Friday, January 29, 2010

Caught in the Rye

Yesterday, J.D. Salinger--the author of the famous novel Catcher in the Rye--passed away, and with his passing, we’ve lost one of the final representatives of the Beat generation. More striking, though, is that we’ve lost somebody who, I feel, shifted the focus of fiction for people growing up in America.

During the 1950s, young adults got their politics from novels, short stories, and poems; you got rad hipster cred if you dressed in black turtlenecks like a Trotskyite and were seen reading Kerouac’s On the Road in public. Allen Ginsberg published poems such as “Howl” and “America” and “Kaddish.” A generation of writers disaffected by World War II and square social expectations revolted through cross-country travel, James Dean-esque slick-haired rebellion, and through experimentation (in both literature and drugs, it goes without saying).

Before I say anything more, I have to level with all of you. When I first read it, I hated The Catcher in the Rye; I thought Holden just needed to shut up. I read him as proto-emo, in a way. (But then again, when I was young, I was always trying to be grumpy and old.) I reread the novel a few years ago, though, and I came to appreciate it in a lot of ways.

So where does Catcher in the Rye fit into all of this? Salinger’s novel fits the tropes of the Beat novel--rebellion, defying social expectations, defying expectations in general. But the novel also changed the expectations of young adult literature. Holden wasn’t concerned with all the fake, hokey drama, and he made it abundantly clear that we wanted to dispel artifices of manner or behavior; through this lack of concern, though, he demonstrates just how important this stuff is. Conversation, emotions, that inner core of humanity are what drive both narratives and people.

Nowadays, young adults don’t get their politics from books. (Well, some of do, but I doubt that’s the case for the majority.) After all, there are enough politics on the radio, television, and the Internet--we're utterly swamped in politics! Instead, young adults are going to books--think Twilight or Harry Potter or almost any other children’s/y.a. lit out there--to get away from politics and for validation of the same things that Holden Caulfield went searching for. An understanding of the self, of others. It’s akin to the classic bildungsroman form that we’ve had across four centuries of English literature.

So in honor of Salinger, go to your local bookshop or library and pick up a copy of Catcher in the Rye. Give it a read (it’s a short book, should only take a day or two, tops). And ask yourself why you read.

I’m sure it’s not for politics. I imagine it’s to find something meaningful and emotionally compelling in the text and not, as Holden decries the expectations of most readers, to find “all that David Copperfield crap….my whole goddamn autobiography or something.”


  1. Awwww, J.D. Salinger died? I didn't even know he was considered Beat... but I've always loved
    "Catcher in the Rye" (it's the emo in me, I guess...) and I've even read some of his short fiction-- "For Esme-- With Love and Squalor" is a wonderful, poignant story. If I ever get a cat, I think I'll name her Esme.

  2. @nikeshizu
    As strange as it sounds, I had to grow into Salinger. I was the one grumpy kid in AP Lit who did nothing but complain while we discussed the book--which was something very much like what Holden would've done.

    Salinger was definitely at his strongest powers during the heyday of the Beats. As far as I know, he wasn't a Kerouac groupie or anything, but his stuff definitely fits nicely with the Beat ouevre.

    The funny thing, too, is that most people, apparently, weren't very aware that Salinger was still alive.