Reinventing American Adolescence

The Catcher in the Rye has been taught in American high schools for some time now, and is one of the few books that the majority of the country’s high school students enjoys, or even reads, throughout its four years of high-school English classes. Among the classical canon, which often includes Austen, Hardy, Crane, Hemingway, and Wharton, Salinger’s classic depicts a world much closer to those of the students than do many of the more emotionally, spatially, and temporally distant novels. When compared to the young adult (YA) canon of literature, Catcher displays authenticity that is valued by adolescents but is often lacking in the most of the other works in the genre. Although many of the students who read Catcher do not live in Manhattan or attend exclusive prep schools, they nonetheless connect to the narrator’s experiences and emotions and relate to the tone and voice in which he is presented. For these reasons, Catcher has remained a favorite of high-school classrooms for the fifty years since its first publication.

The story of an adolescent who feels disregarded, awkward, and unloved is one that will appeal to many adolescents, who often experience these same feelings which are now often associated with the nature of adolescence. Salinger’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, struggles this way, but for reasons that are not particularly clear. He, as opposed to the narrator of Richard Wright’s Black Boy for example, has his basic economic needs provided for, and well provided for. He does not struggle on the streets of New York City, like a James Baldwin character, trying to find food or money for his family or suffering the abuse of police or family, but nonetheless he struggles on the streets on New York City. Salinger presents a form of struggling that seemed to arise, or at least receive attention, after the Second World War. It is struggle of the adolescent to create or find identity, to understand himself and the world surrounding him. It is an internal struggle that appears in American culture along with the augmentation of social services for adolescents in high schools, and even, one might say, with the development of our contemporary concept of adolescents. Catcher not only reflects post-war adolescence identity and subjectivity, it has helped to construct it.

The problems of Holden Caulfield might not receive the same sympathy from Depression-era children as they do from the children who grew up after the war, even those who grew after the police actions — in particular Vietnam and Desert Storm — that followed well after the wars. To the older, Great Depression-era kids, depression meant economic struggle. To the younger generation, depression usually was not connected to money, but moreover to feelings of melancholy and isolation. The stories of the depression of the younger generations, including Catcher, but also Knowles’ A Separate Peace and McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, deal with the lost adolescent soul-searching for meaning, rejecting the repressive and phony adult world. When I have taught this book to inner-city, minority high school students, many of them question the causes for his struggle and imagine how their life would improve if they had Holden’s financial resources, yet they also identify with many of his feelings of loss and confusion.

Catcher embodies the attitude and experience of the new American adolescent, and Salinger does so in a voice and point of view many young readers find authentic. Authenticity seems to be an esteemed criterion of adolescent taste. Just as Catcher‘s Holden despises all the fakeness in the world, many adolescent readers have a strong distaste for the condescending and patronizing tone of a great deal of the YA novels, like The Giver, which are often written by adults particularly for adolescent readers. The voice in these novels are not authentic-sounding experiences of the drama of adolescence, but rather the voice of adults whose novels sound as if the authors have studied, not only adolescent developmental psychology, but also the development of the adolescent novel, and thus seem to strive to create the “perfect” adolescent novel.

Usually these novels fail, forcing students to struggle through an adult canon that they feel removed from, and this intensifies their modern adolescent experience. Catcher does not cause them to feel more dislocated but rather connected to something which is safely located on the margins of American society. Their feelings, as they encounter Catcher, do not seem co-opted by the hegemonic school, for the novel has a counter-hegemonic feel which often seems out of the grips of the adult teacher and administrator, who focus primarily on the literary elements of the novel. But even the symbolism and metaphors, like that of the ducks at the pond in the park, become alive and charged with meaning, inspiring many an contemporary adolescent to respond with an inspired yet despondently cool “yeah.”