This past Thursday, all across the land of Facebook, blogs, and magazines, readers mourned the loss of one of literature’s most beloved and enigmatic figures, J.D. Salinger. He was, it is said, a unique figure among contemporary American authors in the way he shunned fame and media exposure after ‘Catcher in the Rye’ became an instant American classic (though doing so virtually assured that he was more sought-after for the rest of his adult life).
When I was a bit younger than Holden Caulfield, I read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in school. We were all too young and anti-school to appreciate Holden as the progenitor to the ubiquitous confused, precocious figures from the movies of John Hughes whom we loved and identified with. Really, if it had not been for Linda Crowley, our foxy English teacher, most of the boys might not have bothered to finish the novel. This doesn’t apply to me, sadly, I was such a suck-up that I even finished ‘David Copperfield’ for John Loughry, a teacher who terrified students with his permanent scowl (we were only to find out later that this was an act of pure deadpan Dickensian tribute. He’d been spied in a faculty meeting, laughing his ass off. Bravo, Mr. Loughry).
By the 1980s, we – and by ‘we’ I mean we of Gen X – were gorging ourselves on a full diet of Holden Caulfields thanks mainly to the success of John Hughes’ films. Creators of film and television had, by that time developed an acute understanding of their primary audience, the 18-34 year old American male. It was the knowledge that their audiences were afraid of growing up, and wanted – like Ferris Bueller, the shinier, happier 80s version of Holden – just one more day of being a kid before facing the rest of their lives.
I was reminded by a colleague of another novel in which ‘Catcher in the Rye’ makes an appearance. By 2003, Holden Caulfield had become such an icon that Frank Portman in King Dork, managed to both revere and revile Salinger’s classic as the standard high school English text. ‘Catcher’ becomes a key device in the plot of the King Dork, and is literally re-contextualized before readers’ eyes. Portman’s message is pretty clear, it is a book in desperate need of context adjustment, it ain’t the 1950s anymore, we don’t have to forget the past, but let’s make our own memories. It isn’t that the book itself should be banned just, perhaps the Baby Boomer teacher who treats it with the aimless reverence of a cat hoarder.
In the reviews and obituaries of Salinger, I see little attempt to define ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. That may be because readers are fairly divided on that point. There will always be those teenagers who, upon reading the book for the first time, see it as a rail against authority, age, and experience as producers of ‘phoniness’. But Holden is, as all great literary figures, multi-dimensional. His perfection is rooted in the fact that, though he essentially wants to keep himself and others from falling off the precipice into adulthood, it is a sisyphean task that the novel plays out each time we read it. And each time, as we grow older, we come to a new understanding about who he is and where he may have gone once Holden himself came to realize this.