Friday, July 16, 2010

Remembering J.D. Salinger by Marc C. Conner

Martha note: Today is Civic Soapbox Friday on the WMRA Blog.

Every year I have a number of college freshmen who list J.D. Salinger as their favorite author, and often The Catcher in the Rye as their favorite novel. Indeed, to this day young students still describe “Catcher” as the novel that changed their lives. For a certain kind of student—bright, creative, a bit frustrated, moderately alienated—Salinger is their voice, their recognizable kinsman in American writing. It’s been over 45 years since Salinger published a word—how can we account for his continued influence on the young American mind?

The fact is, J.D. Salinger’s stories could only have happened in America. Ours is a children’s literature. Huckleberry Finn, Little Pearl, Rip Van Winkle, Jay Gatsby--all our great characters are children, or at least childlike: they charm and enchant because they promise that, like Peter Pan, we might never grow up—that our American innocence can stay with us forever. J.D. Salinger’s imagination was completely in this American vein. Salinger’s children, such as Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass, continue to haunt readers to this day, for, like so many other children in our literature, they are victims, sacrifices to a world that will not accept them.

Salinger’s most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, appeared in 1951—meaning most of the parents of the students who adore it today were not yet born! Yet the period in which the novel appeared may have much in common with our own day. The novel defines the mood of the fifties, chronicling the awful fragility of the young and innocent during a time of terror. Its famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is in terrified flight from the entire conventional world around him. But he cannot tell you what he flees. All Holden can point to is a general malaise, an overall complaint about American culture that he articulates in his most oft-used word, “phony.” “Phony” is a child’s word; but one of Salinger’s points is that the adults in the 1950's were not attending to the wisdom that comes from the mouths of babes.

This is one of the great ironies of the legacy of Catcher in the Rye: it is not a revolutionary book, it does not call for overturning the world, nor promote an alternative culture; rather, it is a cry for the adults to do what they are supposed to do--to nurture and train their children, to show their children how to live in the world, to provide that most dreaded phrase for youth, “role models.” It is a profoundly conservative book, and it lays the blame for the world squarely at the feet of the adults. For every adult Holden turns to fails him; as he says of his old history teacher, Mr. Spencer, “He wasn’t even listening. He hardly ever listened to you when you said something.” I can’t help but wonder if Holden appeals to the young people today for precisely the same reasons. In an era when the divorce rate has broken 50%, when children receive more attention, but less listening, than at any time in American history, is it any mystery why Salinger’s work holds such purchase on our young people’s minds?

                                 --Marc Conner is a Professor of English at Washington and Lee University 

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