Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

I’ve been teaching it for over ten years and very few books have the impact on teenagers as this one. Indeed, it’s a book written in the shadows of World War Two America; a time when the concept of the teenager didn’t really exist at all. Of course there were people of that age, but Salinger was aware, as young people came back from the War, that the world wasn’t really for them.

Holden is modelled on that disillusioned voice of teenage America, a generation breaking free from their parents and discovering their own voice. Up until then they’d left school and become their parents: dressing like them, working beside them, listening to the same music. That was about to change and Salinger’s novel was a beacon, shining a light on what was about to happen.

And, as he grew up, we see that rebellion in the face of James Dean: perhaps what Holden in his spoiled, over-protected wee world, always wanted to be. A true rebel, sneering and moody, changing the face of the cinema idol. Or Elvis, swivelling his hips and sending everyone into a frenzy: the girls who loved him; the boys who were jealous of him; the parents who feared him. Both emblematic of a new generation of teenagers breaking free from their conservative past.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

Holden would have come kicking and screaming in to the Sixties. Listening to the Beatles and watching their political transformation in a decade often mistakenly remembered for their ‘swinging’ times, it was more an era of huge social division, especially in America. The Equal Rights protests, Vietnam, the Space Race with Russia all arguably led to the massive social and political divisions we see today. Holden’s determination to turn his back on everything that adults had created, ‘to go away and live in a cabin somewhere’, was the personification of that angry frustration: twenty years ahead of its time.

Holden’s fear of becoming an adult is reflected in his own narrow experience. Private boarding schools, little experience of the outside world, his only contact with adults on his three day adventure occur in sleazy hotels and nightclubs. So this is Adulthood? No thanks. Salinger decries the sullying of innocence, the way we change as adults, the way our principles are compromised. In Holden, he reflects a desire to freeze things in time: freeze the moments when we are at our most pure, most idealistic, most free.

And as we plodded through the cynical seventies, finding ourselves outside the Dakota building in New York, on the very streets Holden would walk, we imagine John Lennon dying in the street, looking up at Mark Chapman, a copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in his pocket, mistakenly believing he’d done just what Holden would have wanted. Preventing his hero from changing, freezing his image in time.

The next day, somewhere, several hundred miles away, a young lad of fourteen, about to complete his paper round, would open his last copy to read about Lennon and would be hit by a car. He knew nothing of J. D. Salinger or Holden Caulfield. He did know about the Beatles. And he lay there, hearing the approaching ambulance, thinking of John Lennon and looking up to the stars.

Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

‘It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’

2 thoughts on “Please don’t tell me ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ isn’t an important book.

  1. This is the best you’ve written, I loved it and agree with every word. On visits to Central Park I always feel moved by the scene at the carousel, it was so symbolic. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Great article – great timing as my friend and I just been talking about Salinger.
    Agree with comment above – the carousel scene when he has the breakdown is really poignant. Superb ‘ending’..
    I think the lovely irony that the Burns poem is misquoted is a little extra for us Scots – especially as it’s the title.
    I’ve taught it many tines too and always tell students about my wonderful English teacher discussing it. One of my classmates – from Coaltown of Balgonie – had the temerity to suggest he could identify with Holden. The teacher then launched into a ( mock) attack of this assertion – but ended with, ‘But that’s the wonder of this novel and it’s great that you feel that way. We can all identify with him.’

    Not sure how I feel about the ‘new’ Salinger work …

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