Our critics discuss The Catcher in the Rye. By Stephen Metcalf, Troy Patterson, and James Ryerson
This month, the Audio Book Club tackles J.D. Salinger's classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. This massive cultural touchstone's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is the iconic teenage rebel. (Stephen argues that you can find traces of Holden in all the works of Wes Anderson, the films Tadpole and Igby Goes Down, and the novel Prep.) It's also a market phenomenon, with about 250,000 copies sold each year and total sales of more than 65 million.
On Wednesday, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order forbidding publication in the United States of “60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye,” a takeoff on — J. D. Salinger’s lawyers say rip-off of — “The Catcher in the Rye,” written by a young Swedish writer styling himself J. D. California.
Until the judge makes her final ruling, Mr. Salinger’s fans will be spared the prospect of encountering Holden Caulfield, the ultimate alienated teenager, as a lonely old codger who escapes from a retirement home and his beloved younger sister, Phoebe, as a drug addict sinking into dementia.
But Holden may have bigger problems than the insults of irreverent parodists and other “phonies,” as Holden would put it. Even as Mr. Salinger, who is 90 and in ailing health, seeks to keep control of his most famous creation, there are signs that Holden may be losing his grip on the kids.
“The Catcher in the Rye,” published in 1951, is still a staple of the high school curriculum, beloved by many teachers who read and reread it in their own youth. The trouble is today’s teenagers. Teachers say young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as “weird,” “whiny” and “immature.”
The alienated teenager has lost much of his novelty, said Ariel Levenson, an English teacher at the Dalton School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Holden’s home turf. She added that even the students who liked the book tend to find the language — “phony,” “her hands were lousy with rocks,” the relentless “goddams” — grating and dated.
“Holden Caulfield is supposed to be this paradigmatic teenager we can all relate to, but we don’t really speak this way or talk about these things,” Ms. Levenson said, summarizing a typical response. At the public charter school where she used to teach, she said, “I had a lot of students comment, ‘I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.’ ”
Julie Johnson, who taught Mr. Salinger’s novel over three decades at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., cited similar reactions. “Holden’s passivity is especially galling and perplexing to many present-day students,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”
Of course, Holden has always had his detractors. Harcourt Brace, the publishing house that originally solicited “The Catcher in the Rye,” turned it down, saying it wasn’t clear whether Holden was supposed to be crazy. Later, highbrow critics like Joan Didion and George Steiner mocked his moral shallowness and “relatability.”
But Holden won over the young, especially the 1960s generation who saw themselves in the disaffected preppy, according to the cultural critic Morris Dickstein. “The skepticism, the belief in the purity of the soul against the tawdry, trashy culture plays very well in the counterculture and post-counterculture generation,” said Mr. Dickstein, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the University of the City of New York. Today, “I wouldn’t say we have a more gullible youth culture, but it may be more of a joining or togetherness culture.”
The culture is also more competitive. These days, teenagers seem more interested in getting into Harvard than in flunking out of Pencey Prep. Young people, with their compulsive text-messaging and hyperactive pop culture metabolism, are more enchanted by wide-eyed, quidditch-playing Harry Potter of Hogwarts than by the smirking manager of Pencey’s fencing team (who was lame enough to lose the team’s equipment on the subway, after all). Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry — not the beautiful losers who reject it.
Perhaps Holden would not have felt quite so alone if he were growing up today. After all, Mr. Salinger was writing long before the rise of a multibillion-dollar cultural-entertainment complex largely catering to the taste of teenage boys. These days, adults may lament the slasher movies and dumb sex comedies that have taken over the multiplex, but back then teenagers found themselves stranded between adult things and childish pleasures.
As Stephanie Savage, an executive producer of the “Gossip Girl” television series, told National Public Radio last year, in Holden’s world “you can either go to the carousel in Central Park, or you can choose the Wicker Bar. You can have a skating date, or you can have a prostitute come up to your hotel room. There’s really not that sense of teen culture that there is now.”
Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.
Barbara Feinberg, an expert on children’s literature who has observed numerous class discussions of “Catcher,” pointed to a story about a Holden-loving loser in the Onion headlined “Search for Self Called Off After 38 Years.”
“Holden is somewhat a victim of the current trend in applying ever more mechanistic approaches to understanding human behavior,” Ms. Feinberg wrote in an e-mail message. “Compared to the early 1950s, there is not as much room for the adolescent search, for intuition, for empathy, for the mystery of the unconscious and the deliverance made possible through talking to another person.”
Ms. Feinberg recalled one 15-year-old boy from Long Island who told her: “Oh, we all hated Holden in my class. We just wanted to tell him, ‘Shut up and take your Prozac.’ ”