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"We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.'"
June 21, 2009 11:52 AM   Subscribe

In light of J.D. Salinger’s successful injunction against the publication of the subtly-nom-de-plumed J.D. California’s Catcher in the Rye followup, the NYTimes’s Jennifer Schuessler asks: How relevant is Holden Caulfield’s defiant disillusionism to the lives and tastes of modern adolescents?

So, Holden may have reached his obsolescence. Was the shady Swedish Mr. California (né Fredrik Colting), then, doing us all a favor by trying to breathe new life into an aging text, à la Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Seth Grahame-Smith’s more recent Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? More likely he’s just a crummy phony.
posted by oinopaponton (66 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ok. jump on me and denounce. The book is dated ...give Holden some Ritalin. prep school? Hew is as phony as the rest of us...pur your hat on the right way unless you are still in high school or are a real catcher.
posted by Postroad at 11:58 AM on June 21, 2009


“In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”

Tell that to the Jonas Brothers.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:59 AM on June 21, 2009


The book is indeed dated, but I doubt that immersion in current "teen culture" provides any richer insights on life. I may be antiquated, but I'll take Holden Caulfield over Spencer Pratt any day. That doesn't mean I won't try to wrap my head around what Spencer Pratt means, but inevitably, I don't know that I'll succeed all that well.) Saying that Holden Caulfield is dated is like saying that Huckleberry Finn is dated: true, but what replaces them?

That said, I think J.D. Salinger (or his handlers, more likely) trying to clutch tightly to the embers of his crumbling novels by suing people in court who are trying to bring new life to them is sadly absurd as well.
posted by blucevalo at 12:03 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Holden Caulfield himself would answer this, but Sunday is his day to hang out with Raskolnikov and Bazarov and denounce things. Besides, he probably wouldn't have much to say to us, because let's face it, we're all a bunch of phonies.

Some of us are even over 30.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:06 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The writer seems to have skipped over the fact that Gen X tried the whole disaffection thing. It's not cool to be uninterested anymore. Calling that immersion in competitive conformity is inane. It's not just "fuck the world, and my life" on one hand and "i shall serve our mass-media overlords" on the other.
posted by Non Prosequitur at 12:07 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


How fucking shallow are people today, adults and teenagers alike? You're supposed to find Holden Caulfield whiny and annoying and half formed. He is those things. He's confused and unsure of himself and stumbling towards an illumination that never really comes. He's a bright, insightful and hypocritical teenager whose life goes off the rails. He's not supposed to be a role model.

. for our doomed and millimeter deep 21st century readership.

p.s. i too am a phony
posted by fleetmouse at 12:08 PM on June 21, 2009 [22 favorites]


I'm just sorry that Jerry Lewis never got his chance to make the film version.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:09 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


fleetmouse, doesn't that also indict the people who read the book and took him on as a role model (or accepted his worldview), as many of the nostalgics quoted within the piece did?
posted by Non Prosequitur at 12:11 PM on June 21, 2009


Considering Holden is a borderline sociopath who is spinning his story in the best light possible, I hope not very.
posted by The Whelk at 12:12 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Worth noting: This is only a 10-day temporary injunction, and my understanding of copyright is that it has about zero percent chance of standing. It is a long-standing tenet of copyright that you can't copyright an idea, only the expression of an idea. Thus you cannot copyright a character, only a story about that character. If the work takes the teenaged character, ages him 60 years, and tells a totally new story based on an angle Salinger obviously didn't consider or care to follow, then I'd say the new author is in a pretty strong position.
posted by localroger at 12:14 PM on June 21, 2009


Julie Johnson, who taught Mr. Salinger’s novel over three decades at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., cited similar reactions. “Holden’s passivity is especially galling and perplexing to many present-day students,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”

Ack. Just what I didn't want to read -- an entire generation is growing up not questioning the status quo, but instead seeks to participate in it as fully as possible. Suddenly my hope for the future is diminished.
posted by hippybear at 12:15 PM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Postroad: prep school? Hew is as phony as the rest of us.

Wow, congratulations on discovering subtext.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:19 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


How fucking shallow are people today, adults and teenagers alike? You're supposed to find Holden Caulfield whiny and annoying and half formed. He is those things. He's confused and unsure of himself and stumbling towards an illumination that never really comes. He's a bright, insightful and hypocritical teenager whose life goes off the rails. He's not supposed to be a role model.

Yes, but here's the thing: The Catcher in the Rye is forced onto teenagers, most of whom fit that same description. All that time and effort could be saved by having North America's high school English teachers simply read aloud to their students a certain two words of the book.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:21 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


My father had that very edition of the paperback, which I snuck out and read. I first read "Catcher in the Rye" ca. 1973, when we were all supposed to be anti-establishment, so his aversion to phonies didn't strike me as unusual. What struck me about the book, besides its portrait of new York City in the 50s, which I still treasure, is that Holden's future seemed so bleak. Coming off all the usual kid's books I was reading, I was shocked that there was no implied happy ending- the author was daring me to calculate the odds that Holden would a) grow out of it and thus become a phony b) not grow out of it and be a crazy failure (but not a phony) c) figure out some way to survive and not be a phony. As a teenager, I really worried about him, and by extension, myself. Growing up, I discovered that it's not all that hard to not be a phony, but it really struck a chord at the time.

Today's kids may have it harder, because it's harder to spot the phonies. Richard Nixon was pretty easy to spot, I have to admit. Today's world is so post-post-meta-meta that you could get away with posing as a phony to show how phony that is, or make a living writing books about how there is no such thing as phoniness, or have a phony.com website. Holden's simple black-and-white understanding of phoniness was believable for a 16-yr-old. I have no idea what would be believable now. Indifference? Boredom?
posted by acrasis at 12:22 PM on June 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


hippybear, I'll think take today's status quo over previous status quos any day.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:23 PM on June 21, 2009


My students have mixed reactions to the book, as they do to Catch-22. Both books had a greater impact fifty years ago than they do now, for obvious reasons. I don't know anything about prep-school students, but the average student today is still pretty disaffected, as far as I can tell. I wouldn't worry about that. Between adolescence and school, which is still not much fun, kids can often relate to Holden. His locutions, which now appear a little dated, can be a problem. But the more bookish students still love the book.

The trope of the not-very-expressive protagonist is still a good one. Since I teach in an arts school, I isolated five sections in which the narrator talks about the arts (the lounge pianist, for example), and he says some pretty profound things in his dumbed-down language.

Kids still like Kurt Vonnegut, though. One kid, a dirt-biker, said Cat's Cradle was the first book he read that he liked!
posted by kozad at 12:28 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


I had to read it thirty years ago in high school and hated it then. But that had as much to do with the fact that I was a poor kid growing up in a rich school district than any merits of the book. At the time I really wasn't in the mood to sympathize with the plight of a whiny self-important rich kid since I was surrounded by those assholes.
posted by octothorpe at 12:29 PM on June 21, 2009


On preview: Reading the book again when in my 20's, I was struck by what an obnoxious whiner Holden was and how I totally didn't catch that when I was 13. But that didn't diminish my appreciation for the book. It's astounding how few books about kids realistically portray what kids are like. I just read "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and was apalled at the unbelievability of that 12-year old. The whole book was a waste of my time because it wasn't portraying the real problem of how bright but inexperienced and unformed kids figure out how to grow up.
posted by acrasis at 12:33 PM on June 21, 2009


Julie Johnson, who taught Mr. Salinger’s novel over three decades at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.

Fear not, hippybear, I don't think this is indicative of greater social trends as Winnetka is one of the wealthiest suburbs of Chicago. Of course they're focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted, they're all going to elite schools and getting cushy jobs through their parent's connections. Society as it is presently constituted is treating them great.
posted by Ndwright at 12:38 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes

I would say, rather, that the zeitgeist of recent days is that, there are plenty of alienated antiheroes, they're just not pansies like Holden Caulfield.

Using movies as an example, the most popular movie last year, The Dark Knight, was entirely an exploration of alienated antiheroics. The most popular movie this year, Star Trek, features two characters that start out as alienated antiheroes, but ones who grow up on screen. Coming in at No. 4 is Wolverine, who takes the cake as the most popular antihero of the last 30 years. Down around No. 12, we find Rorschach from Watchmen.

When Holden Caulfield is confused, he takes a day off and wanders New York. When our antiheroes are confused, they go out and pimp-slap the real bad guys.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:42 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Did it ever occur these people that there may be more then one type of teenager? Do they really believe that "today's teenagers" are all the same and share the same interests? Teenagers who are interested in aspirational consumerism, in fitting in and gaining status in the existing culture are the catalyst for those who are disaffected. The ratios may ebb and flow but the idea that one would totally go away is absurd.

And more then that, the vast majority of people might think of themselves differently then other people might place them. So a teen might listen to the Jonas brothers and still think of themselves as being somewhat alienated and disaffected. Plus how many kids like bands like Good Charlotte. They probably think they're all hard core like Marylin Manson fans when I was in HS.
posted by delmoi at 12:42 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm afraid I'm stuck on the title: Coming Through the Rye, because it sounds to me like a slash fic mashup of of John Rechy's Numbers, in which our protagonist becomes a hard bodied hustler. Thrust into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in 1974, we follow his anonymous encounters in the stuffy balconies of downtown grindhouses and the twisted green grottos of Griffith Park.

I'd probably read it.
posted by Tube at 12:44 PM on June 21, 2009


Do they really believe that "today's teenagers" are all the same and share the same interests?

Yes.
posted by blucevalo at 12:50 PM on June 21, 2009


The most popular movie this year, Star Trek, features two characters that start out as alienated antiheroes, but ones who grow up on screen

That's just amazing to me that anyone would consider that movie to have had "characters" in any meaningful sense, much less try to analyze the half-assed, first-draft-typed-between bong-hits hackery that the absolutely talentless bros who also "wrote" "Tranformers" called a script.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:51 PM on June 21, 2009 [8 favorites]


delmoi, like all NYT trend stories, it needs just three examples to universalize human experience. The writer got TONS of interview material and whittled it down to a couple things that supported her take. What can ya do.

Also, I don't get this idea that reflexive anti-status-quo thinking is an unrivaled virtue. That kinda sentiment would run straight into a Burkean meat-grinder of criticism. The Taliban are anti-establishment!!

The truth of the matter is that half the people dismayed that kids aren't interested in breaking the structures of contemporary society would rather see kids get the A's and the good job and the social charm etc. to change things instead of watch them fall out and become heroin junkies or whatever. That's not gonna change the world now is it.
posted by Non Prosequitur at 12:53 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thrust into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in 1974, we follow his anonymous encounters in the stuffy balconies of downtown grindhouses and the twisted green grottos of Griffith Park.

Except in Rechy's case his hustlers now live in "neat, attractive" apartments in "a court of well-kept units surrounding a pool" on a street lined with pines, ficus, and palm trees in West Hollywood. (I'm not kidding.)
posted by blucevalo at 12:54 PM on June 21, 2009


re: "Catcher in the Rye." It's a really good book. I liked, and like Holden. He's funny, insightful, and has his heart in the right place. He's flawed, but if he wasn't basically likable the book would have been forgotten a long time ago.

I'll never forget being in 9th grade English at the horrific private school my parents inexplicably sent me to after 7 perfectly happy years in public school, and at which I lasted one year. The teacher asked, "Can anyone understand how Holden feels?" No one raised their hand. Finally someone said, "No, I think he's just a stupid baby," or something like that.

I wanted to raise my hand SO BAD. Because every other kid in the class was those awful spoiled Pency Prep kids. Exactly. And they couldn't see it. So maybe most teenagers don't identify with Holden, because most teenagers are more like the thieves or the bullies that made Castle jump out the window. Maybe most adults too.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:57 PM on June 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


I loved the book when I read it as a teenager (for myself -- I never went to a school that assigned any books as remotely controversial as Catcher in the Rye). But sure, Holden is whiny, and he probably could have used some Prozac. I don't teach in a high school, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't still possible to teach Catcher in the Rye. I mean, they are still teaching Dickens, for goodness sake.
posted by Forktine at 1:02 PM on June 21, 2009


Achilles, whiny warrior. Yossarian, whiny pilot. Winston Smith, whiny proletariat. Why can't all those bastards just conform? The Wall Street Journal, now there's literature.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:04 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Most of these comments are confirming what I found to be the case reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time at 14. I was attending a wealthy private school where I didn't much like any of my classmates, getting mediocre grades because I just didn't care. Basically, I was at the perfect place and time to read the book-- and I loved it. Most of my classmates hated it. I can't imagine that Ms. Feinburg's 15-year-old example didn't have some classmates who found the book to be a total lifesaver.

But, as Cool Papa Bell points out, there seems to be a new model for unhappy youth, something very different from Holden's inaction and the glorification of the slacker in the 1990s. I mean, would Obama have been elected if thousands of young people hadn't worked their asses off for the idea of change?
posted by oinopaponton at 1:07 PM on June 21, 2009


I'd have to agree with delmoi that Youth is not some uniform hivemind who either all love Catcher in the Rye or don't "get it". Fifferent books speak to different readers in different ways, surprise!

The scene in the book when he watches his little sister on the carousel, totally happy and carefree, and he just starts crying? That still gets to me, and I think it's the defining moment of the book - take a good long look at the carefreeness you pissed away and will never get back. You're on your way into Grownupland whether you like it or not. Yes, he has disdain for pretty much everyone, he complains and "whines". But Holden was clearly an unreliable narrator from Page One. And all his swagger and disaffectedness comes to an end at that carousel. That's what I took away from it, anyway.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:26 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Considering Holden is a borderline sociopath

Examples of how he is a sociopath? Because he was written an extremely sensitive teenager, moreso than his peers. I don't recall anything sociopathic at all from the book (though it has been a few years--they put it on this reading list for those of us who were bound for US universities, something like "must read" books about American culture before we left India).
posted by anniecat at 1:33 PM on June 21, 2009


(That's right, "fifferent". It's a real word, meaning "different as pertains to books". Look it up if you don't believe me.)
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:36 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, echoing what leetmouse said. The book has been woefully misread (and mistaught) for ages. If your recollection of Catcher comes from reading it as a fifteen-year-old, you owe it to yourself to take a day to reread it. To think that the primary question of Catcher is whether Holden's anti-status-quo/everyone's-a-phony take on life is legitimate or not is to just totally miss out on Salinger's incredible 3D character-rendering.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 1:39 PM on June 21, 2009


While I love Catcher in the Rye with all my heart, it's still my least favorite Salinger. Rereading Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters or Franny and Zooey, I can't help but wonder, why the slathering over Holden Caufield, when the Glass family is more on so many levels.

But yes, after 3 hours of having to explain to my slacker, stoner friend who thought the book was stupid why it's OK if Holden is a phoney himself, I'm sure there are still lots of clueless kids lacking empathy or self-examination who think the book's a waste.
posted by Gucky at 2:09 PM on June 21, 2009


Disillusionism? What happened to disillusion?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:36 PM on June 21, 2009


I loved it at twelve, and by fifteen I was rolling my eyes at it. I was also an insufferable pity princess of an alienated teenager, and I was lucky to go to a school where I could hang out with many of the same. I can't recall anyone who didn't think Holden was pathetic. We had the added perspective of knowing that Catcher was a favorite book of Mark David Chapman and other famous psychotic murderers.

It's not that These Kids Today are too spoiled and conformist for Holden's noble truths. It's that they have more cultural and technological power than he ever did, and it causes him to read as passive and grating.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:54 PM on June 21, 2009


I'm with Louis Menand on this one:

"That it might end up on the syllabus for ninth-grade English was probably close to the last thing Salinger had in mind when he wrote the book. He wasn’t trying to expose the spiritual poverty of a conformist culture; he was writing a story about a boy whose little brother has died. Holden, after all, isn’t unhappy because he sees that people are phonies; he sees that people are phonies because he is unhappy."

It's amazing how many people who first read the book as teenagers fail to remember the fact of his brother's death, or fail to recognize it as a crucial piece of information. How did Holden Caulfield, a protagonist gripped by legitimate grief, come to be seen as a poster-child for mere adolescent broodiness? A mystery.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 3:03 PM on June 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


Julie Johnson, who taught Mr. Salinger’s novel over three decades at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., cited similar reactions. ... “In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”

Ack. Just what I didn't want to read -- an entire generation is growing up not questioning the status quo, but instead seeks to participate in it as fully as possible. Suddenly my hope for the future is diminished.
Blah. Boomer teachers have been saying this about teenagers since they left their teen years and instead started teaching to them. Echoing leetmouse again, boomer teachers have turned Holden from a study of a grief-stricken, broken character that's interesting to examine and understand into the "voice of a generation."
why the slathering over Holden Caufield, when the Glass family is more on so many levels.
Quoted for truth.
posted by deanc at 3:10 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Compared to almost everything else I had to read in high school english, Catcher in the Rye stands out as a book I still care to own a copy of.

And honestly, when has contemporary relevance stopped people from teaching works of literature before? Salinger is part of the western literary canon, and is pretty much assured of being read in schools (save ones particularly snooty about swear words and sexual situations, even if they just talk) until euro-american society society and culture fade and are replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. That's the power of getting to decide what is "literature"--you can putter about talking about relevance all you want, but doesn't calling something literature remove it from this being a real issue?

As people have said before, we're still teaching Huckleberry Finn and numerous, odious, boring, dreadful, unreadable Charles Dickens works (sorry I hate Dickens a lot) and nobody cares that they're relevant to teenagers. Maybe all the fuss is that this book, in particular, was one thing that was both literature *and* happened to be relevant to teenagers, and now it might just be one of those things. Maybe. FWIW I love it.
posted by Tesseractive at 3:14 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


While I love Catcher in the Rye with all my heart, it's still my least favorite Salinger. Rereading Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters or Franny and Zooey, I can't help but wonder, why the slathering over Holden Caufield, when the Glass family is more on so many levels.

I agree with almost all of this, except that my least favorite Salinger is Seymour: An Introduction, and would encourage anyone who loves the Glass family not to read it, even if it means ripping the apart from Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and chucking it out a window.
posted by naoko at 3:14 PM on June 21, 2009


I have to reread the book, because I was pretty much the only person in my high school class (late 1980's) who absolutely hated it. Lots of my friends, whose tastes I generally respected, loved it, but Holden seemed like an illogical self-centered wanker. Which, I guess, is fine for a main character in the service of an interesting plot, but since he didn't really do so much, and it was more an exploration of his feelings, the book seemed really pointless, because there are illogical self-centered wankers all over the goddamn place. It was like asking every broody kid in the school to just talk randomly for a few hours about how deep they were.

It was like reading a goth/emo livejournal.

I'm sure it wasn't that, and there was something pretty good in the book, because it wouldn't have so many fans. So I'm curious what it was (but have trepidation about rereading it, because right now I can say "I'm sure it was good, I just read it a long time ago, and I didn't like it back then", but if I reread and dislike it now, I'm stuck with "hated it then, still do")
posted by Bugbread at 3:43 PM on June 21, 2009


I don't think this is indicative of greater social trends as Winnetka is one of the wealthiest suburbs of Chicago. Of course they're focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted, they're all going to elite schools and getting cushy jobs through their parent's connections. Society as it is presently constituted is treating them great.

Yes.

Funny they picked someone from hilltop, crenelated New Trier to opine on Caulfield's dwindling relevance. More likely, the annoyance of that school's privileged darlings speaks to Catcher's continuing importance. In fact, it's probably no coincidence that New Trier inspired Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville--surely one of the most Caulfield-esque documents of the late twentieth century.
posted by washburn at 3:45 PM on June 21, 2009


It was like reading a goth/emo livejournal.

Oh, now THERE is a recasting / retelling I'd love to see. Similar to the twitter streams of characters from The Stand which emerged when bacon lung was announced in Mexico. Could be brilliant if done correctly.
posted by hippybear at 3:49 PM on June 21, 2009


Also, I should point out that not liking Catcher in the Rye is not synonymous with being conformist or supportive of modern society. I was a nonconformist, anti-authority kid. The problem I always had with him was just his massive internal confliction. I understand about being conflicted about a thing or two, but (my memory) was that he was conflicted about everything. If you're an introspective, insightful person, you eventually come to conclusions. Those conclusions may change over time, but to be perpetually conclusionless about your own personality is to have a lack of insight.

Again, I may be wrong, and he may be a great character that just rubbed me wrong. My main point is just that finding his conflict to be annoying is in no way simultaneous with worshiping the status quo.
posted by Bugbread at 4:01 PM on June 21, 2009


Ok. jump on me and denounce. The book is dated ...give Holden some Ritalin.

I don't understand how a work of fiction can be dated. I really don't. I guess if I thought of fiction as a form of non-fiction, then I'd understand. Non-fiction can be dated, because it can be an attempt to explain an idea that has been discredited since the book has come out. I'd call a non-fiction book dated if it was a tome about Phrenology. Non-fiction can also be dated if it's about obscure historical issues that most people no-longer care about -- issues that are no longer relevant.

So I guess if you think about "Richard III" as a play about "The War of the Roses," you might say, "It's dated, because that war ended years ago." Or you could say, "Oedipus is dated, because people are more sexually liberated now, and while sleeping with your mom is gross, it's over-the-top to blind yourself because you did it."

You COULD say those things, but I wouldn't, because I see Richard as a sociopath who is willing to do anything to seize power. I've met people like that, alas, and so the play is completely relevant to my life. Also, I sometimes fantasize about engaging in immoral power plays myself, so "Richard III" is also relevant to me as a wicked (harmless) fantasy.

Oedipus is a man caught in a trap. The gods have completely undone him. He's like a pinball in some sick game they are playing. I'm an atheist -- and if I wasn't, I probably wouldn't be a polytheist -- but I often FEEL like my life is not under my control, as if I'm fated for something terrible. On days like that, I am grateful to Sophocles for giving me such a clear example to commiserate with.

Who hasn't had a job (or been in a family situation) in which all the people in the room seem like shallow hypocrites? No, of course they're not REALLY all empty suits. They have rich inner lives. But sometimes it FEELS like they are all phonies. "Catcher in the Rye" explores that feeling. It will be dated when people no longer feel that way.

Fiction is best when it makes you wonder what is going to happen next; when it makes you worry about what is going to happen to the hero; when it makes you angry at the hero; when it makes you have that shock of recognition -- the shock of a familiar feeling. That sort of stuff can't be dated, because even back in the caves, people got jealous, angry, joyful and afraid. Even back in the caves, there were phonies -- or at least it FELT like there were. And that's good enough, because in the case of fiction, material truth matters less than emotional truth.

If you happen to find "Catcher" boring, ill-constructed, or unappealing, that's fair enough. But it's not dated.
posted by grumblebee at 4:21 PM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Following bugbread, I should note similarly that of course I don't mean to suggest that disliking Catcher makes one a prep-school bully, or even a little bit mean. And I should also note with some shame that, contrary to my comment above, crennelation, it seems, cannot be counted among New Trier's sins.

(New Trier *is* however blamable for Don Rumsfeld *and* John Stossel, despite its nice, harmless-looking roof-lines ...).
posted by washburn at 4:22 PM on June 21, 2009


The idea that we need to "breathe new life" into works that are very much of their time is ludicrous. Wide Sargasso Sea, March, and the like were not written to pad the reputation of their (often much better) predecessors; they were written because of the reaction they elicited, often hundreds of years later, in their authors.

If the ability to inspire discussion and reactions years after publication isn't longevity, I don't know what is.
posted by mynameisluka at 4:52 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Holden didn't even tweet or have cell! loser!!! He can not bwe my FaceBook friend.
posted by Postroad at 4:52 PM on June 21, 2009


Holden is totally the kind of person who would have been on twitter.

"I went to the coffee shop. I hate it, it's so phony. My usual seat was taken."
posted by Bugbread at 4:56 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


"The mark of a immature man is that he will die nobly for a cause. The mark of a mature man is that he will live humbly for the same cause---Thurber, the teacher at Holden's last prep school.

Thats what I took the most from the book.

After many readings, I pity Holden.

If I recall, Holden ends up in a mental hospital. His hunting cap? That's a people hunting cap. When he is buying drinks for those ladies in the hotel? He is lying to them. When he hires the prostitute and the pimp roughs him up? That too was a lying spree. In fact, the only real form of communication in the book for Holden is the communication he has with Phoebe. She is the only person he feels he can trust. Yes, indeed Holden is grasping for the golden ring of adulthood; the metaphor used as the kids whiz past a real golden ring, and he ends up crying in the rain. He spends so much time setting his sights on the phonies, that he overlooks himself.
posted by captainsohler at 5:05 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, and if I came up with a definitive character and idea, I would be pissed if someone tried to cash in on it.
posted by captainsohler at 5:05 PM on June 21, 2009


You know what's dated? Moby Dick. I mean -- killing whales??? WTF??? Douches!
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 5:29 PM on June 21, 2009


Oh, and if I came up with a definitive character and idea, I would be pissed if someone tried to cash in on it.

Yeah, I know that if I had written the Gesta Danorum, I'd have been pissed when some crappy English poet came along and stole my characters. Did he really think that changing Amleth to Hamlet was going to fool anyone. There definitly should've been an injunction against that one.
posted by bashos_frog at 5:48 PM on June 21, 2009


Hey, why all the angst about a "goddamn book"? (Which is the funniest two-word reply in the history of literature, courtesy of Holden Caulfield.)
posted by zardoz at 5:51 PM on June 21, 2009



Considering Holden is a borderline sociopath


I should probably respond to my provocative statements. It was based on a few readings I had from age 18-22, that Holden is trying to convince the reader he's totally right and totally justified but it never quite sticks cause he doesn't treat people (aside from Phoebe, who he kinda idealizes) with any kind of empathy. So my orginal statement is what I came away with, but I don't have the book in front of me and I haven't read it in a while and so I shouldn't talk about it.
posted by The Whelk at 5:58 PM on June 21, 2009


To me, a work becomes "dated" when the distance in time becomes visible to the reader, to the point where it requires some effort AND when the work is not deemed worthy of the effort.

Today's English reader have to make a substantial effort to understand Shakespeare's language. But they're willing to do so (or their teachers are willing to force them to), because it's Shakespeare, who won't be dated for the forseeable future.

But all the forgotten writers of old, and all the forgotten, unread works of famous authors (that may have been a great source of fame during their lives, like Voltaire's tragedies); these works are dated: of their time, and not worth the effort for all but specialists of literature.

Catcher seems to be in a weird place: a true classic, in a way, because it is taught all over the place, but a book that may be chosen more for its relevance to teenagedom than for its intrinsic qualities; if teenagedom changes, and Catcher becomes hard to understand for the class, will the teachers be willing to force their pupils to make the effort, or will they drop it?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:04 PM on June 21, 2009


With all the time I've spent downloading and saving web clips of random interest to my music folder, I frequently forget the identity of tracks on my iPod. Not long ago, I had hit "shuffle" to see what came up, and the screen was hidden away in my pocket somewhere.

I heard a plummy, elderly lady's voice recite: "Men. They hail you as their morning star / Because you are the way you are. If you return the sentiment / They'll try to make you different . . ."

Huh, I thought, who's this old woman. Sounds so pleased with herself but it's not much of a poem. Where did I get this, again?

It was a recording of a reading by Dorothy Parker.

I loved Dorothy Parker in high school. Loved her. Went everywhere with a copy of her Portable, the one with her painted portrait on the cover, looking just about ready for another suicide attempt. I'd still go to the wall for her short stories. She is the pioneer and first lady of women's snark.

Just because she was the first, though, and just because she founded a tradition, doesn't mean that she's the best, or that she speaks to all thinking persons at all times. A work can be important without being the last word in its genre. That, on reflection, is pretty much how I feel about Catcher in the Rye. There had to be a Holden first.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:24 PM on June 21, 2009


I first read the book when I was sixteen. I was an incredibly shy teenager, particularly when it came to boys. I saw something of myself in Holden's thoughts about Jane Gallagher--he thinks about her throughout the book, he considers calling her, he plans on calling her, he doesn't. Nothing ever happened between them, really, except that they played checkers and he watched her cry once.

More importantly, I could see what was wrong with that. bugbread is right--Holden was a character of inaction, someone lacking conclusions. He was a smart kid, saw all of these problems with society, but was totally incapable of doing anything about it.

We read The Stranger the same year. Both books were incredibly affecting for me, because every fiber of myself just sort of screamed at the main characters to do something. And then I realized that I should have been shouting the same thing at myself.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:29 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


To me, a work becomes "dated" when the distance in time becomes visible to the reader, to the point where it requires some effort AND when the work is not deemed worthy of the effort.

Today's English reader have to make a substantial effort to understand Shakespeare's language. But they're willing to do so (or their teachers are willing to force them to), because it's Shakespeare, who won't be dated for the forseeable future.


I don't really get what you're saying. Shakespeare takes work because it's written in a foreign language (Elizabethan English as opposed to contemporary English.) If you happen to speak that language -- as I do -- it doesn't require effort.

Via your argument, any book written in French is dated, unless you happen to be a French speaker. Yes, I had to work to become comfortable with Elizabethan English. I'd have to work even harder to learn French. But I'd never claim that French is dated.

Surely, whether or not something is dated has little to do with the effort required to read it. There are PLENTY of contemporary books that require great effort to parse. A work is dated when it is no longer relevant to most contemporary people even IF they put in the effort to understand what the words mean.

For instance, if I spent a year trying to understand a medieval book about curing diseases, I would find, at the end of the year, that I'd wasted my time on something dated (assuming my goal was to learn how to cure diseases). On the other hand, if I spent a year trying to understand "King Lear," I would realize, at the end, that I had spent my time on something about various timeless aspects of the human condition.

The argument about whether or not "Catcher" should be forced on teenagers is stupid, at least in my view. NO work of literature should be forced on teenagers. Forcing a tried a true way of making kids hate reading.
posted by grumblebee at 7:01 PM on June 21, 2009


It's fascinating to me that many people read "Catcher" and hate Holden -- or, worse, see him as a sociopath! -- because he's a snob.

It's not that I think these readers are wrong. He IS a snob. But I suspect that readers who CHIEFLY view Holden that way weren't outcasts as teenagers. (If they were, their outcast experience was radically different from mine.)

(Pardon me for MY moment of snobbishness, but if you considered yourself an outcast because you and your geeky friends weren't part of the popular set, you weren't "real" outcasts. Why not? Because you HAD friends.)

I gradually became popular in high school, but in junior high I was picked on by almost the entire school -- and by many teachers. I've written about that experience elsewhere, so I won't go into it here. But I spent three years being bullied, mocked and despised.

Some kids in my shoes dealt with similar treatment by working extra hard to conform. I don't blame them, but that wasn't my road. First of all, I wouldn't have known how; second, I was way too stubborn. Why would I want to conform to a group of people who picked on me?

Added to this, I was an intellectual kid. I was reading Shakespeare while other kids were disco dancing and talking about "Dynasty." My interests may have been elitist, but they weren't feigned. I read what I wanted to read, what I really enjoyed reading. And though I now listen to (and enjoy) ABBA, I genuinely hated it back then. Sure, it was because I didn't give it a chance. But I didn't understand that.

So I found myself alone, with totally different interests from my peers. And my peers didn't leave me alone to enjoy my interests in peace. No, they picked on me and teased me.

So -- yes -- I became a snob. Everyone around me seemed mean, superficial or both. As an adult, I understand that they had rich inner lives, and that many of the meanest ones had miserable home lives. I no longer turn up my nose at popular culture (I'm a fan of "Lost" and "Seinfeld"), but I understand why that younger me saw mass entertainment as being beneath contempt. It was what the the stuff the mean kids liked!

Which is all to say that though I'm an empathic person -- and definitely not a sociopath -- I spent a few years as a Holden. And though I outgrew that juvenile skin, I can still connect to it. I remember how it felt. And I'm sure anyone else who had that sort of childhood reads "Catcher" without thinking Holden is evil or strange. His stance is one of self-preservation.

From some people's reactions, I can only assume they've never felt like everyone else comes from a different planet. They only way they can understand such a feeling is that it must come from sociopath!

Also: the world IS full of phonies. By which I mean that it's rife with hypocrisy and cow-towing to shallow idols. As an adult, most of us come to think of that is "just the way things are," and most of us also kind of get into the game. For instance, I am capable of politely pretending to like a friend's dreadful poetry without feeling I've sold my soul to the devil.

Many kids are also not bothered by phoniness. They are either not very attentive to it or they are too caught up with the party of childhood to care about it. And the more popular a kid is, the more chances he has to learn the natural "phoniness" of complex human interaction -- the white lies we have to tell and the politics we have to play in order to get along. As a loner, it took me a while to grasp the social utility of this stuff. I didn't need "phoniness" for social lubrication, because I wasn't social!

Dating was a huge challenge. I remember railing against "dishonesty" such as "playing hard to get." What others thought of as fun flirting, I thought of as lying.

IF you're a kid who, from a young age, simply accepts things at face value, it's a HUGE bubble burst to learn that the world is full of people who don't mean what they say and people who are slaves to fashion.

This is SO self-evident to most adults that it's hard for them to remember when they lost their innocence. And many kids lose theirs early, so they can't connect with it, either. Some kids are so canny that they seem to be born politicians. But there are sensitive kids out there who sadly default to a belief that people are always truthful and deep-thinking. Learning that this isn't the case is painful. And, once the bubble is burst, it's almost impossible not to swing to the other extreme -- to believe that if people sometimes lie, they always lie; if they sometimes follow trends, they always follow trends; if they sometimes turn their brains off, they don't have any brains in the first place.

Hopefully, the adult Holden will learn to be gentler with people, more generous. Hopefully, he will learn that all those phonies were more like him than unlike him -- that their phoniness masked their humanity, their fears, their desires...
posted by grumblebee at 7:33 PM on June 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


I don't really get what you're saying. Shakespeare takes work because it's written in a foreign language (Elizabethan English as opposed to contemporary English.) If you happen to speak that language -- as I do -- it doesn't require effort.

Yes, maybe Shakespeare isn't the best example -- but almost every English speaker is required to read a least some of his works in school, without taking "Elizabethan English 101". But take Austen. Her language is a bit different from contemporary English, and her world requires a good deal of effort to understand (government bonds, marriage, property, etc.).

I think it would be more clear if I used the term "gap". There's a time gap between us and Austen. It's immediately visible. There's also a space gap, since we both live in North America.

There's a language gap between you and French works, and probably between us both and Russian works (and it's hard to surmount, except through translation -- a big can of worms to open).

What I mean is that there wasn't a time gap between Catcher and its readers when it was first published, but now there is one: the language has changed, New York has changed, teenagers (or, at least, the experience of being a teenager) have changed.

In most education systems, books are assigned to student. You don't write the report, you don't get the grade. So the sad reality is that teachers force their students to read books that may or may not seem quite foreign to them. As the 1950s become more and more distant, a question appears: did we assign Catcher because (1) it spoke to (some, and less and less of them) students, or did we assign it because (2) it is a Great Work of Literature?

If we answer 1, and we say it doesn't speak to teenagers these days and that it isn't that great, actually, it's dated. If we answer 2, it's not.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:39 PM on June 21, 2009


I don't understand how a work of fiction can be dated.

i think what might date catcher is that holden's hatred of phoniness and ironic alienation from everything were shocking then and now, it's pretty much old hat - in other words, the emotions and consciousness that a book expresses can be outdated - david copperfield by dickens, frankenstein by mary shelley both have a romantic sensibility and expression of sentimentality that we find awkward - edgar allen poe's shrill invocation of terror and horror can seem overdone to us - and yet, mark twain's huckleberry finn seems contemporary to us in the way it presents its characters as believable people with believable passions

i'd have to read catcher again to decide, but yeah, the "things are phony, phony, phony" mentality belongs to a time when rebellion meant a little more than it did now - even if it wasn't effective or sincere rebellion, which i'm sure salinger knew

i will say this - looking through stuff like ellen hopkins' godawful poems about teen addicts and listing to bands piss and moan about suicide, rage and angst, as many bands do these days, holden complaining of "phoniness" seems pretty quaint - holden was an antihero for a generation that had plenty of heroes to look up to - now, he's a wimpy boogerflicker in a land of self-cutters who rummage through their parents' medicine cabinet to get loaded, don't think that much about getting knocked up, pretend to practice black magick, and listen to bands that equate god with smack and enlightenment with torture

yeah, i guess he is a bit dated
posted by pyramid termite at 7:47 PM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


So -- yes -- I became a snob. Everyone around me seemed mean, superficial or both.

Here's the thing-- the sort of adolescent snobbery you describe has a very short half-life for most people who live it, and after that brief moment, it becomes clearly and transparently revealed for what it is -- a self-conscious pose borne of insecurity (and a few people never outgrow it, in which it's an even worse manifestation). That's why Catcher is literature-- Salinger captures that sort of character very well. However, you can only really identify with Holden within a very brief interval of adolescent development... and in any case you're not supposed to identify with Holden, and the major error in teaching Catcher is that teachers tend not to realize this. They're hoping for a classroom full of Holdens.

A lot of moments in Salinger's Nine Stories are things that come back to me and that I think about from time to time. Catcher, on the other hand, is something I left behind a while ago. It a depiction of adolescence. Unfortunately it's been held up by a generation of teachers as the definitive one, and along with that we have a group of students who mistakenly believe them.
posted by deanc at 8:34 PM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Here's the thing-- the sort of adolescent snobbery you describe has a very short half-life for most people who live it, and after that brief moment, it becomes clearly and transparently revealed for what it is -- a self-conscious pose borne of insecurity (and a few people never outgrow it, in which it's an even worse manifestation). That's why Catcher is literature-- Salinger captures that sort of character very well."

I think this pretty much nails the problem I had with it, and yet also shows why I had a problem conceiving of it as great literature. By the time I read it (high school), I had already outgrown the whole "indier than thou" thing. That doesn't mean that I took to worshipping to gods of conformity, but that I understood that sometimes people's internal beliefs matched their external manifestations, and sometimes they didn't, and there is a spectrum of reasons for that, from very good reasons to very bad reasons. The problem I had with Holden wasn't that he found people/things phony, but that the idea was still new enough to him that he just kept ruminating about it at length.

Remember back when it first occurred to you that it's possible that the world was just created 10 seconds ago, and you just have memories that it existed before then? At the time, it was probably pretty interesting and profound. Now, it probably wouldn't hold your interest for more than a few seconds unless some additional exploration of the idea happened. When I read Catcher in the Rye, it was like reading a few hundred pages of just the basic idea of the 10 second universe repeated over and over. If it went on to probe new ideas that came from that, it would be interesting, but it was just that first conceit repeated.

The problem I have is that Holden's ideas, from what I can tell, are something that have occurred to everyone. So he doesn't bring anything new to the table. And he may be an extremely well written character, but that's because of a certain universality. A well written character isn't enough to be literature, unless either there is something interesting about that well written character, or unless that well written character does something interesting. Or both. But for a character to be well written but neither interesting nor involved in anything interesting doesn't seem like literature.

And, again, big caveats: I'm talking about a book I haven't read in over 2 decades. There may be a lot I'm misremembering, or that I missed, or, hell, maybe I was still "indier-than-thou" and my mind is playing tricks on me, and I actually disliked Holden for being too normal and straight-laced. Memory is a tricky thing, and how well you think you remember something has been proven scientifically to have almost no relation to how well you actually do remember something. The biggest argument in defense of the book to me is that a lot of people around me whose tastes I trusted liked the book a lot.
posted by Bugbread at 5:40 AM on June 22, 2009


Perhaps Catcher should be taught as a manifesto of hate.
PAUL: Well...a substitute teacher out on Long Island was dropped from his job for fighting with a student. A few weeks later, the teacher returned to the classroom, shot the student unsuccessfully, held the class hostage and then shot himself: successfully. This fact caught my eye: last sentence, Times. A neighbor described him as a nice boy: always reading Catcher in the Rye.
The nitwit -- Chapman -- who shot John Lennon said he did it because he wanted to draw the attention of the world to The Catcher in the Rye and the reading of the book would be his defense. And 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. It seemed to be time to read it again.
FLAN: I haven't read it in years.

(OUISA shushes him.)

PAUL: 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 remembered. Everybody's a phony. Page two: "My brother's in Hollywood being a prostitute." Page three: "What a phony his father was." Page nine: "People never notice anything." Then on page 22 my hair stood up. Remember Holden Caulfield -- the definitive sensitive youth -- wearing his red hunter's cap. "A deer hunter hat? 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."
Hmmm, I said. This book is preparing people for bigger moments in their lives than I ever dreamed of. Then on page 89: "I'd rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an ax than sock him in the jaw...I hate fist fights...what scares me most is the other guy's face..."
I finished the book. It's a touching story, comic because 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, is only hateful, and he is completely self-involved. In other words, a pretty accurate picture of a male adolescent. And what alarms me about the book -- not the book so much as the aura about it -- is this: the book is primarily about paralysis. The boy can't function. And at the end, before he can run away and start a new life, it starts to rain and he folds. Now there's nothing wrong in writing about emotional and intellectual paralysis. It may indeed, thanks to Chekhov and Samuel Beckett, be the great modern theme.
The extraordinary last lines of Waiting For Godot -- "Let's go." "Yes, let's go." Stage directions: they do not move.
But the aura around this book of Salinger's -- which perhaps should be read by everyone but young men -- is this: it mirrors like a fun house mirror and amplifies like a distorted speaker one of the great tragedies of our times -- the death of the imagination.
Because what else is paralysis?
The imagination has been so debased that imagination -- being imaginative -- rather than being the lynchpin of our existence now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops -- what an imaginative summer recipe -- and Star Wars! So imaginative! And Star Trek -- so imaginative! And Lord of the Rings -- all those dwarves -- so imaginative -- The imagination has moved out of the realm of being our link, our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world -- this world we share. What is schizophrenia but a horrifying state where what's in here doesn't match up with what's out there?
Why has imagination become a synonym for style?
I believe that the imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is another phrase for what is most uniquely us.
Jung says the greatest sin is to be unconscious.
Our boy Holden says "What scares me most is the other guy's face -- it wouldn't be so bad if you could both be blindfolded -- most of the time the faces we face are not the other guys' but our own faces. And it's the worst kind of yellowness to be so scared of yourself you put blindfolds on rather than deal with yourself..." To face ourselves.
That's the hard thing.
The imagination.
That's God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.
posted by CCBC at 2:01 PM on June 22, 2009


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