Saturday, November 03, 2012

Really? High Schoolers Need A New "Catcher In The Rye?" Do They Need Any "Catcher In The Rye?"

In So Long, Holden at Slate, Jessica Roake argues that Catcher in the Rye is dated and of little interest to contemporary students and suggests a replacement. I'm totally with her assessment of Catcher in the Rye, but, then, I've never liked it. Where I break with her is in the need to replace it in high school classrooms with another so-called "coming of age" novel. With all the literature out there--YA and adult--why is it so urgent that schools hunt for a novel to replace one Roake describes as expressing the "fundamental teenage anguish" "that in life, phonies abound and beauty is a fragile, horrible thing we will forever chase and lose."

First off, I would argue that the fundamental teenage anguish is struggling to accept the passage of time and life and determining how they will live the life and time that they have in a way that will provide meaning and some kind of happiness for them. The last couple of generations have grown up on TV. They learned about phonies at Mom's knee. "...beauty is a fragile, horrible thing we will forever chase and lose?" That's a very particular life view that I don't think is necessarily universal.

I can't make any pretense of knowing what adolescents need to read or enjoy reading. But I do think coming-of-age novels, which tend to be ones, in my experience, that have as their theme introducing young characters to the adult world of death, sex, and general misery, are something adult readers embrace. It's as if the coming-of-age novel is a gateway to the adult world, a world that is oh, so important because of death, sex, and general misery. This is the real world and childhood and adolescence is some kind of fantasy that the young must pass out of to become adults, adulthood being what really matters. Young people may not be so enamored of that concept.

God knows, I am all too aware of the death and general misery aspects of adulthood. (Notice how I'm being coy about sex?) But let's get over ourselves and move on.

I would also like to point out that when essayists write about Catcher in the Rye and the universal experience of reading and loving it, they are talking about a subgroup of the population that experienced a particular college prep sort of education. Not everyone over the age of 40 has read Catcher in the Rye. Not even close. I would argue that there are a lot of people who haven't even heard of it.

Hey, in the world I grew up in, rye was just something people drank.

5 comments:

Ms. Yingling said...

I finally read this a few years ago at the behest of a student who loved it, but I was too old and it did nothing for me. I don't think assigned novels speak to many students- the best books are one readers stumble upon. That said, my 9th grade English teacher made me adore Fahrenheit 451, but I think I was the only one in the class who did!

gail said...

I was in my 30s when I read it. By that time, I had read plenty of "sound alikes" because it has been such a big influence on literature. Even though I know it's the book that created the mold, because I didn't read it first it didn't seem at all unique or meaningful.



noochinator said...

In the film 'Six Degrees of Separation', high-brow con-artist Paul (Will Smith) made easy prey of Fifth Avenue socialites, the Kittredges: Ouisa (played by Stockard Channing) and Flan (played by Donald Sutherland). Sharp-witted, articulate, and cultured, he persuasively charmed them with his words about J.D. Salinger's 1951 book 'A Catcher in the Rye':

A substitute teacher out on Long lsland was dropped from his job for fighting with a student. A few weeks later, he returned to the classroom, shot the student --- unsuccessfully, held the class hostage, and then shot himself --- successfully. This fact caught my eye. Last sentence, [from] the Times [article]: 'A neighbor described the teacher as a nice boy, always reading Catcher in the Rye.'

This nit-wit Chapman, who shot John Lennon, said he did it because he wanted to draw the attention of the world to Catcher in the Rye, and the reading of this book would be his defense.

Young Hinckley, the whiz kid who shot Reagan and his press secretary, said: 'If you want my defense, all you have to do is read Catcher in the Rye'...

I borrowed a copy from a young friend of mine, because I wanted to see what she had underlined. And I read this book to find out why this touching, beautiful, sensitive story, published in July 1951, had turned into this manifesto of hate. I started reading. It's exactly as I had remembered. Everybody's a phony. Page two: 'My brother's in Hollywood being a prostitute.' Page three: "What a phony slob his father was.' Page nine: 'People never notice anything.' Then, on page 22, my hair stood up. Well. Remember Holden Caulfield, the definitive sensitive youth wearing his red hunter's cap? A deer hunter's cap? 'Like hell it is. I sort of closed one eye like I was taking aim at it.' 'This is a people shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat.'

This book is preparing people for bigger moments in their lives than I had ever dreamed of. Then, on page 89, 'I'd rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an axe than sock him in the jaw.' 'I hate fistfights. What scares me most is the other guy's face.' I finished the book. It's touching and comic. The boy wants to do so much and can't do anything. Hates all phoniness and only lies to others. Wants everyone to like him but is only hateful and is completely self involved. In other words, a pretty accurate picture of a male adolescent.

gail said...

But, Nooch, did you like it?

"Hates all phoniness and only lies to others. Wants everyone to like him but is only hateful and is completely self involved." I wonder if the Catcher Lovers perceive it that way.

noochinator said...

I like 'Six Degrees of Separation' better than 'Catcher'.