Thursday, January 28, 2010

Does somebody just not get it?

Breaking news : J. D. Salinger has died at age 91.

His somewhat controversial life is not terribly interesting to me. It hasn't spoiled Catcher in the Rye, which remains one of my all-time favorite books. Whatever his character flaws, a jerk can write a very good, touching book.

This is my copy, acquired in hardcover for durability, and with each of the three days over which the story takes place marked on the bottom page edges. (It's something I do when the days, or other calendar increments, over which a story takes place interest me. On my copy of Gone with the Wind, I can flip right to a particular year - 1866? 1871? Quick and easy.)

I was no English major. I've analyzed a little poetry and very few novels and have more of a plays-by-ear than a reads-music approach to interpreting a book, but the author of this article made me grind my teeth when he parroted the requisite "Americans are so shallow" explanation for Catcher in the Rye's popularity:
Decades after publication, the book remains a defining expression of that most American of dreams: to never grow up.
Am I just literature-illiterate, or is this absolute bull?

Holden Caulfield does not idealize childhood one bit, much less want to stay in its powerless state. He hates bull, not adults or adulthood per se.

He certainly thinks children haven't learned phoniness yet, but I see no indication that he thinks staying a child is the solution to anything.

The title of the book -- hello? -- is about his wanting to protect children.

A. That means they need protecting. Not from growing up, but from the things that can happen to them as children. They don't know enough to avoid running off of cliffs.

B. He wants to be their protector. That's not the role of a child.

It isn't just naïveté about dangers like cliffs that makes childhood a hazardous time. There are also things that come and get you whether you're careful or not. Are we, like, forgetting that Holden was a kid himself, when his beloved brother Allie died? And he slept in the garage and smashed all the windows? Holden is under no illusions whatsoever that childhood is this innocent time untouched by life's horrors.

Holden doesn't want to take the growing-up out of life's process. He wants to take the phoniness out of being a grownup.

I know this article's author isn't the only one. I've heard it before, the interpretation of Catcher in the Rye as some kind of hymn to the Peter Pan syndrome. I couldn't tell you where; I never paid much attention, but somehow, today, it seemed too stupid and galled me. I'll cheerfully ream any idiocy in American culture, but loving this book is, to me, one example of readers having good taste, even if there are far too many examples of their having bad taste.


Mike said...

Your analysis is right on. That critic was reaching and certainly didn't get it.

The legitimate criticism of Catcher is that it is firmly rooted in its time and that you kind of had to be there to feel the impact the book had on adolescents in the 50s and 60s. The problem -- such as it is -- is that adolescents don't have a lot of historical perspective so that today's gang doesn't "get" Holden Caulfield, and, by the time they are old enough to have that perspective, they're too old to get the "WOW!" moment the book inspired among young people when it came out.

They've also seen it ripped off enough that the voice is no longer new. There's an entire genre of young alienated adult fiction that didn't exist when Catcher was published. The girl in Twilight owes much to Holden Caulfield, for goodness sake.

But saying that Catcher has lost its punch is like criticizing "Citizen Kane" or "North By Northwest" for no longer having the impact they did when they came out. Doesn't mean they weren't great then and it doesn't mean they don't have much to offer now.

Ronnie said...

There's that old difficulty of people not getting the "history" part of the old "history and lit." part of my combined major! Absolutely essential.

Christy said...

Excellent points, Ruth.