Last week the famous J.D. Salinger passed away, which lead to an internet riot of people either mourning–some respectfully, some deeply–or people taking pot shots at Salinger and his most famous character, Holden Caulfield. The funny thing is, most of the people commenting on the book really don’t know anything about how the book was received, its context, and why it was a hallmark book, and why perhaps it is disliked by so many contemporary readers. (My own theory is that many books that are taught in schools are going to be disliked, because a certain amount of students are going to dislike reading anything they are forced to read.) But over at Collen Lindsay’s blog, The Swivet, you can read a guest post by my friend Richard Bowes, who was a young adult at the time Catcher in the Rye was released. It’s an insightful post for anyone interested in Salinger, Holden Caulfield, the 1950s in America, and YA literature in general.
Does this make Catcher in the Rye great literature? No. But when it came out it was unique, a novel read mainly by young people, some of them very young at a time when YA as a category didn’t exist. There were only adult novels and a substratum of novels for children and very young teens.
By the time Salinger finally produced Franny and Zooey and got on the cover of Time Magazine, two other novels that also appealed to the young – Lord of the Flies (1954) and A Separate Peace (1959) – had started to get mentioned along with Catcher.
Like The Catcher in the Rye, these novels weren’t written for adolescents; they were discovered by them.
As a teenager in the 1990s, I preferred Franny and Zooey to Catcher in the Rye because I recognized that although I was probably similar to Holden Caulfield, he represented the worst, most obnoxious parts of my character, whereas Franny Glass was a bit subtler, not so in-your-face.
As a YA librarian in the early 2000s, I don’t recall Catcher circulating very well – I didn’t have to replace it nearly as often as I had to replace Perks of Being a Wallflower or Sharon Draper’s Tears of a Tiger, which were forever getting stolen or, shall we say, loved to death. Now that there is a vast body of really quite amazing YA literature, I’m not sure Catcher speaks quite as loudly as it used to. And that’s OK, frankly. Like Jello, there’s always room for new classics.
It seems, though, that I’ve encountered more than a few people my age who claim that Catcher in the Rye is their favorite book. Part of me thinks this is just because it’s the last book they ever read (I know a lot of people who don’t read), and also because it’s the only book they were forced to read in high school that was written in the 20th century!
I didn’t read Catcher as a teenager, but as a young twenty something. My high school was rural enough and conservative enough that teachers were still afraid to teach it lest bringing the community parents down on their heads. So I encountered Holden at a point in my studies of literature as a college student where I took an interest in him and the book as an artifact of literature more than as a read where I was looking for identification. I think this saved the book for me in many ways.
Definitely the new Holdens out there, like the protagonist of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, have taken a hold on more recent generations. I wonder for how long those will cast a spell over readers before they’ll dislike them (probably when the issues in those books are no longer issues, as with Catcher). One thing that I tend to like about these books is that when they do begin to fall out of favor, it’s often an indication that certain social problems of a particular generation are beginning to fade into obsolescence. That can be a sign of good things.
I liked Franny and Zooey a bit better than Catcher in the Rye. Poor Franny. See? I even sympathized with her more. 🙂
In retrospect the most amazing detail about Salinger’s story “Franny” was that after it was published in the New Yorker, stories circulated that East Coast mothers forbade their daughters from going to the Yale at Princeton game for fear that they too would get knocked up. Can you imagine any story published anywhere today being well enough known to give rise to such stories – even if they were apocryphal?