertain is an attempt by adults to simplify a difficult but important transition in life by saying it need not exist in modern times. 

If “Catcher in the Rye” is to be replaced in the classroom, it shouldn’t be because of pills or social networking. It should be because its voice has been transcended by another work of fiction that can effectively capture the necessary skepticism of adolescence. 

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Jonas Kane is a senior English and political science major from Harrisburg, Pa.  He can be reached at [email protected]