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The Catcher in the Rye : An American Koan Essay

America, it appears, is in the uneasy twilight of the Age of the Novel. Even the most ardent readers—and the most dedicated English teachers—acknowledge that. Given the sheer reach that visual tech- nologies have achieved in just fifty years—film, advertising, televi- sion, video games, and, supremely, the Internet—the act (and art) of reading the printed word has been gracelessly shuffled off to the mar- gins. Americans are now pixel-fed and image-fat. Novels themselves seem bulky, impractical, clumsy, ink pressed on paper fast becoming like Morse code and cathedral radios, rotary phones and print newspa- pers, quaint relics of ways we use to communicate. And serious litera- ture—those novels that challenge willing, alert readers to interact with characters and symbols to formulate compelling themes—has been all but relegated to the protective hothouse of the classroom.

Airport ter- minals,beaches, living rooms, bedrooms, park benches—there readers indulge the serious trivia of low-octane mass-market entertainments: complicated whodunits, edgy political thrillers, breezy romances, fu- turistic sci-fisagas,multivolumefantasy epicsabout wizardsand drag- ons, gothic vampire tales. Save those infrequent titles deemed Oprah-worthy, serious fiction never receives the lavish hype routinely accordedthemostinconsequentialnewfilmsorrealitytelevisionshows.

Landmark novels momentarily stir heady excitement among a narrow coterie of professional readers and then promptly, utterly sink into the heavy tomb dust of library shelves. In America,in the twenty-first cen- tury, serious fiction has lost its clout, its cultural privilege. When cultural historians come to chronicle these end days of the American novel, they will most assuredly mark July 16, 1951, as the novel’s last hurrah. On that day, Little, Brown, with little fanfare, re- leased J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a slender, unprepossess- ing novel, barely two hundred pages, centered on a confused and de- On pressed sixteen-year-old kid named Holden Caulfield, who, after flunking out of prep school (for the third time), delays returning home to his family’s swanky Central Park townhouse to wander the streets of New York City for three days. In the process, he struggles to come to terms not only with his academic failure but with the death, three years earlier, of his younger brother, Allie, from leukemia. It is not an easy adjustment.

Indeed, by novel’s end, we learn Holden has been institu- tionalized at a psychiatric facility near Hollywood, where his older brother works as a screenwriter. On its surface, the novel was yet another coming-of-age narrative in which a sensitive and traumatized adolescent must negotiate the diffi- cult threshold into adulthood. If the genre was conventional, however, the book was anything but. Holden told his own story. And that voice—at once smart-alecky and vulnerable, worldly-wise and engag- ingly naive—touched a generation of readers, mostly under twenty-five, in a tectonic way that novels today simply don’t. Holden spoke in the syllable-crisp pitch-perfect immediacy of colloquialisms, the click and rhythm of clichés laced with swear words. Holden sounded real.

And Americanteens,borntoolatetoshareintheeuphoria of World War II and compelled rather to adjust to the anxieties of the ColdWarandimminentatomicapocalypse,foundinHoldenCaulfielda friend who shared their discontent with authority, their anger over the middle-class status quo, their frustration with conventional measures of success, their angst over their own futures. Unlike the polite and re- strained child-heroes of the serious fiction of an earlier time, Holden reflected a hipper sensibility—he chain-smoked, he drank Scotch and soda, he talked back to his teachers, he rejected the expectations of ca- reer ambition, he declined to commiteffort to school, he swore with re- markable agility, he mocked Christians, he obsessed over sex. Within the free energy field of the early 1950s—an edgy kinetics that included the leather jacket-tight jeans movies of James Dean and Marlon Brando, Allen Ginsberg’s tormented “Howl,” Jack Kerouac’s epical peregrinations, Jackson Pollock’s splatter canvasses, John Coltrane’s shattered melodies, Lenny Bruce’s incendiary performance pieces, and, supremely, rock and roll’s raucous rhythms—Holden Caulfield gave a voice to a generation in rebellion.

The Catcher in the Rye quickly becamethe book every twenty-something had to read. Despite mixed reviews from the establishment press (who simply didn’t “get” Holden), the novel dominated best-seller lists and stayed there for more than a year. Indeed, in this twilight of the Age of the Novel, the book has never been out of print. Thus—it appears, for the last time—a work of serious fiction simul- taneously realigned the dynamics of American fiction and the dynam- ics of American culture. Holden helped incite the younger generation amid the narcoleptic calm of Eisenhower’s America to upend conven- tions, defy authority, and, in the process, attend to the suddenly serious business of reconsidering the very premise of their own lives and the nature of their own identities.

Not surprisingly, perhaps inevitably, The Catcher in the Rye was quickly perceived to be a dangerous work, a work from which kids needed to be protected, second only to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a work to which it is often compared) as the most frequently banned book in the American liter- ary canon. Since 1951, Holden has been blamed for virtually every ex- pression of adolescent rebellion. Swearing, the use of recreational pharmaceuticals, dropping out of school, premarital sex, underage drinking—they are all cool because of Holden.

Holden has been read into the DNA for every angry white male rock music icon from Jerry Lee Lewis to Eminem, Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain. Holden’s strident antiauthoritarianism and his uncompromising sense of honesty have been seen at the heart of the civil disobedience of the social and politi- cal upheavals in the 1960s. But far more problematically, parents and teachers, child psychologists, and guidance counselors have long blamed Holden, given his obsession with death (his own and others), for the gothic sensibility among teenagers and the dark appeal of sui- cide.


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