Friday, July 03, 2009

A Post-Holden World?

Last week I mentioned a New York Times article, Get a Life, Holden Caulfield, in which Jennifer Schuessler claimed that today's teenagers may not be as taken with Holden as their elders were. She said, "What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as “weird,” “whiny” and “immature.”"

This week, I was reading Jon Meacham's column in Newsweek, Love Books? You're in the Right Place, which introduces the magazine's special issue on books. (I am a long, long way from finishing that, by the way.) Meacham said, "Many young people go through a Walden phase, believing that Thoreau and, in "Self-Reliance," Emerson saw through to the realities of life, past the "phoniness" that so obsessed Holden Caulfield."


All of a sudden, I experienced one of those flashes of insights that come upon me periodically and I thought, Phoniness is the key to why Holden Caulfield may be leaving today's kids cold.

Back in the fifties, when Catcher in the Rye was published, and the sixties and seventies and maybe even in the eighties, Holden's insight that the world was full of phonies may have been a revelation for young people. Not so much now. Young people today have grown up watching movie and TV special effects, reading about plastic surgery, and hearing about one crooked politician after another. (Just in my state, alone, we had at least three high-profile elected figures in prison at the same time. We've got two more right now whose ethics are questionable.) Today's young people aren't going to be wandering around all despondent over the phoniness of it all because, what with the famous twenty-four hour news cycle and classroom current events, they were never under any illusion about what was going on around them.

Remember Quiz Show? It was a very good movie about the game show scandals of the 1950s. I don't recall it doing particularly well in the theaters. My theory was that in 1994, when it was released, the movie-going public, which had grown up in a post-game show scandal world, had a hard time imagining a time when anyone believed that TV wasn't fixed in one way or another. They couldn't accept the basic premise of the movie, that all of America believed what was happening on TV and was distressed to find out that it was faked.

That's how I think kids today may be regarding Catcher in the Rye. Having grown up in a post-Holden world, they have trouble believing he didn't know better.

On top of that, Holden Caulfield inspired a long line of imitators. Kids may have already read books about angstie teenagers before they get to Catcher in the Rye, thus making the original seem derivative. Sad and unfair, but that's how I felt about the book when I first read it when I was in my thirties. Catcher may suffer as a result of its success.

I'm not a Catcher in the Rye expert, by any means. But I'm wondering how much it deals with the society of its time, versus books that deal with relationships between people. Societies may change over time more obviously than people do, so a book rooted in its social world risks becoming dated more quickly than one that relies on a relationship between characters.

Just a guess.

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