In Defense of Holden Caulfield


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

Related Post Roulette

14 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    I welcome your appreciation of this iconic work, but do you really think Catcher is in need of defense, yours or anyone’s? It’s one of the most widely taught of all American novels. Yeah, a few folks say it’s overrated; a very few say it’s bad. Overall though, you seem to be working here with overall a strong critical wind at your back, not in your face. Anyway, I concur with your view of the book.Report

  2. Art Deco says:

    I think you mean ‘uninterested’, not ‘disinterested’.

    The sanguine and enthusiastic types you see at the bonfies and pep rallies are adolescents too. (When I was in high school, they were there quite voluntarily. Some had been toking, some not.)

    I do not think I would celebrate the emergence of ‘youth culture’, which was and is a symptom of affluenza. We would be better off if social practice resembled that prevailing when my grand-parents were that age: work the default option, rigorous academic study for a minority, serious business all around.Report

    • Mr. Prosser in reply to Art Deco says:

      I’ll give you the “affluenza” comment for the later self-absorbed offshoots such as the Breakfast Club, etc. but I don’t think “The Outsiders” or “Rumblefish” come out of the same mold. In today’s youth lit I would suggest Sherman Alexie: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” or “Flight.” Both are prime examples of good writing and an excellent examination of youth on the fringe who are pursuing or want to pursue a rigorous preparation for life. They also make many middle-class parents’ heads explode, as did “Catcher” back in the day.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to Mr. Prosser says:

        I think we are talking past each other. I was referring to the actual rhythms of work and leisure experienced by the young, which changed dramatically between 1929 and 1955, not to fictional depictions. Conjoined to that I think was the emergence of a set of social dynamics among the young divorced from those of the adult world. I would tag Rebel without a Cause was an exploration of some aspects of these problems, and Blackboard Jungle as well, though as a rule ‘youth culture’ is often more frivolous than sinister.

        The Breakfast Club was an exposition of the discontents of bourgeois youngsters who are parked in the unserious locus that is the American high school. IIRC, the characters are pre-occupied with inter-personal issues and questions of identity. There is an ancillary set of dialogue which explores the discontents of their teacher. The problem isn’t the film or the characters, it is the way we live now.Report

        • Mr. Prosser in reply to Art Deco says:

          You are probably correct. I’ll admit I think sometimes I’m helping teach some kids to be the smartest chamoismen at the carwash but what is the modern work default? What breaks in to the long-term adolescent existence that we have now?Report

          • Art Deco in reply to Mr. Prosser says:

            There is a great deal of dull and repetitive work in any modern economy. Some portion of it will be allocated to the young (those under ~24) just starting out in life and some portion of it will be allocated to people of various ages who can profit from supplementary employment which requires only a modest commitment and dovetails with their other activities. However, you are going to get a certain minority (30%?) who do this sort of work all their lives. For some, it is challenging enough; for others, they look for a secure situation which offers good benefits and they live for their time off. The custodians where I work are passable examples of this: most retain some sense of good performance, most have had better employments in the sort of industrial establishments that are on the decline in this area, most have a full portfolio of hobbies (hunting in particular), one has a side business, &c. They get good insurance, a company pension plan, union protection, and reasonable supervisors.

            IMO, the default path in primary and secondary education should be basic education (literacy, numeracy, and the fundamentals of American history and geography) followed by vocational instruction. School would be year round, quality control would be maintained by a system of regents’ examination, and your schooling would be financed by state issued vouchers until the age of 17 or 18. At that point, you could discontinue your education or enroll in tertiary institutions which would be financed by tuition, endowment income, and private scholarships; however, you would have the option to depart any time after your 14th birthday. For students who are slow, they would spend their entire time in state-financed schooling attempting to master the basic education curriculum. For students whose performance was about the median, they would complete their basic education at 14 and then be ready for vocational training conjoined to gainful employment for a period of years and perhaps to self-support by their late teens. The tertiary system would be there if they wished to learn and follow a new trade and were able to swing it financially. Students who do well academically would finish their basic education program early and then move on to interim secondary education where they can study one or two disciplines of their choice in the arts and sciences before moving on to vocational education. Better students might forego vocational instruction and pursue a high school diploma: competence at a fundamental level of seven different categories of the arts and sciences. The best students would forego some of the modern curriculum and study the medieval trivium and quadrivium. An academic high school teacher is only going to be dealing with the 40% or so most inclined to liberal education.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    I thought the book was brilliant because it seemed obvious to me that Holden was an unreliable narrator and that gave the book oh-so-many levels.

    Then I encountered countless people who thought he was right on.

    Now I hate the book.Report

    • zic in reply to Jaybird says:

      I remember, back in the mid-seventies, being told how risque it was; even discussions in the PTA of banning it required reading.

      Then it got assigned and we read it.

      Given the era of sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, it was mild compared to what we teens were doing in the wilds of Maine. Big letdown. I think I’d been led to expect something along the lines of Bukowski or Hunter Thomas.

      Reread it a few years ago; found tremendous art in the voice, and like you, the untrustworthy narrator. But I still thought it was boring and mild compared to what teenagers actually go through post 1969.

      And my sons both felt the same way when they had to read it. (FYI, they both said “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” was the best assigned reading they had at their prep school.)Report

      • Jaybird in reply to zic says:

        As I grow older, I find myself going back to the stuff they made me read way back when and finally getting it. I must have had no, absolutely no, grasp of anything they made me read.

        Now I do stuff like think about that one scene in Moby Dick where Ishmael is clinging to the coffin or get punched in the nose by what Nietzsche was talking about in The Anti-Christ and I scream at myself “HOW IN THE FLYING CRAP DID YOU *MISS* THAT AND ONLY CATCH THAT NOW???”

        Maybe that’s the point of education. “Here, you won’t get this until you’re almost 40. But you won’t remember that you’ve forgotten it unless we make you read it now.”Report

        • Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

          I found a twenty-year-old book report of mine while going through some papers. I read it and realized that I had “thought up” the contents of it about 5 years ago.

          I suspect that the things we read influence us more than we realize, but we forget the content that triggered those thoughts. The message becomes a forgotten foundation which you constantly build upon. You probably understood Moby Dick then, but reading it now reveals a whale-shaped aerial view of your intellectual development.

          That said, I’m suspicious of every book that made it onto the list of Important Literature simply because it was scandalous when it came out. Maybe Madame Bovary and The Scarlet Letter broke ground, but that doesn’t make them stimulating today, or great literature. Do kids today need Willy Loman to make them question a society that they’ll never live in?Report

  4. Sam M says:

    I always wonder if a book that scandalized with its language can continue to scandalize (or even intrigue) an audience that views that language as… hokey. I guess I can see reading the book as a history of the era, but I think it’s asking a lot to tell kids to put that aside and read it as it was originally intended.

    That is, I am skeptical that all literature is “timeless” or should even attempt to be. I think it’s quite possible for something quite great to have a shelf life.Report